Many critics of the government’s tendering system to providefor remote rural areas have argued for some time now that the process was uncompetitive and that major companies like BT and Fujitsu had counties like Cumbria in the bag with respect to the counties BDUK project. Those suspicions were, however, finally dispelled earlier this week when Cumbria County Council rejected the advances of the two major telecommunications companies because of fears over the amount of funding from the bidders and the perceived inability to hit the 90 percent target of 25 Mbps superfast access for homes and businesses in the county by 2015. The bids were subsequently rejected on the grounds that they did not adequately meet the tender requirements of the council’s contract.
Speaking to the BBC and various trade magazines, a council spokesperson explained that although there were doubts about the robustness of the bid, the council was not really in a position to give the exact reasons for the rejection because of legal procurement reasons and the commercial sensitivity of the information. However, what the council did intriguingly imply is that it wasn’t precisely the same issue that was responsible for both bids failing:
“Cabinet received detailed submissions from the final two potential suppliers (Fujitsu and BT) and despite a lot of progress being made neither of the final tenders had completely fulfilled the original and full requirements of the procurement process. Both suppliers will now be invited to take part in new negotiations, which will lead to revised final tenders being submitted later this year.”
The spokesperson said a final decision will be made in September. Councillor Elizabeth Mallinson, a cabinet member, went on to say that the Connecting Cumbria contract should be worth in excess of £40 million, and that the council had already secured £17.1 million from the government’s BDUK fund. It had also gained £6.3 million, thanks to a performance award grant because it exceeded its targets. Both the district and county council then opted to plow this £6.3 million back into broadband provision. The hope remained that the council could also secure another £20 million of European funding.
“Today was an extremely difficult decision for cabinet but we are confident it is the right thing to do,” added Cllr Elizabeth Mallinson. “Although we have not identified a preferred supplier at this stage we have made significant progress in terms of our overall broadband strategy for Cumbria, both in this procurement process and in attracting public and private funding to help deliver Superfast Broadband across rural and urban Cumbria.”
“This programme has presented us with the opportunity to have a voice at a national level helping to expose issues for rural counties which require action at government level. Challenges that go beyond the boundaries of our county including those relating to market failure, a heavily regulated market and the navigation of European ‘State Aid’ regulations. The Connecting Cumbria programme is a very complex initiative, and one that we need to get right if we are to meet the needs and expectations of Cumbria’s communities and businesses.”
BT responded by stating that the rejection had not dulled its appetite for the contract, and claimed that the rejection was merely a necessary part of a highly competitive bidding process for the region. Fujitsu, however, claimed to be surprised by the decision:
“This is an unexpected outcome and we are currently reviewing our options,” a spokesperson said. “We remain focused on this and other next-generation broadband projects.”
Cumbria is perhaps one of the most challenging rural environments for a superfast broadband network deployment, as is evidenced by last month’s decision by Cable & Wireless (C&WW) to cut broadband services to a remote community in the county because it was proving to be ‘uneconomical’ once the public subsidies it had been receiving came to an end. Such decisions have led to a number of locally-funded self-build projects trying to install their own high speed broadband networks.