Rural communities in the Westcountry have continued to suffer a raw deal from the 'piecemeal' roll-out of broadband, according to a leading campaign group.
The comments, by Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE), came in the wake of criticism of the Government's handling of the Rural Broadband Programme last week by the influential Commons Public Accounts Committee. The MPs' committee said the Department for Culture, Media and Sport 'mismanaged' the scheme by awarding all of the rural broadband projects so far to BT – which will ultimately benefit from £1.2bn of public funding.
However, ACRE said the burning issue for rural communities and business was as fundamental as whether they get broadband or not. Chief executive Janice Banks said: "Many local councils have published maps for the rural broadband programme, which is meant to extend superfast coverage to 90% of the premises in the UK. But despite an earlier pledge from the Secretary of State Maria Miller, the information provided by some councils is so limited and inconsistent it is impossible for people to tell whether their homes and businesses are included or not.
"This confusion ties the hands of innovative communities who want to come up with their own broadband solutions. No one will invest in a plan that could be overtaken by the BT roll-out.
Cornwall, Devon and Somerset have among the slowest broadband speeds in the country, but multi-million-pound publicly funded schemes are attempting to bridge the "digital divide".
BT has all the contracts, as well as the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Superfast Broadband scheme – which is funded by EU subsidies, rather than the UK government. It is hoped Cornwall will have 95% of premises connected by next year. The £94million Connecting Devon and Somerset scheme, run by the two county councils, BT and the Government's Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme, has a target of date of the end of 2016.
Ms Banks continued: "Defra's rural proofing guidelines say this Government wants to be sure rural areas get a fair deal from all Government policy. We fear that, once again, rural communities are getting a raw deal. We echo the call from the committee to make sure that the rollout plans are published in a consistent and meaningful way so that other solutions can be found to reach the remaining 10% of the population that will still be without superfast broadband.
"This information needs to be available straight away, irrespective of the local authority area, so that communities and businesses can benefit from the broadband that their urban counterparts take for granted."