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Tue, 26 January 2021

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Without a clear strategy, government will exclude rural areas from gigabit broadband rollout

Without a clear strategy, government will exclude rural areas from gigabit broadband rollout

As the timetable for delivery slipped, difficult to reach areas were neglected at the expense of easy wins, writes Olivia Blake MP. | PA Images

4 min read

Ministers must learn the lessons of previous rollouts and outline a strategy to ensure gigabit broadband is available to everyone, especially those in rural, isolated communities.

“You’re on mute” is a phrase I hear every day. It’s come to emphasise – and irritatingly remind us – how mediated our lives, and even our everyday conversations, have become by technology and the extent to which the ongoing covid crisis has forced us further online.

Even before the public health crisis, broadband was the grease oiling our work and social lives – a fact recognised by the launch of the government’s Superfast Broadband Programme in 2011. It aimed to guarantee access to superfast internet – defined as a download speed of at least 24 megabytes per second – across the entire country. 95% of premises now have access to a superfast connection.

Today, our broadband infrastructure faces greater and greater strain. As traffic rises by 40% each year demanding ever higher speeds, and as coronavirus adds yet more pressure, the system needs an upgrade. Unfortunately, a litany of government failures means that’s unlikely to come soon.

The silence from government is deafening. On an implementation plan, milestones for delivery, how they will achieve 100% coverage

The Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport aspires to level-up the technology from a mix of fibreoptic and copper cable to only fibreoptic, enabling new speeds of 1000Mbps. In their 2019 manifesto, the government pledged to roll out the new fibre gigabit broadband to 100% of premises by 2025. 80% of the coverage would be provided by private providers, with the remaining 20% of hard to reach or unprofitable areas subsidised to the tune of £5bn.

But since the Public Accounts Committee questioned senior civil servants in November and queried whether the government was on track, the department has revised its target downward to only 85% coverage and allotted only a quarter of the initial £5bn to achieving it.

The failure to meet 100% breaks a manifesto pledge but – to make matters worse – the government also has no clear timetable for delivering on the new 85% commitment. Given that 80% of the coverage is to be provided by private suppliers, policy makers also have no levers to ensure that the targets are met. For the subsidised 20%, it has mapped no milestones for the rollout and set out no route to 100% coverage after 2025.

It’s vital that it does. In the rush to implement 24Mbps broadband, the government prioritised coverage. As the timetable for delivery slipped, difficult to reach areas were neglected at the expense of easy wins. It was rural, isolated communities that suffered most – exactly the communities that high-speed internet connections would most benefit. Ministers must learn the lessons of previous rollouts and ensure that gigabit broadband is available to everyone, regardless of where they live or the profitability of laying the infrastructure. Without a plan, it’s likely the mistakes of the Superfast Programme will be repeated.

Learning those lessons also means drawing on the skills of the people involved in achieving 95% coverage of 24Mbps. It’s unclear how the government’s centralised procurement model meshes with the local implementation of the new network – a fault made all the more glaring by the National Audit Office, who said that local knowledge and experience were critical to supporting the superfast programme.

The Local Government Association has said to retain the ‘digital champions’ that were at the heart of the first rollout will require an additional £30m from central government, but the department has been reluctant to commit the resources. As local authorities struggle under the weight of the public health crisis, these funds are needed more than ever.        

The silence from government is deafening. On an implementation plan, milestones for delivery, how they will achieve 100% coverage and ensure no one is left off the grid, or even how they will harness existing expertise and knowledge, Ministers have been missing in action. It’s time they took themselves off “mute” and set out a clear strategy for delivering the fibreoptic network this last year has shown us that we desperately need.

 

Olivia Blake is the Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam and member of the Public Accounts Committee. 

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