MPs to investigate superfast broadband roll-out to final 5% of UK

Select committee inquiry will assess what is needed to provide high-speed connectivity to the 1.5 million premises outside current roll-out plans

MPs are to launch an investigation into delivering superfast broadband to the 5% of UK premises that will not be included in the existing plans for rolling out higher-speed connectivity.

The Culture, Media and Sport Committee is to hold an inquiry into the coverage, delivery and performance of superfast broadband, as well as mobile coverage. The government aims to ensure 95% coverage of fibre-based services by the end of 2017, and has provided £1.7bn through the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) agency to support roll-out in areas considered not commercially viable by BT and Virgin Media.

However, that strategy excludes 1.5 million premises, mostly in rural Britain but also some urban areas, where mobile network coverage is often also poor and fails to provide an adequate alternative. According to the committee, the remaining 5% is spread across 70% of the UK’s landmass.

"Proper digital connectivity is key both to the well-being of many communities and to Britain's economic future. Yet many people and businesses are unable to receive the digital access and services they need. This inquiry is designed to find out exactly why that is, and how to fix it," said committee chairman Jesse Norman MP.

The committee has invited interested parties to submit their opinion on a number of key questions, including:

  • What role should the government, regulator Ofcom and industry play in extending superfast broadband to hard-to-reach premises?
  • Is there sufficient competition in these markets? 
  • What are the commercial, financial and technical challenges the programme faces in reaching the final 5%? What technologies exist to overcome them? What investment is required, by whom and for what return?
  • Should the government be investing more in research and development into finding innovative solutions to meet the communication needs of remote communities?
  • Are BT and other communication companies investing sufficiently themselves in reaching these groups?
  • What investment and progress are the mobile network operators making in improving mobile coverage across the UK and enabling a swifter process when users choose to change provider? How could these best be improved?
  • How have the existing government broadband programmes been delivered?

The Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) has already offered £10m funding towards trials of innovative technologies to help reach the final 5% of hardest-to-reach areas. Pilot projects are expected to start later in 2015, involving eight companies testing various technologies such as next-generation Wi-Fi, satellite, and new ways of financing fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) systems.

In his March 2015 pre-election Budget, chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne announced plans to raise the Universal Service Obligation for broadband, currently set at 2Mbps, to 5Mbps, and the launch of a scheme – in conjunction with local councils – to subsidise the cost of installing superfast-capable satellite broadband, which the government claimed would meet the needs of about one-fifth of the premises categorised as the final 5%.

Telecoms regulator Ofcom is also conducting a review of the UK communications market, which includes the state of the broadband and mobile sectors.

The latest parliamentary inquiry follows on from previous select committee investigations in the previous government, looking at rural broadband for farmers, and at the progress of the BDUK scheme.

Read more on superfast broadband roll-out

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications