The rapid roll-out of gigabit broadband throughout the UK is a source of pride for the UK government, indeed singled out by prime minister Boris Johnson as one of his personal triumphs, but a report from the UK parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is doubting whether the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) will meet even its downgraded target to roll out super-fast, gigabit broadband to 85% of the UK by 2025.
Furthermore, the PAC warns that despite the progress that has been made in taking full-fibre across the country, energising the altnet provider industry, the DCMS is relying too heavily on commercial contractors for the progress that has been made.
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.
These moves followed the PAC taking oral evidence in Parliament on 9 November 2020 from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), the government department responsible for the roll-out, to examine how the public purse was being exercised.
The PAC said then that it appeared “clear that government’s 2019 election pledge to deliver nationwide gigabit broadband connectivity by 2025 was unachievable”, noting the UK government has committed less than a quarter of the £5bn funding needed to support roll-out to the hardest-to-reach 20% of premises. It slammed what it called a “litany” of UK government failures in gigabit broadband roll-out. In 2020, the DCMS accepted its original plan for delivering nationwide gigabit broadband across the country by 2025 was unachievable and revised that target down to 85% coverage by 2025.
After further criticism from the PAC for a lack of response in how it will ensure its communications strategy is realised, the UK government relaunched its national gigabit broadband programme in March 2021 with Project Gigabit, aiming 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 emphasised that the projects it would fund would will prioritise areas that had slow connections and would otherwise have been left behind in commercial broadband companies’ roll-out plans.
PAC’s report showed the DCMS calculated that the proportion of premises in the UK with access to gigabit broadband leapt from 40% to 57% between May and October 2021, but this was largely due to Virgin Media O2 upgrading its cable network. The Committee damningly said that the DCMS “has made little tangible progress in delivering internet connectivity beyond that achieved by the private sector”.
Furthermore, it added that the DCMS goal of full coverage by 2030 “does not cover the very hardest-to-reach areas, which include around 134,000 premises”, and it has no detailed plan in place for reaching communities where it is not commercially viable to do so.
The PAC added that it had already warned earlier in 2022 that “failures with the roll-out of super-fast broadband across the UK risked exacerbating digital and economic inequality”, and while “commercial investment plans by existing and new providers are welcome, reducing the potential need for taxpayer-funded roll-out”, the Committee remains concerned that the DCMS’s focus on “accelerating coverage through roll-out by commercial operators rather than by prioritising those areas it knows are hardest to reach risks some of the areas that need improved connectivity most being once again left behind”.
Assessing the key findings of the report, the Public Accounts Committee chair, Dame Meg Hillier, said the DCMS’s planning and project management showed all the signs of the previous roll-out – that the focus will continue to be on the easier-to-reach areas and there is still no clear plan for the hardest-to-reach communities.
“[The DCMS] couldn’t really explain how broadband has got as far as it has in this critical national strategy, beyond “thanks to Virgin Media”, and, incredibly, it still doesn’t have a real plan for getting the rest of the way to its own downgraded targets,” she said. “What DCMS does know full well is it can’t rely on the private sector to get fast broadband to the hardest to reach, excluded and rural areas, and despite its repeated promises to do exactly that, we are apparently little nearer to closing “the great digital divide” developing across the UK, nor addressing the social and economic inequality it brings with it.”