2025 broadband target unlikely for rural locations

A new report by the National Audit Office has found that the 2025 target for faster gigabit coverage nationwide will be particularly difficult to achieve for the hardest to reach premises.

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 that were not commercially viable for providers to reach. However, now, there is a risk that those in the most rural and remote locations will be left further behind.

The Superfast Programme helped the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to achieve its target of 95 per cent superfast broadband coverage by 2017 broadly on time. The Superfast Programme has provided £1.9 billion of public subsidy to support the delivery of faster broadband to 5.3 million premises that are not profitable for the telecoms industry to reach. Today, 95 per cent of UK premises have access to Ofcom’s recommended superfast download speed of 30 megabits per second, of which, 17 per cent (5.1 million premises) were reached through the Superfast Programme.

However, 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 meant premises in rural or remote areas were left behind. Rural coverage of superfast broadband is now at 80 per cent, compared to 97 per cent in urban areas, and is the lowest in rural Northern Ireland, at just 66 per cent.

Additionally, only 57 per cent of UK premises that have access to superfast broadband are signed up to superfast packages as they may be unaware that faster services are available, may find their existing service sufficient, or consider faster services too expensive.

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 per cent of premises by 2025, and nationwide by 2033. It later committed to accelerating this target and achieving nationwide coverage by 2025. At present only 27 per cent of UK premises are covered by gigabit-capable infrastructure, whilst 14 per cent can access full-fibre, which is one of the lowest rates in Europe.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “The Superfast Programme extended the nation’s broadband connectivity and helped people to work and study from home and stay connected during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the UK has a broadband network that does not reach everyone and is not fully future proof. Less than a decade after launching the Superfast Programme the government has identified the need to upgrade the broadband network again.

“To deliver the government’s vision of achieving nationwide gigabit connectivity, the Department must manage the tension between meeting a challenging timeline and serving those in greatest need. Failure to do so risks leaving the hardest to reach areas even further behind and widening the urban-rural divide.”

Mark Hawhthorne, Digital Connectivity spokesperson for the Local Government Association, said: “Councils have a vital role to play helping to improve local communities’ connectivity. During the Covid-19 pandemic, more and more communities are reliant on having a fast and reliable broadband connection to support home working, continued education and to keep friends and family in touch.

“To help the government reach its 2025 target, councils need more funding to support telecommunication providers to deliver improvements on the ground. The government should use the upcoming Spending Review as an opportunity to empower councils to place a local digital champion in every local area to help facilitate delivery and support providers to install gigabit-capable broadband as quickly as possible. A local digital champion could then be a central contact point for government and broadband providers to help problem solve deployment issues in the local area.”