UK government pumps £4.5m into central Scotland gigabit connectivity plan

Key Scottish population belt identified as the first territory for investment as part of UK government’s £5bn investment in next-generation broadband

The UK government has identified Scotland as the latest focus of its gigabit programme, just two months after being harshly criticised by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) for general failures in its plan to roll out gigabit-capable broadband connectivity nationwide by 2025.

The genesis of the national broadband plan dates back to just after the Conservatives’ General Election victory in December 2019, when the government outlined plans to make good on prime minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to work towards “delivering full-fibre [broadband] to every home in the land” by 2025, and then chancellor Sajid Javid committed £5bn of public funding to “support the roll-out of full-fibre, 5G and other gigabit-capable networks to the hardest-to-reach 20% of the country”.

But by November 2020, the UK government began backtracking on its ambitious targets. When announcing his Spending Review in late November 2020, chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed that the 2025 target for roll-out had been downgraded to 85% coverage by 2025 and the original commitment to provide £5bn of public funding for hard-to-reach areas had been reduced.

In its report published in January 2021, the PAC said it appeared “clear that the government’s 2019 election pledge to deliver nationwide gigabit broadband connectivity by 2025 was unachievable”, noting that the government had committed less than a quarter of the £5bn funding needed to support roll-out to the hardest-to-reach 20% of premises. Since then, the government has accepted that assessment and dropped the target.

However, in this latest development, more than 5,300 homes and businesses in Ayrshire, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Fife, Stirlingshire, Greater Glasgow and Lothian are pinpointed to gain access to gigabit speeds thanks to the first £4.5m to be awarded from the UK government’s nationwide gigabit programme.

These premises are said to have slow speeds at present and were already due to be upgraded from superfast broadband – minimum speeds of 30Mbps – through the Scottish government’s Reaching 100 (R100) programme, which is scheduled to invest £83m in central Scotland. But after an agreement between the UK and Scottish governments, the properties are to get gigabit-capable full-fibre broadband built directly to their homes and businesses on a fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) basis.

Homes and business in rural Scotland were given access to more financial help to attain top-of-the-range broadband speeds in October 2020 through a new collaboration between the Scottish and UK governments that saw the UK government’s Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme extended north of the border.

The Scottish government’s R100 programme is in the process of ensuring that all homes and businesses across Scotland can access superfast broadband. The vast majority of connections will be gigabit-capable and delivered via full-fibre cables built directly to premises.

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In central Scotland, some premises were set to be delivered via fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) technology. On the basis that the UK’s gigabit programme would have to revisit these 5,368 premises at some point in the future to convert them to FTTP, the Scottish and UK governments have agreed a technology “flip” from FTTC to FTTP. The offer aims to take advantage of the chance to reduce build costs, enabling delivery of the connections earlier and at greater value for money.

Both governments say their latest move will future-proof people’s internet connections in these areas for the next 30-40 years and allow them to take full advantage of cutting-edge technologies such as 8K TV and virtual reality streaming.

“The past year has demonstrated beyond doubt just how vital digital connectivity is across all areas of our lives – from health, wellbeing and education to social and economic recovery,” said Paul Wheelhouse, Scotland’s connectivity minister.

“The vast majority of connections being delivered to more than 120,000 premises through our investment in the three R100 area contracts – 100% in South, 86% in North and now 95% in Central – will be through fibre directly to the premises, delivering gigabit capability, providing connection speeds 30 times faster than our superfast commitment, and resilient, future-proofed connectivity for decades to come.”

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