Less than 18 months from the UK government’s target date to provide 85% of properties with gigabit-capable broadband through its Project Gigabit programme, research from alternative broadband specialist National Broadband has revealed huge swathes of the UK are still without broadband funding, with investment to date largely focused on areas that are easier and cheaper to reach to meet the set target.
Moreover, it warns that full-fibre connectivity is being funded for properties that already benefit from perfectly good broadband performance, while those in more rural and harder-to-reach areas, which are typically those with the poorest landline broadband speeds, are being excluded.
Project Gigabit was introduced in 2021 to accelerate the UK’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. On its launch, the UK government said it would prioritise areas that currently have slow connections and would otherwise be left behind in broadband companies’ plans.
The delivery plan for Project Gigabit is a response by the UK government to its public consultation, Planning for gigabit delivery in 2021, which sought views on how to spend its £5bn funding commitment for gigabit broadband in hard-to-reach areas, complementing industry investment from the likes of Openreach and Virgin Media to ensure such areas benefit from the same gigabit broadband as the rest of the country.
By the end of 2025, the government is aiming for 85% of the UK to have gigabit-capable connectivity, with nationwide coverage by 2030. According to Building Digital UK’s (BDUK) Project Gigabit progress update in June 2023, 76% of premises across the UK are currently able to access gigabit-capable broadband, up from 6% in early 2019.
Yet the National Broadband survey found that just one out of the 10 local authorities with the worst broadband connectivity in the UK has to date received any funding from Project Gigabit. In its analysis, National Broadband analysed data both from Ofcom’s Connected Nations report and through a Freedom of Information request submitted to DCMS (now DSIT) to reveal where Project Gigabit funding had been allocated and broadband availability across the UK.
Moreover, 50% of residential properties without access to the national minimum standard for broadband have yet to benefit from Project Gigabit funding. With fixed-line broadband speeds below 10Mbps, these homes, said the altnet, cannot perform even simple online tasks, such as video calling or streaming.
Project Gigabit has yet to allocate all of its £5bn budget, but the altnet said its research showed progress to date highlights clear issues within the project’s approach and its sole focus on full-fibre broadband. Although UK comms regulator Ofcom is confident that the government is set to reach its target by 2025, National Broadband claimed its analysis showed that to reach this objective, in the majority of cases, it is applying funding to more densely populated areas that are easier and cheaper to provision.
David Hennell, National Broadband
Despite funding intended to be distributed around the country, the survey revealed significant and counter-intuitive disparities between regions. The south-west, which has the greatest number of premises in England unable to access landline broadband at speeds higher than 10Mbps, has only received £42.3m from Project Gigabit, whereas both the south-east and east of England have received more than £250m each. This equates to the east receiving over £13,000 and the south-east over £9,000 per property unable to access 10Mbps, compared with just £887 for the south-west.
National Broadband, which offers a wireless alternative to the UK’s fixed broadband industry, believes it would be possible to use alternative technology to supply all 435,000 properties currently without access to a service running at more than 10Mbps with a much faster connection at a cost of less than 3% of Project Gigabit’s total budget. It claimed alternative broadband delivery solutions such as 4G broadband should also be considered, since they have the potential to rapidly and cost-effectively bring much-improved connectivity to the most digitally disadvantaged.
“There’s a growing disparity between digital haves and have nots in the UK, and as Project Gigabit fails to address more remote and more difficult to provision areas, this digital divide will only get worse,” said National Broadband director David Hennell. “Far too many rural communities are still endlessly waiting on the distant promise of full-fibre broadband, and yet the government is failing to fund alternatives that exist today and that would immediately dramatically improve people’s connectivity at a fraction of the cost of fibre.
“We acknowledge that expanding the roll-out of full-fibre broadband is a good thing,” he added. “However, we find it almost impossible to understand why other solutions are not also being funded for those who have the very worst current connectivity – simply put, why are those most in need being left out? It’s vital that the government expands its view on improving connectivity and that’s why we’ve launched our petition. Otherwise the pursuit of its self-set target to provide 85% of UK properties with gigabit broadband will actually widen rather than close the digital divide that persists in the UK.”
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