The rollout of superfast broadband to rural areas of the UK is 22 months behind schedule with questions raised by the National Audit Office over the programme's value for money.

UK rural broadnband
The rollout of the superfast broadband network in the UK has been delayed by 22 months and has been criticised by the National Auditor Office. (Credit: Reuters)

Back in 2011, then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that the UK would become the envy of Europe in just four year, promising to have the "best broadband" network of any country in the continent.

He promised that 90% of the premises in all 44 local authorities in the country would have access to super fast internet speeds of at least 24 megabits per second (Mbps) with the remainder having access to minimum download speeds of 2Mbps.

Two years on and the £530 million programme is running 22 months late and a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has slammed the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) who run the programme.

In his report, comptroller and auditor general Amyas Morse highlighted that of the 44 local authorities which are involved in the programme, just nine would meet the goal of 90% super fast coverage by 2015.

Part of the 22 month delay has been put down to longer-than-expected negotiations with the EU to get approval for the scheme.

Revised goals

Just last week the Treasury revised the goals for the programme, saying it was pushing back the completion date to 2017 and extending the superfast coverage to 95% of the country.

The NAO however has warned that four areas (Highlands and Islands, Cumbria, Norfolk and Suffolk) could still miss the revised targets the local authorities failed to request enough funding.

The DCMS claimed an additional investment of £250m would mean the goal would be met.

In his report Morse recommended that the Department "should identify all the reasons for the slippage and then work with BT to establish where constraints exist and how to guard against further slippage."

Public money invested

The government made superfast internet connectivity a priority back in 2011 when it saw that approximately one third of the country which is classified as being rural was unlikely to get decent broadband connectivity as commercial companies were highly unlikely to invest in the infrastructure needed on their own.

While it was expected that a number of broadband providers would work with local authorities to put the new infrastructure in place, it is now likely only BT will benefit from the public money invested.

According to the NAO report, all of the "assets and infrastructure" created using the £1.2 billion public sector investment in the programme are likely to be owned by BT.

This is despite nine companies pre-qualifying to submit tenders for the national framework. However only three submitted final tenders and only two suppliers - BT and Fujitsu - were appointed to the framework. In March 2013, Fujitsu announced it did not intend to submit any further bids for contracts, leaving BT the only active participant in the framework.

Value for money

This has led to questions about value for money and the report says "ensuring value for money for the £1.2 billion public investment now relies heavily on whether the Department can effectively implement the in-life contract controls it secured for the Programme."

Morse also suggests that telecoms regulator Ofcom need to take an active involvement along with the Department to "monitor the impact of the Programme on BT's position in the sector in the longer term."