UK government aims to get national broadband project back on track with Project Gigabit

First areas revealed in £5bn government scheme to deliver gigabit broadband connections to help recovery from the pandemic, achieve growth and levelling up

Just weeks after the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee took it to task for a lack of response in how it will ensure its communications strategy is realised, the UK government has relaunched its national gigabit broadband programme.

Under the new Project Gigabit, the government aims to deliver next-generation gigabit broadband to more than a million homes and businesses in what are regarded as hard-to-reach places in the first phase of an infrastructure project into which the government has invested £5bn.

The government claims that Project Gigabit will accelerate the country’s recovery from Covid-19, fire up high-growth sectors such as tech and the creative industries and level up the country, spreading wealth and creating jobs across Britain. It says the projects it funds will prioritise areas that currently have slow connections and would otherwise have been left behind in broadband companies’ roll-out plans.

Project Gigabit will begin by connecting up to 510,000 homes and businesses in Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Cumbria, Dorset, Durham, Essex, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Tees Valley. Contracts for these first areas will go to tender this spring, with spades in the ground in the first half of 2022. In June, the government expects to announce the next procurements to connect up to 640,000 premises in Norfolk, Shropshire, Suffolk, Worcestershire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

The delivery plan for Project Gigabit is a response by the government to its public consultation Planning for Gigabit Delivery in 2021, which sought views on how to spend its record £5bn funding commitment for gigabit broadband in hard-to-reach areas. It outlineda strategy to make local, regional and cross-regional contracts available for broadband network providers of all sizes to bid for.

On top of these six regional contracts, there will be further local supplier contacts in Essex and Dorset. This first release of procurement contracts for England follows central Scotland recently being named as the first area to receive Project Gigabit funding. The UK and Scottish governments are discussing the potential for further Project Gigabit contracts in Scotland, which could be delivered alongside Scotland’s R100 programme.

At the same time, the UK government has relaunched its Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme with up to £210m to give people in eligible rural areas immediate financial help to get gigabit speeds. On top of this, the government said it was making up to £110m available to connect public sector buildings – such as GP surgeries, libraries and schools – in the hardest-to-reach parts of the UK with gigabit fibre infrastructure.

To address the most remote areas, locations to which it may actually be too expensive to build a gigabit-capable broadband network, even with substantial public subsidy, the government has issued a call for evidence to explore the barriers to improving their broadband and how innovative communications technologies might help change this.

The government calculates that less than 0.3% of the country – fewer than 100,000 premises – is likely to fall into this category. Addressing the needs of people in such places could lead to the government encouraging industry to use new wireless equipment, low-orbit satellites or high-altitude platforms to beam faster connections to far-flung homes and businesses.

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Matthew Evans, director for markets at trade organisation TechUK, described Project Gigabit as potentially being the missing piece of the puzzle for delivering world-class digital infrastructure to the whole of the UK.

“Gigabit services will help boost national and regional economies, improve the resilience of our networks and help transform how we deliver public services,” he said. “To accelerate the pace of the roll-out, it is essential that government works with the grain of industry’s existing offerings, which is why the voucher scheme is particularly welcome.”

But Evans warned that to meet its ambitious targets for gigabit coverage, the government must bring forward more than the £1.2bn that is currently allocated up to 2025. “This, combined with action to reduce barriers to deployment, will ensure that the hardest-to-reach businesses and households benefit from better connectivity as quickly as possible,” he said.

These announcements come after parliamentarians had cast doubts on whether the government could really achieve its previously stated broadband ambitions revealed in November 2020 and which represented a substantial downgrading of the programme it had announced just after its re-election in 2019.

In December, the DCMS Committee warned that it was clear the government and UK regulator Ofcom needed to take bolder, faster action to address the causes of costs and delays to the gigabit fibre 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 called on the regulator, as it finalised its regulation of the wholesale fixed telecoms market, to address concerns about competition and the market dominance of BT broadband provision division Openreach.

Then, in the first week of March, the committee said the DCMS had failed to respond adequately to a number of its recommendations and that its key points had 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.

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