In December 2020, the UK government’s aim to roll out gigabit broadband across 85% of the UK by 2025 was declared unrealistic in a withering report by Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee – and now the same watchdog has criticised the government for failing to explain how it intends to deliver on its broadband targets and the roll-out of 5G.
In the committee’s report Broadband and the road to 5G, MPs warned that ministers risked failing to meet their latest, less ambitious, gigabit-capable broadband target. The committee also warned that despite the recently announced first phase of the Shared Rural Network, the 5G roll-out risked repeating the legacy of mobile “not-spots”.
In its December statement, the DCMS Committee said it had considered evidence on how realistic the government’s ambition was, what would be needed to achieve it, and what the government’s target would mean for businesses and consumers.
It noted that even though it recognised that the Covid-19 pandemic had put enormous pressure on public finances, it said it was “nonetheless a surprise” when the government abandoned its commitment to nationwide gigabit-capable broadband by 2025 in the National Infrastructure Strategy, and set out, in the Spending Review, plans to distribute only 25% of the £5bn it had committed for gigabit-capable broadband.
The committee said the government’s decision to revise the target downward to 85%, just weeks after MPs had been reassured of its commitment to it, was a belated recognition that the plan was unrealistic.
In conclusion in December, the DCMS Committee warned that it was clear the government and Ofcom needed to take bolder, faster action to address the causes of costs and delays to the infrastructure roll-out.
It advised its own department to finalise and launch the contracts for delivering infrastructure to hard-to-reach properties as soon as possible and, as it finalised its regulation of the wholesale fixed telecoms market, it called on the regulator to address concerns about competition and the market dominance of BT broadband provision division Openreach.
MPs on the committee now believe the DCMS has failed to respond adequately to a number of their recommendations and that their key points have been left unanswered. In particular, one question not addressed asked for a full assessment of how likely the department thought it was that the revised-down target would be met.
The committee’s new statement warned that sticking to unachievable targets benefited no one, and it was inevitable that the government would have to abandon its unrealistic manifesto pledge to deliver nationwide gigabit connectivity by 2025. It said ministers should be ready to respond openly, in answering questions from members of a select committee, and accepting that a target will not be met when they already possess sufficient information to know that it will not be achieved.
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“We welcome the fact that it has finally listened to concerns, rethought the target and taken a more realistic outlook,” said the report. “However, the time it has taken to do so will have delayed industry, local bodies and consumers receiving the information they need to plan or build a robust investment case.
“Moreover, given that the previous target had been staunchly defended to us makes us question how much of a say DCMS had in the decision to scrap it, and the extent to which both the new target and its likely implications have been fully considered in consultation with industry.
“It would not be acceptable, having abandoned one unrealistic target, for the government to fail to meet a second, less ambitious, target through lack of effective planning or inadequate investment.”
The committee called on the government to explain how it settled on the new gigabit-capable broadband target of 85% coverage by 2025, a full assessment of how likely it considered this to be met, and the detail of how it planned to deliver it. It added that the UK government should also clearly state the target date by which it expected the remaining 15% of premises to be served with gigabit-capable broadband.
DCMS Committee chair Julian Knight has now written to DCMS secretary Oliver Dowden asking for a full government response by 1 April 2021. He wrote: “We raised urgent questions in our report to government requesting that it set out detailed plans about how it would deliver on its revised-down target for gigabit-capable broadband and crucially, how likely it was to be met.
“Ministers have failed to answer that key question, among others, and provided inadequate responses elsewhere. I have written to secretary of state Oliver Dowden calling for a full response to our recommendations and to points that have gone unanswered. These are questions that cannot be avoided.”