MPs warn rural areas will suffer from government's latest fibre broadband failures

Houses of Parliament
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The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has lambasted the government for a series of failures in delivering fibre broadband areas and cast doubt over its ability to deliver a revised coverage target.

The Conservative manifesto ahead of the 2019 General Election promised nationwide fibre to the premise (FTTP) coverage by 2025 – a hugely ambitious target that was questioned by the industry at the time.

Since then, the government has backtracked and now plans to cover 85% of the UK with full fibre. However, the PAC says even this will be a challenge given a lack of progress in overcoming the regulatory and economic barriers that have so far hindered progress.

Government fibre target

Commercial deployments from the likes of Openreach, Virgin Media and alt-net providers are expected to cover 80% of the country but inevitably these will focus on urban deployments. The industry has indicated it would be willing to go further – provide the right support is in place.

The PAC fears that in a bid to reach its overall target, the government will once again neglect the estimated 1.6 million UK properties that do not have even superfast broadband speeds. The committee also notes that just £1.2 million of the £5 billion earmarked for rural coverage will be made available between now and 2024.

“This is still a challenging target and increases the risk that the very hardest to reach premises will be struggling with slow broadband for many years to come,” said the report. “We are concerned that the Department has yet to make any meaningful progress in delivering the policy and legislative changes deemed essential by industry if it is to achieve rapid roll-out.”

“Responsibility for addressing many of these barriers, including changes to planning regulations, business rates treatment of fibre and requirements for new build properties, are spread across other parts of government and we got no assurance that they are being addressed urgently.”

The PAC said the need for better rural broadband was all the more acute given that Covid-19 has made people more reliant on their connections for work, leisure and communication. A failure to remedy this situation, it is argued, could exacerbate any digital divide.

“Given the impact of covid-19, the Department must do more to protect those with limited access to the internet. We remain unconvinced that, if and when rural users finally do get gigabit broadband, they will enjoy the same choice of service provider and the same protections as their urban counterparts.” 

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.