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The Treasury has announced a new national broadband voucher programme for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), setting aside £67m to fund ultrafast broadband connections over the next three years.
More than 55,000 SMEs took advantage of a previous Connection Voucher scheme, which closed in autumn 2015 after it exhausted its funding pot. But whereas the previous scheme only sponsored so-called superfast connectivity, the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme (GBVS) will target gigabit fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) – or full-fibre – services.
However, it will operate on much the same basis as the previous scheme, with businesses invited to apply to receive grants of up to £3,000, which they will be able to use to help cover the cost of connecting to FTTP broadband.
The scheme builds on the £200m Local Full Fibre Network programme – £95m of which was allocated to full-fibre broadband projects around the UK in the Spring Statement earlier this week – although in this case the cash will be drawn directly from the £31bn National Productivity Investment Fund, a Treasury spokesperson confirmed.
“We are backing Britain’s small businesses by investing £67m to bring full-fibre broadband to more businesses up and down the country,” said chancellor Philip Hammond. “This means faster, more reliable broadband access as we build the digital infrastructure we need to make our economy fit for the future.”
Matt Hancock, secretary of state at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) – which, as before, will oversee the programme – added: “Small businesses are the backbone of the British economy and now they can turbo-charge their connectivity with gigabit speeds.
“By building a full-fibre future for Britain, we are laying the foundations for a digital infrastructure capable of delivering today what the next generation will need tomorrow.”
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The nationwide launch follows a successful trial in four areas around the UK – Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire; Bristol with Bath and North-East Somerset; Coventry and Warwickshire; and West Yorkshire and York – which issued a total of about 1,000 vouchers.
In Bristol, the trial also explored the possibility of issuing residential vouchers – a feature not included in the previous scheme.
This time around, the programme will be opened up to consumers, but only if they take part in a community group scheme that also includes small businesses. These groups will be able to pool the value of their vouchers, provided the value of vouchers used by SMEs is higher than the value of vouchers used by consumers. To help with this, consumers will only be able to apply for a maximum of £500 of assistance.
The vouchers must be used with suppliers registered with the scheme, and may only be used to support the cost of eligible connections (FTTP). They will, however, be issued to both new and existing customers.
The government cautioned that in some circumstances, the value of a single voucher might not cover the full installation cost, but said this was precisely the scenario the community group schemes are supposed to address.
The scheme will officially launch at the end of March 2018, and will run either until March 2021 or, like the previous scheme, until the £67m pot has been emptied.