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DCMS over-reliance on commercial providers for national broadband perpetuating UK’s “great digital divide”

19 January 2022

The Public Accounts Committee today reports it is not convinced the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) will meet even its downgraded targets for the increasingly critical rollout of super-fast, “gigabit” broadband, and is relying too heavily on commercial contractors for the progress that has been made.

Driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, good internet connectivity is now crucial to more than economic growth and the UK’s position in the global marketplace: it is essential to almost every aspect of everyday life, from work and education to accessing public services and benefits and personal lives and family connections. This makes the rapid roll out of Project Gigabit more vital than ever.

In 2020, DCMS accepted that its original plan for delivering nationwide gigabit broadband across the country by 2025 was unachievable and revised that target down to 85% coverage by 2025. 

DCMS reports that the proportion of premises in the United Kingdom with access to gigabit broadband leapt from 40% to 57% between May and October 2021 but this is largely due to Virgin Media O2 upgrading its cable network and the Committee says DCMS “has made little tangible progress in delivering internet connectivity beyond that achieved by the private sector”.

DCMS’ goal of full coverage by 2030 “does not cover the very hardest to reach areas, which include around 134,000 premises” and it has no detailed plan in place for reaching communities where it is not commercially viable to do so.

The Committee had already warned earlier this year that “failures with the rollout of superfast broadband across the UK risked exacerbating digital and economic inequality” and while “commercial investment plans by existing and new providers are welcome, reducing the potential need for taxpayer funded rollout”, the Committee remains concerned that DCMS’ focus on “accelerating coverage through rollout by commercial operators rather than by prioritising those areas it knows are hardest to reach risks some of the areas that need improved connectivity most being once again left behind”.  

Chair's comments

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

“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. 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.”

Further information

Image: CCO