Saturday, 16 January 2021

“A litany of failures”: Public accounts committee blasts gigabit broadband rollout plans

by Harry Baldock, Total Telecom
Friday 08 January 21

The committee said that the lack of a clear strategy towards the national rollout would “compound and exacerbate” digital inequalities during the new UK lockdown

The public accounts committee (PAC), comprising a group of MPs that oversee public spending, have lambasted the national gigabit broadband rollout plans as a “litany of failures”, arguing that the government is allowing digital inequality to worsen at a time when connectivity is more important than ever.    With the UK headed into yet another lockdown, the ever-present threat of the digital divide is once again being thrown into stark relief. The PAC’s report, published on Friday…

The public accounts committee (PAC), comprising a group of MPs that oversee public spending, have lambasted the national gigabit broadband rollout plans as a “litany of failures”, arguing that the government is allowing digital inequality to worsen at a time when connectivity is more important than ever. 
 
With the UK headed into yet another lockdown, the ever-present threat of the digital divide is once again being thrown into stark relief. The PAC’s report, published on Friday, said that the UK would not reach its coverage targets with its existing strategy.
 
“With the grim announcement that the country and economy will be locked down for months, the government’s promises on digital connectivity are more important than ever,” explained Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee. “But due to a litany of planning and implementation failures [...] those promises are slipping farther and farther out of reach.”
 
In particular, the report highlighted the need for yet more focus on underserved, rural areas, which already have little choice when it comes to internet connectivity. The PAC report urged the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to devise a clear strategy, explaining how they intend to target these areas.
 
“We are increasingly concerned that those in rural areas may have to pay more and may reach gigabit broadband speeds late. Given the impact of Covid-19, the department must do more to protect those with limited access to the internet,” read the PAC’s report. “We remain unconvinced that if and when rural users finally do get gigabit broadband they will enjoy the same choice of service provider and the same protections as their urban counterparts.”
 
The government’s pledge to provide gigabit broadband to 100% of homes and businesses in the UK by 2025 has long been viewed with scepticism by the telecoms community, who argue that delivering quality connectivity to the hardest-to-reach places in the UK will be major challenge, requiring further investment and collaboration from the government. 
 
But instead of redoubling efforts, the government has instead chosen to lower its coverage targets to what it deems a more reasonable level, dropping the figure to 85% back in November. Similarly, of the £5 billion earmarked for investment towards their coverage goal, only a quarter is budgeted to be spent by 2024.
 
Yet, in spite of these apparent limitations in government strategy, the industry itself has been rolling out broadband at considerable speed over the last few years, with some suggesting that the target of 85% is not yet out of reach.
 
“In order to ensure targets are met and that those without sufficient connectivity, particularly in rural areas, have the speed and reliability they need, we need even greater collaboration between government and the broadband industry, to include the infrastructure players, the carriers and the service providers. Each of these has a role to play in making this once in a generation infrastructure programme a success,” said Paul Stobart, CEO of Zen Internet.
 
CityFibre, who recently pledged to create 10,000 jobs as part of their goal of providing broadband to eight million premises, were similarly optimistic. 
 
“The PAC is right that the revised 2025 target is both challenging and vital to meet but we believe that by working closely with Government and Ofcom it's achievable,” said Greg Mesch, CEO of CityFibre.
 
Currently, only a quarter of UK homes have access to gigabit broadband, meaning there is still a long way to go to hit these lofty government targets. However, with the right investment and strategic alignment, it is not yet entirely undeliverable. 
 
 
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