Brussels has finally given the green light to the UK government's £530 million rural broadband scheme.
The programme is part of the government’s commitment to deliver the best "superfast broadband" network in Europe, delivering speeds "potentially" over 24mbps.
The European Commission was studying the proposals to make sure they didn't break anti-competitive state aid rules.
Secretary of state for culture, media and sport Maria Miller said, “Finally getting approval from Brussels will mean a huge boost for the British economy. Superfast broadband is essential to creating growth, jobs and prosperity, and the delay has caused frustration within government."
The 24mbps "headline minimum" the government is promising is still only just over twice the basic headline minimum BT promises to its basic copper broadband customers however.
Customers are promised a maximum of around 10mbps and most get well below that, like this writer, who gets no more than 5mbps for one subscription he pays for, even though the main exchange is only a quarter of a mile down the road.
Miller said, “Our broadband plans are hugely ambitious - to connect 90 percent of homes to superfast broadband and ensuring the rest have access to at least 2mbps. The Government will not allow parts of our country to miss out on the digital age.”
State aid approval means that local authorities can now sign procurement contracts with contractors and begin delivery work on their new broadband infrastructure projects.
A recent Lords Committee report warned against the "anti-competitive" bidding process after a number of suppliers pulled out of the running for projects, and left just BT and Fujitsu bidding for funds. To date only BT has won any public money.
Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), the body tasked to release funds, has planned local authority projects which are currently going into procurement at a rate of around one a week.
The projects which will be affected first by this EU clearance, and whose residents will be the first to connect to superfast broadband, are Wales and Surrey. Projects in Cumbria, Rutland, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire are expected to follow shortly afterwards.
Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire and Highlands & Islands are still progressing their procurements. North Yorkshire’s project began implementation in July as it already has state aid approval.
Lancashire’s project has completed procurement and is currently awaiting the Commission’s decision on its own separate notification of state aid.
A further eight projects are currently undertaking their procurements using the Broadband Delivery Framework. These are Norfolk, Suffolk, Wiltshire, Devon & Somerset, Northamptonshire, Kent & Medway, Lincolnshire and Hampshire. The first four of these launched their invitations to tender at the beginning of July and are now nearing the point of agreeing a contract with their supplier.
Shropshire will launch its procurement next week. All the remaining rural broadband projects are expected to complete their procurements by summer 2013, said the government.