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UK government furthers investment in rural broadband

Quarter of a million rural homes and businesses across England have been given access to more financial help to get super-fast and above broadband speeds up to gigabit

The UK government has announced more than £22m of additional funding into its broadband voucher scheme.

The news comes mere weeks after more than three million homes and businesses in rural areas of the UK were given the opportunity to get gigabit-ready, full-fibre broadband over the coming years, and follows on from rural provider Gigaclear’s employment of more full-time field engineers to increase its build capacity.

The investment is designed to subsidise the cost of building gigabit-capable broadband networks to so-called hard-to-reach areas in the UK.

The UK government has been committed to delivering nationwide gigabit-capable broadband by 2025. It said such next-generation connectivity has the potential to revolutionise communities and make them more attractive places to live, giving people the freedom to live and work more flexibly and help to develop thriving digital economies.

In the Queen’s Speech on 19 December 2019, prime minister Boris Johnson’s then newly elected government indicated it would introduce laws to accelerate the delivery of gigabit-capable broadband across the UK by 2025, a legislative journey that began in January 2020. The 2020 Budget statement confirmed the UK government’s commitment to invest a total of £5bn to roll out full-fibre broadband across the country.

But rolling out gigabit-capable broadband to all places across the country has been challenging, and a programme to accelerate the extension of the fibre infrastructure to the hard-to-reach locations was initiated by in January 2020 by UK national infrastructure provider Openreach.

High-speed broadband roll-out has continued apace across all of the UK. Research from telecoms regulator Ofcom on 10 September revealed that over 4.2 million homes (14%) across the UK were now able to access faster, more reliable full-fibre services, an increase of 670,000 (two percentage points) since January. This is said to be a result of increased roll-out both from the expansion of existing broadband networks as well as the inclusion in its analysis of companies building entirely new fibre networks.

The Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme is a UK-wide, supplier-led scheme offering vouchers to be used as part of group projects, to pay towards the cost of installing gigabit-capable broadband to premises providing speeds of up to 1Gbps, targeting areas where the cost of building new gigabit broadband infrastructure – which often requires digging trenches to lay full-fibre cables to people’s doorsteps – is likely to be too high for commercial operators to cover alone.

At least 250,000 homes and businesses in the English countryside are expected to be eligible for this funding. Almost 500,000 premises across the UK have been given access to gigabit-capable broadband since summer 2018, through a £1bn government-funding commitment until the end of 2021.

Since May 2019, vouchers worth up to £3,500 for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and up to £1,500 for residential premises, have been available to cover these costs in rural areas across the UK. Seventeen local councils in England have also provided £22.2m worth of funding to top up the values of the vouchers in their areas.

Nearly 45,000 gigabit broadband vouchers, worth more than £90m, have already been issued, and there is more than £70m worth of vouchers on offer immediately to take companies and residents in rural towns and villages out of the digital slow lane. Rural communities in Wales saw the value of their vouchers double in June, after the UK and Welsh governments announced that they were working together to boost the scheme.

UK minister for digital infrastructure, Matt Warman, is now urging businesses and communities to apply for the vouchers to future-proof their internet connections.

“This government is determined to connect every home and business to the fastest broadband speeds available from the Highlands to the Jurassic Coast,” he said. “But we can only do this with collaboration at a local and national level, so I’m delighted English councils have committed to pump more money into our voucher scheme to help rural communities get gigabit speed broadband.

“A quarter of all properties across the UK can now access these fast and reliable speeds, and we have earmarked a further £5bn so rural towns and villages across the four nations can get the speeds they need to seize all the benefits of new technology.”

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