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Digital inequality compounding the economic inequality “harshly” exposed by covid-19

8 January 2021

“Litany” of DCMS failures means business and homes in rural areas could be locked out of gigabit broadband for years to come.

When the Committee took oral evidence in Parliament from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) on 9th November 2020, it appeared “clear that Government’s 2019 election pledge to deliver nationwide gigabit broadband connectivity by 2025 was unachievable” - and since then the government has accepted that and dropped the target.

Alongside the November 2020 Spending Review on 25 November the government published a revised target of “at least 85%” coverage by 2025 - but it has committed less than a quarter of the £5 billion funding needed to support roll-out to the hardest to reach 20% of premises.

Based on DCMS’ performance to date, including:

  • failure to make meaningful progress to tackle the barriers faced by operators in maximising gigabit connectivity by 2025,
  • failure to demonstrate it has learnt lessons from the superfast programme for the detailed design of the gigabit programme,
  • failure to demonstrate how its centralised procurement model will retain the people, skills and knowledge in local authorities that were critical to success in the superfast programme,
  • failure to give any reassurance that local authorities will get additional funding to retain their expert resources at a time when local government finances are under severe pressure from the pandemic,
  • failure to make any meaningful progress in delivering the policy and legislative changes deemed essential by industry to achieve rapid roll-out,
  • failure “yet again” to prioritise consumers in rural areas 

- the Committee is very concerned the reduced target will still be “challenging” and that the hardest to reach premises will be struggling with slow broadband for many years to come.

DCMS is still developing the £5 billion programme to subsidise roll-out to the hardest to reach 20% of the UK’s 31 million premises, and could not tell the Committee when it intends to deliver major milestones, such as the letting of contracts.

PAC is “increasingly concerned that those in rural areas may have to pay more, and may reach gigabit broadband speeds late” and is not convinced 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”.

Chair's comments

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said:

“With the grim announcement that the country and economy will be locked down for months, the Government’s promises on digital connectivity are more important than ever. But due to a litany of planning and implementation failures at DCMS, those promises are slipping farther and farther out of reach - even worse news for the “rural excluded” who face years trying to recover with substandard internet connectivity.  

“For the foreseeable future, ever more of our lives is moving online, whether we like it or not. Government cannot allow digital inequality to continue to compound and exacerbate the economic inequality that has been so harshly exposed in the covid-19 pandemic. It needs to be clear about timelines in each area so that businesses and individuals can plan for their digital future.”

Further information

Image: Picpedia