It is strange how some posts come out of little things. I replied to a tweet (@globalbirminghm – if you didn’t know) yesterday about how France is having problems getting its plans for Next Generation Broadband part funded by the European Commission using ERDF. I tweeted, as shown, suggesting that the UK had had similar problems and as a result had gone down the route of funding vouchers to help SMEs to access superfast broadband instead on investing directly in such networks. As a result of this small tweet – I have been approached by a French online newspaper for a conversation – yet to happen. But it has set me thinking and doing a bit of research.
My understanding of this comes from when I worked at Birmingham City Council – it had great plans to role out super-fast broadband in parts of Birmingham (The Jewellery Quarter and Digbeth) to help its digital economy. The Council had pursued European Commission state aid approval to invest in such a network and had got it but it had been challenged by BT and Virgin. It had gone quiet and I wasn’t aware of how it had ended. Through my recent work on the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEPs EU funding strategy I came aware that Government advice was to steer away from such direct investment.
Another coincidence was the recent launch by the City Council of it voucher scheme to help SMEs to access super fast broad band. Link here
So I wanted to try and piece a picture together about what had happened; what had happened to that vision and why was the Council now aiming lower; thank god for google – it supplied the answer – with this article in computing.co.uk
In essence it tells the story of how allegedly BT and Virgin stymied the Council (and is trying it on with other Councils in the UK) by allegedly threatening to withdraw investment. I won’t go in to details; and there is a myriad of regulations at EU level that control this sought of investment but what it clear is that perhaps for reasons of costs, perhaps for wanting something to happen on the ground Birmingham has decided not to fight it and to go for a less ambitious route.
This is confirmed when one looks at the SmartCity Roadmap here This document, launched recently by Birmingham’s Smart City Commission ( a partnership body led by Birmingham City Council), aims to ensure that Birmingham maximises the impact of new digital technologies on the city. Given the scale of the changes internationally brought about by new technologies this is perhaps one of the most important strategy documents in the city.
This states; ‘We recognise the important role world-class digital infrastructure plays in today’s globalised economy’
It goes on to talk about working with the Government and the EU and delivery partners but it seems to say nothing about the broadband plans the Council had been working on. Interestingly it does refer to the voucher scheme and as well it does still show ambition in mobile technologies. It states:
‘Recently, the City Council awarded a contract that will see Birmingham benefiting from the very best mobile broadband experience available anywhere. This innovative and ground-breaking contract, negotiated by Digital Birmingham, lays the foundations for mobile operators to roll-out the latest wireless technologies across our city by using street lighting columns’
So great stuff from the Smart City Commission and Digital Birmingham but it obviously doesn’t seem to have have the energy to push the radical plans for broadband infratructure that the City once had.
The computing.co.uk article refers to how the UK Government’s plans for Super Connected Cities have had to change because of these issues and perhaps France along with the UK and Birmingham have learned sadly that it is hard under the current rules to stand up to the big players in the broadband market. Not surprisingly however seemingly BT and Virgin weren’t part of the Smart City Commission or its task and finish group that put together this vision for the future of ICT in the city; it obviously still rankles!