Businesses hail new Openreach rural full-fibre focus

BT broadband provision division announces next step in gigabit broadband deployment programme to offer levelled-up connectivity for premises in hardest-to-reach parts of the UK

Trade bodies representing rural Britain have declared enthusiasm for plans by Openreach to build full-fibre broadband to at least three million more homes and businesses in some of the country’s hardest-to-serve communities.

The latest announcement is part of the BT broadband provision division’s promise to extend the benefits of gigabit broadband to all of the UK, not just the metropolitan areas. It also says its updated build plan will be fundamental to the UK government achieving its target of delivering gigabit-capable broadband to 85% of the country by 2025 and follows an extended investment commitment by its parent, BT Group

It means Openreach will now build full-fibre technology to a total of 25 million premises, including more than six million in the hardest-to-serve parts of the country.

The new, five-year deployment plan includes the majority of homes and business in about 1,100 exchange locations – including market and coastal towns, villages and hamlets spread across the UK. Locations include Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands, Cardigan in Wales, Keswick in Cumbria and Allhallows in Kent.

“Building a new broadband network across the UK is a massive challenge and some parts of the country will inevitably require public funding,” said Openreach CEO Clive Selley. “But our expanded build plan means taxpayer subsidies can be limited to only the hardest-to-connect homes and businesses – and we hope to see other companies step forward to build in the most rural areas too.

“This is a hugely complex, nationwide engineering project. It will help level-up the UK because the impact of full-fibre broadband stretches from increased economic prosperity and international competitiveness, to higher employment and environmental benefits.”

Benefits of a financial and societal nature ranked highest with the Countryside Alliance, a UK organisation promoting issues relating to the countryside such as farming, rural services and small businesses, which welcomed the announcement. The association described Openreach’s move as a step in the right direction after the disappointment of the government’s 2020 decision to roll back its commitment to deliver full-fibre and gigabit-capable broadband to the countryside by 2025.

“If you were to level up the countryside by delivering connectivity, the economy has the potential to grow by up to £43bn in England alone,” said Sarah Lee, head of policy at the Countryside Alliance. “If we are to have a green recovery in this post-Covid world, then delivering digital connectivity must remain a priority and Openreach must be applauded for making this commitment.”

Mike Cherry, national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, said Openreach’s announcement is very welcome in the context of the new world created by the pandemic, which has shown more than ever the importance of digital connectivity to small businesses. “The lack of access to good local digital infrastructure hampers the productivity of small businesses and sole traders, and FSB research shows how small businesses in rural areas are particularly affected by slow speeds as it should connect millions more premises in rural and hard-to-reach areas,” he said.

“Opening up opportunities for businesses as they face hybrid working, changes to global trade and new ways to engage with customers is going to be crucial to the levelling-up agenda.”

Openreach’s programme also includes an extension to its biggest-ever recruitment drive, with a further 1,000 new roles being created in 2021 on top of 2,500 jobs that were announced in December 2020. It is also investing in 11 new regional training centres to equip and skill the new engineers. As a result, Openreach believes that under its commercial programme, it can build full-fibre to up to four million rural and urban premises a year – the equivalent of 75,000 a week.

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