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Improving Broadband

Inquiry

In 2010, the government announced its aim for the UK to have the “best superfast broadband network in Europe”, and set up the Superfast Programme to subsidise broadband roll out to areas where it is not commercially viable for providers to reach.

In a report published in mid-October, the NAO finds that despite wide coverage, many people in the UK still experience poor broadband. Suppliers to the Superfast Programme were encouraged to prioritise roll out to the easiest to reach premises, which means there is a risk that those in the most rural and remote locations will be left further behind.

Rural coverage of superfast broadband is now at 80%, compared to 97% in urban areas, and is the lowest in rural Northern Ireland, at just 66%. The existing broadband infrastructure has been put to the test by COVID-19, with concern that the pandemic has exacerbated the rural-urban divide.

So far, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) has prioritised increasing broadband coverage over speed. While superfast broadband is fast enough for most household use today, internet use is rising by 40% each year driven largely by video streaming and the focus is now on ensuring that the UK has a broadband network that will meet future demand.

In 2018, to meet future demands of consumers and businesses, the government announced a new policy for the UK’s telecoms industry to provide infrastructure capable of faster gigabit speeds to 50% of premises by 2025, and nationwide by 2033. At present only 27% of UK premises are covered by gigabit-capable infrastructure. Only 14% can access full-fibre - one of the lowest rates in Europe.

The government later committed to accelerating this target and achieving nationwide coverage by 2025. It is still finalising plans for its £5 billion Future Programme, supporting delivery to the hardest to reach 20% of premises, and has much work still to do and little time to do it by its own deadlines. The NAO says Government should set out whether the Future Programme will prioritise the hardest to reach premises first.

Delivering these targets will require the telecommunications industry to reach approximately 31 million premises and lay around half a million kilometres of cable. This would require an estimated four-fold increase in building rates, which will be difficult to achieve in the hardest to reach areas. The final 1% of premises could be too expensive to include in the Future Programme at all – for these premises, alternative solutions to gigabit broadband will have to be found.

The Committee will question senior officials at DCMS on how Government intends to reach its targets for the UK’s digital connectivity and ensure the UK has a “future proof” digital infrastructure. If you have evidence on the questions and issues raised in this inquiry please submit it here by 6.00pm Wednesday 4 November.