MPs fear government won't achieve gigabit broadband targets

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MPs are unconvinced that the UK government will achieve its watered-down targets for gigabit broadband coverage, suggesting there is no detailed plan on how to reach the most remote parts of the country and that ministers are too reliant on private companies.

The Conservative manifesto ahead of the 2019 General Election promised nationwide fibre to the premise (FTTP) coverage by 2025 but the government has since backtracked. The revised target is 85%, with the government also backing down on its commitment to using full fibre.

Meanwhile, just £1.2 billion of £5 billion in promised funding will be delivered during this Parliament. 

Uk gigabit broadband

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said that although it was true that the percentage of households that could access gigabit broadband in the UK rose from 40% to 57% between May and October 2021, this was largely down to Virgin Media O2 upgrading its network.

Openreach plans to reach 25 million homes and businesses with full fibre by 2026, while there several ‘altnets’ like CityFibre and Hyperoptic are building FTTP networks.

However, the PAC expressed concerns that a goal of “full coverage” by 2030 would be missed because there were no provisions for the hardest to reach areas of the UK – some of which are not even included in that target at all.

A more tech-agnostic approach that includes satellite and 5G rather than full fibre is perhaps more practical in these instances, but again the PAC said it had not seen any evidence of a plan. At a time when connectivity is becoming more important than ever to society, MPs said this lack of planning risked exacerbating a digital divide between urban and rural areas.

"DCMS’ planning and project management show all the signs of the previous rollout – 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,” said Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC.

"It 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.

"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."

"It is misleading to suggest we are reliant on the commercial sector to hit our target which we remain on track to meet," responded the DCMS in a statement to TechRadar Pro.

"We are investing £5 billion so hard-to-reach areas can get gigabit speeds, have already upgraded 600,000 premises, and in three years national coverage has rocketed from 6% to 65%.

"Our policies and investment also mean 97% of premises can access superfast broadband which meets people's current needs and helped us through the pandemic."

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.