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DCMS shakes up BDUK with new rural full-fibre scheme

The Rural Gigabit Connectivity programme will run for two years, trialling a new model for full-fibre broadband delivery – meanwhile, BDUK is getting a new name

The government has launched a £200m, two-year programme to roll out gigabit-capable full-fibre, or fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband to some of the remotest parts of the UK, trialling a new hub model for delivery that focuses on public sector buildings.

The Rural Gigabit Connectivity (RGC) programme will see full-fibre networks built out to so-called hubs – rural public sector and community buildings deemed eligible for intervention under criteria set by the renamed Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme, which is now becoming Building Digital UK.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said that besides providing a gigabit-capable broadband connection to public buildings and enabling improved public service quality, it would also make the surrounding area more viable and attractive to commercial broadband roll-outs, for the 10% of UK premises seen as unlikely to receive full-fibre by 2033, in line with current goals.

“Our decision to tackle some of the hardest-to-reach places first is a significant shift in government policy and will be instrumental in delivering our plans for a nationwide full-fibre broadband network by 2033,” said culture secretary Jeremy Wright. “Our roll-out of superfast broadband transformed the UK’s digital landscape, and our modern Industrial Strategy is focused on investing in the infrastructure that will make Britain fit for the future.”

Working alongside the Department for Education, DCMS has already earmarked 31 schools in Cornwall, Cumbria, Northumberland and Wales to be the initial recipients of the service, with more to be announced in due course, although it should be noted that the RGC scheme will not focus exclusively on schools, but also GP surgeries, community halls, and so on.

“In most parts of the country a fast, reliable internet connection is taken for granted – but that is not the case for everyone,” said education secretary Damian Hinds.

“This programme will mean that schools in these areas won’t be held back from accessing all the opportunities the internet has to offer. These first 31 schools will see the tangible benefits that fast broadband has to offer – from reducing teacher and staff workload, to improving access to high-quality learning resources.”

DCMS described its new approach to rural broadband roll-out as “outside in”, designed to ensure remote areas are not disadvantaged as they were during the previous fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) roll-out, which the often-controversial original BDUK programme was supposed to remedy.

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Ultimately, it hopes this approach will ensure that the identified 10% of premises are reached at the same time as the bulk of the Openreach-led commercial roll-out, as opposed to years after, as was the case with FTTC.

The RGC programme will also incorporate a new rural gigabit broadband voucher scheme, offering grants of up to £3,500 for businesses and £1,500 for homes, to encourage take-up, and will explore more opportunities to roll out full-fibre to rural and hard-to-reach parts of the country.

The RGC scheme will complement other, older BDUK programmes, including the Superfast Broadband roll-out and the Local Full-Fibre Network (LFFN) initiative – both of which are now being aligned with RGC under one overarching programme, the UK Fibre Programme (UKFP).

However, DCMS stressed that RGC will not overlap with areas where a gigabit-capable system is either already available, such as in villages passed by the likes of Gigaclear, or areas where Superfast Broadband or LFFN have already delivered full-fibre (it is possible to obtain full-fibre services through the original Superfast Broadband BDUK scheme in some circumstances).

Other eligibility criteria include rurality, funding considerations, state aid compliance, value for money, and deliverability within the RGC’s timescales.

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