Counties could become ‘poor relation’ in broadband rollout

MPs have warned that rural shires could be the ‘poor relation’ to cities in the government’s gigabit rollout, with just one in five businesses and homes in county areas having access to gigabit broadband speeds.

The findings come in a new report from the County All-Party Parliamentary Group, which explores the challenges in rural connectivity. It analyses the rollout of the government’s flagship gigabit broadband scheme so far which aims to have 85 per cent of the UK accessing gigabit speeds by 2025. Earlier this month, the Prime Minister said that the government was on track to roll out gigabit to 68 per cent of the country by the end of 2021.

However the County Councils Network analysis shows that just 21 per cent of premises in county areas have access to gigabit broadband –  2.4 million out of a total of 11.7 million, based on the latest Ofcom data. Those areas are lagging far behind London, which has 77 per cent gigabit coverage, and large towns and cities in the North and the West Midlands, which have on average 51 per cent coverage.

In total, 10 counties have got less than 15 per cent gigabit coverage – Cumbria, Dorset, Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, North Yorkshire, Northumberland, Shropshire, Somerset, and Surrey. MPs say that there is a real risk that those county areas end up the ‘poor relation’ to the urban areas and cities for gigabit speeds, as they were for years with superfast speeds.

County MPs fear that the government’s downscaling of its original 100 per cent gigabit reach target to 85 per cent of the UK’s properties could mean counties are de-prioritised with ministers instead focusing on the places easiest to rollout gigabit broadband to hit their 2025 target, putting county areas at a long-term disadvantage.

Peter Aldous, chairman of the County All-Party Parliamentary Group, said: “Like heating and water, an internet connection has increasingly become a necessary utility for households, with the pandemic making digital an even more vital part of our everyday lives. In committing to giving 85 per cent of the country access to gigabit speeds by 2025, the government recognises this and has made broadband one of its flagship policies.

“Whilst progress in connectivity has been rapid since 2019, much of this has been focused on London and the major cities so far, and there is a real risk that county areas are once again the poor relation in internet speeds unless the government urgently prioritises county areas.

“If the government’s levelling-up and economic recovery efforts are to be successful, providing fast and reliable broadband must be part of the equation. It is vital that this investment reaches left-behind county areas, and local county authorities stand ready to work with government on the rollout.”

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