A report published last week by the National Audit Office (NAO) confirmed that the rural superfast broadband roll-out programme is almost two years behind schedule, so will miss its May 2015 target.
In 2011 the Government pledged to provide internet speeds of 24 megabits a second to 90 per cent of the UK by May 2015, but has now promised 95 per cent coverage by 2017.
It made £530m available to county councils to fast-track the strategy, with the proviso that the money was matched by the local authority. However, the NAO has found that just nine out of 44 rural areas will have been upgraded by the deadline. In addition, even when the 95 per cent target is achieved, large areas of rural land will still be without the service.
This is worrying for farmers, as services are being increasingly moved online as part of the Digital by Default programme, and many are being asked to file VAT returns online and submit payroll information in real time to HM Revenue & Customs. In addition, the Rural Payments Agency, which administers the Single Payment Scheme (SPS), is moving towards online-only submissions of SPS claims.
According to the NAO, one reason for the delay was a longer-than-anticipated approval for the strategy from Brussels. Another was put down to a high number of negotiations around the country to allow the necessary work to go ahead.
The audit office’s report also raised concerns that BT was the only firm in a position to win contracts, being the only one left of the original 16 bidders, and Auditor General, Amyas Morse, said he would not be surprised if even the extended target date were to be missed, which would not be good for the farming community.