Despite its current travails, one of the few genuine successes of the UK government has been the accelerated roll-out of gigabit broadband over the course of the current parliament, but in a blow to its ambitions, it has been forced to make a second significant change to its original target to bring gigabit connectivity across the UK, especially to traditionally underserved areas.
Just after the Conservatives’ General Election victory in December 2019, the government outlined plans to make good on 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”.
In his first Budget statement in March 2020, UK chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the government would fulfil its promise to make funding available to develop gigabit broadband roll-out across the UK, especially in the so-called hardest-to-reach parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
However, by November 2020, the UK government began backtracking on its ambitious targets. When announcing his Spending Review in late November 2020, Sunak rowed back, reducing the original commitment to provide £5bn of public funding for hard-to-reach areas that have been traditionally badly served by broadband providers. The government also downgraded its target to roll out super-fast, gigabit broadband to 85% of the UK by 2025.
These moves were criticised in a December 2020 report from the UK parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC), examining how the public purse was being exercised and whether the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), responsible for broadband roll-out, would ever meet the target.
Then, in January 2021, the PAC slammed the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) for a mass of general failures in its plans to roll out gigabit-capable broadband by 2025, further warning of digital inequality compounding the economic inequality “harshly” exposed by Covid-19.
The 85% by 2025 target had since then remained the UK government’s ambition, but a further PAC report only weeks ago cast doubt as to whether the DCMS could even meet even the downgraded objective. It warned that despite the progress that has been made in taking full-fibre across the country, energising the altnet provider industry, the DCMS has been relying too heavily on commercial contractors for the progress that has been made. In particular, it noted that the leap in the proportion of premises in the UK with access to gigabit broadband from 40% to 57% between May and October 2021 was largely due to Virgin Media O2 upgrading its cable network.
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Now, just as it was announcing its Levelling Up agenda, a central part of which was to guarantee the proliferation of gigabit connectivity across the UK, the government announced that by 2030, the UK would have “nationwide” gigabit-capable broadband and 4G coverage, with 5G coverage for “the majority” of the population.
The announcement has already attracted criticism from within the broadband industry. David Hennel, business development director at mobile-based broadband services provider National Broadband, said the government had always had strong rhetoric when it came to its levelling up agenda, but when it came to the digital connectivity of properties in rural areas, it had simply not lived up to its promises.
“Revised plans announced in November 2021, to provide 85% of UK properties with gigabit-capable broadband, were already a regression of its original 2019 pledge to provide this to every single property in the country with an investment of £5bn,” he said. “To be frank, this original plan was an unachievable, ‘pie in the sky’ promise – but worse, the reduced objective actually risks leaving out those most in need of help.
“While it is encouraging to see mention of continued 5G roll-out, which does over time have significant potential in improving digital connectivity in rural locations and to those most digitally deprived, it’s crucial that the government looks to immediately available and viable solutions that can help bridge the digital divide.
“Sadly, its ‘fibre-centric’ approach has ignored cost-effective and instantly deployable solutions such as 4G to provide genuinely life-changing improved digital connectivity right now to those with the poorest broadband,” said Hennel. “If this government is serious about bridging the digital divide as soon as possible, it must look to leverage all solutions available to ensure every property can experience the benefits of improved digital connectivity, instead of just catering for ‘the majority’.”