Plus ça change - Britain’s ‘Project Gigabit’ broadband rollout may not even meet its downgraded targets

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez January 19, 2022 Audio mode
The British Government has announced ‘Superfast Broadband For All!’, more times than we can count. And it seems its latest efforts are falling short of what is needed.

Image of fibre cables

Search ‘broadband' on diginomica and you will get a sense of how often the British Government makes outlandish promises about superfast internet speeds for the country. Every year or two for the past decade, whichever Minister is in charge at the time announces that even the most remote locations of the UK will be receiving the best broadband available, thanks to a new project or new timeline or new funding!

However, if you take a look at global speed rankings - or simply ask any person living in the UK - you will soon find out that much of what has been promised over the past ten years has fallen well short. 

The latest initiative from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is labelled ‘Project Gigabit'. It takes over from the ‘Future Programme', which was announced in July 2018, and has £1.2 billion allocated to it for broadband rollouts by 2025. 

As of November 2021, 97% of UK premises have access to superfast broadband, which has a download speed of at least 30 Mpbs. However, with global internet traffic growing by 40% each year, and the demand placed on global networks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK needs to future proof its broadband delivery with gigabit-capable infrastructure. 

However, DCMS has changed its target for achieving ‘nationwide gigabit-capable broadband' three times in the last four years. Its original target in 2018 was to provide said infrastructure to 50% of premises by 2025, and to achieve nationwide coverage by 2033. 

It then revised this to accelerate achieving nationwide full-fire and gigabit-capable coverage by 2025. 

Since then, the government has accepted that this is unlikely and revised it target to achieve at least 85% of UK premises having gigabit-capable broadband by 2025 and seek to accelerate rollout as close to 100% as possible. 

However, today the influential Public Accounts Committee has published its findings into DMCS's progress and has said that it is not convinced that the government will even meet its downgraded targets for this increasingly critical rollout. The Committee added that DCMS is relying too heavily on commercial contractors for the progress that has been made. 

Its report also points to opaque metrics being used for reporting and a lack of progress being made on removing barriers to rollout. 

More critically, however, the Committee has already warned that "failures with the rollout of superfast broadband across the UK risked exacerbating digital and economic inequality" and that while "accelerating coverage through rollout by commercial operators rather than by prioritizing those areas it knows are hardest to reach risks some of the areas that need improved connectivity most being once again left behind". 

Commenting on today's report, 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.

Where to next

The Committee outlines a number of areas where DCMS is going wrong and what changes it needs to make in order to give the UK a hope of reaching its latest broadband rollout target. 

For example, it notes that the Department's reporting still lacks the consistency and detail needed to enable Parliament and the public to tell what progress it is making in rolling out gigabit-capable broadband across the UK. For example, it reported in October 2021 that there was 57% national gigabit coverage, which was a rapid increase on the figure of 40% in May 2021 reported by Ofcom. DCMS has since said that this was largely as a result of Virgin Media O2's upgrade to its cable network, but it was unable to tell the Committee exactly how much of this increase was due to that upgrade. 

The Committee is urging DCMS to work with the National Audit Office to determine the most appropriate metrics and frequency for reporting progress with the scheme.

Today's report also highlights that while companies such as Virgin Media O2 have set out their intention to future proof their networks over time, once this current upgrade of existing cables has been completed, there will remain a gap in coverage if the Department does not put in place further contracts to build the gigabit infrastructure. However, DCMS has yet to sign any new gigabit infrastructure contracts of its own. 

The Committee would like DCMS to write to it, setting out in detail, how it will deliver 85% coverage by 2025, including the baselines it is using and the overall progress against these. There is concern that current targets will once again slip and without proper reporting, it's increasingly difficult to measure progress. 

The report also states that DCMS does not have a detailed plan to ensure that those in the very hardest to reach areas are not being left behind - which is quite something, given that this has been a topic of interest for the department for at least ten years. 

The Department's commitment to delivering 85% coverage by 2025 and full coverage by 2030 does not include those premises it has identified as the very hardest to reach. The report states: 

It estimates that fibre-based approaches are unlikely to work for around 134,000 or 0.3% of premises. In these hardest to reach areas, the potentially prohibitively high cost of rolling out full fibre broadband means that the Department is likely to need to use other technologies, such as satellite. 

At our last evidence session, in November 2020, the Department told us that it was assessing the value for money of alternative technologies for delivering the fastest speeds possible to hard-to-reach premises. However, a year later it is unable to offer any details or update on what new technologies are under consideration.

The Committee is asking that DCMS should set out how it will reach the remaining 15% left out of the 2025 target, as well as the hardest to reach 0.3%. This should include what progress it has made in developing and procuring new technologies. 

My take

Broadband rollouts - particularly to the hardest to reach areas - are not easy. However, DCMS has been working on this for years and years and its approach appears to be ‘let the market figure it out'. The fact that it hasn't actually signed any new gigabit infrastructure contracts of its own is very telling. But if the UK - particularly since its exit from the EU - wants to have a thriving digital economy, critical digital infrastructure is vitally important. COVID-19 has shown exactly how reliant the economy is on broadband to get work done and it deserves proper focus and investment. 

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