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UK on track to miss even its slashed full-fibre gigabit coverage goals, warn MPs

The UK’s cross-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has warned that the government risks missing its target to deliver gigabit-capable broadband to 85 per cent of the country by 2025, citing “considerable challenges” to the infrastructure rollout.

The news comes after government had already slashed previous targets for total nationwide gigabit coverage by 2025 to 85 per cent in November. It also hacked away at the level of state subsidy available for wiring up rural areas that would otherwise be written off by commercial providers, which decreased from £5n to £1.2bn in the Autumn Spending review.

The opinion that the UK won’t hit anything close 85 per cent gigabit-capable broadband by 2025 is shared by industry, with the committee’s “Broadband and the Road to 5G” report noting there is “no genuine belief” within the sector that the goals are achievable. This sentiment was echoed by the National Audit Office (NAO), which remarked that delivering UK-wide connectivity would require a fourfold increase in deployment rates, as well as “roadworks on most UK roads”.

“Delivering UK-wide connectivity would require the telecoms industry to lay around 500,000 kilometres of new cable to around 31 million premises, compared with around 100,000 street cabinets for fibre to the cabinet (FTTC),” the NAO said.

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The report described this changing position as a “surprise” and added it would “not be acceptable having abandoned one unrealistic target, for the Government to fail to meet a second, less ambitious, target through lack of effective planning or inadequate investment.”

Another point of contention is the perceived lack of clarity surrounding the government’s ambitions for the rollout of 5G, with the report noting complaints from industry about vague aspirations of “being a world leader in 5G” without detailing how it will cover a majority of the population.

“The government does not appear to have any particular targets for the deployment of 5G infrastructure in the UK over the next 5–10 years. Nor, so far as I am aware, has there been any consideration of how such targets, and the potential role for 5G fixed wireless services, might then inform the Government’s full-fibre plans,” said one anonymous former Vodafone director interviewed for the report.

This focus on population rather than landmass, the report added, will result in rural areas being left behind, mirroring the situation in rollouts of previous generations of mobile connectivity tech.

Roughly 9 per cent of the UK’s landmass is a “not-spot” lacking 4G service from any operator. In Scotland, that percentage jumps to 20 per cent.

Concluding, the committee urged the government to provide clarity on its rollout goals, particularly when it comes to full-fibre connections. This would include an explanation of how it settled on its new 85 per cent coverage goal, combined with an assessment on the likelihood of it delivering that target.

“The government’s decision to abandon its 2025 gigabit-capable broadband target within weeks of ministers reassuring us of their commitment to it was a belated recognition that it was unrealistic and unachievable, underlining concerns we’d heard from industry. Valuable time has been lost, making meeting even the revised-down target a major challenge,” said Julian Knight, chair of the DCMS Committee.

The committee also urged the government to maintain its stated “outside-in” target, focusing on upgrading those premises with the worst connectivity as a priority. It recommended the establishment of a target date for connecting the outstanding 15 per cent that won’t receive a gigabit-capable connection by 2025.

Commenting on the findings of the report, Catherine Collums, MD for Corporate Affairs at Openreach, urged the government to address bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles to deploying new fibre.

“Like others in the industry, we’re keen to see faster action to support the big build, including: removing red tape and easing access to public and private land; improving building regs to make sure no new homes get built without full-fibre broadband; and exempting full fibre from business rates. As the biggest operator, we expect to do a lot of the final 20 per cent, but rural communities also need other companies to step up and do their bit.”

Andrew Glover, chair of the Internet Service Providers’ Association, echoed the criticism of the government’s 85 per cent goal, saying: “The committee is right to point out that even getting to 85 per cent by 2025 remains a challenging target and that urgent action is needed to tackle the barriers that still stand in the way of the accelerated build-rates that government envisages.

“This includes comprehensive wayleave reform, short and long-term access to talent, clarity about businesses rates and clarity about how and when government intends to make available 75 per cent of public funding that as of now remains unallocated. Without action to address these challenges, even the 85 per cent target might be more fantasy than reality.” ®


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