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MPs warn of UK connectivity target failure

December 22, 2020

By Colin Mann

The UK House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee is warning the Government that it risks failing to meet its revised-down target for gigabit-capable broadband in the face of considerable challenges to infrastructure roll-out.

Evidence to the ‘Broadband and the road to 5G inquiry’ found little confidence that nationwide gigabit-capable broadband by 2025 could be delivered and “no genuine belief” within the sector that it was achievable. Challenged on the target throughout the inquiry, Ministers reassured the Committee of the Government’s commitment to it, however, within weeks of these appearances before MPs, the Government abandoned its commitment to nationwide gigabit-capable broadband by 2025, aiming instead for 85 per cent coverage by that date.

The Committee’s Report says it would not be acceptable having abandoned one unrealistic target, for the Government to fail to meet a second less ambitious target through lack of effective planning or inadequate investment.

MPs also flag concerns that only 25 per cent of the Government’s £5 billion to support roll-out to the hardest-to-reach premises will be made available during this period.

The Report finds the Government’s target for majority 5G coverage by 2027 ‘equally ambitious’, given rulings banning the use of equipment by high-risk vendors. MPs warn that its roll-out risks repeating the legacy of mobile ‘not-spots’.

“The Government’s decision to abandon its 2025 gigabit-capable broadband target within weeks of Ministers reassuring us of their commitment to it was a belated recognition that it was unrealistic and unachievable, underlining concerns we’d heard from industry,” commented DCMS Committee Chair Julian Knight MP.

“Valuable time has been lost, making meeting even the revised-down target a major challenge. On 5G, the Government’s target to deliver to the majority of the population, rather than the majority of the country, risks repeating the same errors that led to mobile ‘not-spots’ with investors cherry-picking areas of high population and leaving people in remote rural areas without a hope.”

The inquiry examined Government targets, funding and legislative measures intended to enable industry to deliver next generation connectivity at a quicker pace.

Key Recommendations to Government:

  • The Government should outline how it settled on the new gigabit-capable broadband target of 85 per cent coverage by 2025 with a full assessment of how likely it considers it to be met and detailed plans on how it will be delivered
  • State its target date by which it expects the remaining 15 per cent of premises to be served with gigabit-capable broadband
  • Outline what the Spending Review and 85 per cent target mean for its ‘outside-in’ ambition and its strategy for delivering to those semi-urban areas unlikely to benefit from commercial roll-out
  • Outline how the remaining £3.8 billion (of the £5 billion) for delivering gigabit-capable broadband to the hardest-to-reach properties has been ringfenced and when it expects to make it available
  • Given the centrality of the principle of levelling-up to the Government and its National Infrastructure Strategy, the Committee recommends it continues to prioritise those with worst connectivity

Government abandoned targets

MPs express surprise at the Government’s decision to abandon its intention to deliver nationwide gigabit-capable broadband by 2025, announced in November’s Spending Review. The long-awaited National Infrastructure Strategy instead outlined that the Government was “working with industry to target a minimum of 85 per cent gigabit capable coverage by 2025”.

However, the Report raises doubts over whether the new revised-down target to deliver gigabit-capable broadband to 85 per cent of the country by 2025 is realistic. MPs express concern that the remaining 15 per cent of the country that will not receive gigabit-capable connections by 2025 are most likely to be rural areas and in the devolved nations.

Appearing before MPs in October, DCMS Secretary Oliver Dowden said the Department was “straining every sinew” to meet the target. The Digital Minister Matt Warman later told the Committee he was “absolutely confident” that the Government was doing everything it could to reach it. However, neither were willing to give a clear indication of how likely the target was to be met. The Report notes, Ministers should be ready to respond openly, in answering questions from members of a Select Committee, accepting that a target will not be met when they already possess sufficient information to know that it is not going to be achieved.

Evidence to the Committee highlighted major challenges in delivering UK-wide connectivity within the timescale set.

While welcoming the decision by Ministers to listen to those concerns, the Report questions the extent to which both the new target and its likely implications have been fully considered in consultation with industry.

Financial support for hardest-to-reach areas scaled back

The Report finds the decision to scale back the distribution of £5 billion funding for gigabit-capable broadband in the hardest-to-reach premises will undermine the ambition for better connectivity across the country. MPs are disappointed that around only 25 per cent of the funding committed to support the roll-out of gigabit-capable broadband to these premises will be made available by 2025.

Evidence taken before the funding cut was announced raised doubts about whether the total £5 billion sum would be enough to meet the Government’s aim of delivering gigabit broadband to the hardest to reach 20 per cent of premises.

5G target risks repeating mistakes of mobile ‘not-spots’

MPs raise concerns that the Government’s target to provide 5G to 35 million people by 2027 is based on delivery to the majority of the population, rather than the majority of the UK’s landmass. The focus on population numbers means the 5G roll-out risks following the same pattern experienced with previous mobile generations, leaving parts of the country with poorer mobile connectivity and so exacerbating the digital divide. The Report calls for the Government to do more to ensure rural areas do not get left behind. The Committee heard evidence that private investors had prioritised densely populated urban areas, where economies of scale were achievable and the cost of network roll-out could be reduced. O2 told MPs that “the challenge the industry is most likely to face will be a lack of return on investment in more remote and sparsely populated areas, where the cost and challenge of delivering connectivity is at its greatest and the numbers of customers are low”.

Legislation to ban the use of Huawei equipment is expected to result in a delay of two to three years of 5G roll-out with costs of up to £2 billion.

The Report notes:

  • Significant variations in coverage between residential and commercial properties, rural and urban areas, and the UK’s nations in accessing superfast broadband (30 Mbps or higher).
  • 9 per cent of the UK is a geographic ‘not-spot’, where a good 4G service is not available from any mobile operator with variations of 3 per cent of England and Northern Ireland, 11 per cent of Wales and 20 per cent of Scotland.
  • Approximately 16 million premises that could access existing superfast technology have not yet chosen to take it up, and those who have sometimes do not get the speeds they expect because of technical factors, such as their distance from the exchange or the positioning of equipment in the home.
  • Recognition that “many smaller or remote rural communities and businesses are still waiting for more basic levels of connectivity”.

The Internet Services Providers’ Association (ISPA UK) – the voice of the UK Internet industry to policy makers, the media and the public – said it was pleased to support the Committee inquiry and agrees with many of its findings.

“The Committee is right to point out that even getting to 85 per cent by 2025 remains a challenging target and that urgent action is needed to tackle the barriers that still stand in the way of the accelerated build-rates that Government envisages,” commented ISPA Chair Andrew Glover. “This includes comprehensive wayleave reform, short and long-term access to talent, clarity about businesses rates and clarity about how and when Government intends to make available 75 per cent of public funding that as of now remains un-allocated.

“Without action to address these challenges, even the 85 per cent target might be more fantasy than reality,” he concluded.


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