MPs criticise Government digital target failures

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The Public Accounts Committee of the UK House of Commons, in its Improving Broadband report, has identified a digital inequality, compounding the economic inequality “harshly” exposed by Covid-19, suggesting that a “litany” of failures from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) means business and homes in rural areas could be locked out of gigabit broadband for years to come.

When the Committee took oral evidence in Parliament from the DCMS on November 9th 2020, it appeared “clear that Government’s 2019 election pledge to deliver nationwide gigabit broadband connectivity by 2025 was unachievable” – and since then the government has accepted that and dropped the target.

Alongside the November 2020 Spending Review on 25 November the government published a revised target of “at least 85%” coverage by 2025 – but it has committed less than a quarter of the £5 billion funding needed to support roll-out to the hardest to reach 20 per cent of premises.

Based on DCMS’s performance to date, including:

  • failure to make meaningful progress to tackle the barriers faced by operators in maximising gigabit connectivity by 2025,
  • failure to demonstrate it has learnt lessons from the superfast programme for the detailed design of the gigabit programme,
  • failure to demonstrate how its centralised procurement model will retain the people, skills and knowledge in local authorities that were critical to success in the superfast programme,
  • failure to give any reassurance that local authorities will get additional funding to retain their expert resources at a time when local government finances are under severe pressure from the pandemic,
  • failure to make any meaningful progress in delivering the policy and legislative changes deemed essential by industry to achieve rapid roll-out,
  • failure “yet again” to prioritise consumers in rural areas

the Committee is very concerned the reduced target will still be “challenging” and that the hardest to reach premises will be struggling with slow broadband for many years to come.

DCMS is still developing the £5 billion programme to subsidise roll-out to the hardest to reach 20 per cent of the UK’s 31 million premises, and could not tell the Committee when it intends to deliver major milestones, such as the letting of contracts.

The Committee is “increasingly concerned that those in rural areas may have to pay more, and may reach gigabit broadband speeds late” and is not convinced 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”.

“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,” stated  Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. “But due to a litany of planning and implementation failures at DCMS, those promises are slipping farther and farther out of reach – even worse news for the “rural excluded” who face years trying to recover with substandard Internet connectivity.”

“For the foreseeable future, ever more of our lives is moving online, whether we like it or not. Government cannot allow digital inequality to continue to compound and exacerbate the economic inequality that has been so harshly exposed in the covid-19 pandemic. It needs to be clear about timelines in each area so that businesses and individuals can plan for their digital future,” she concluded.

According to altnet trade body INCA, the report highlights the challenges involved in meeting the Government’s gigabit broadband ambitions. Replacing the copper phone network with the full fibre and high-speed wireless infrastructure of the future is a big project requiring co-ordination between government, industry, local authorities and other stakeholders.

The fast-growing independent sector of digital infrastructure providers is bringing in substantial new investment, focused on meeting the needs of communities across the UK, urban and rural. INCA says it is committed to working with national and local government to help remove barriers to investment, support the development of funding programmes and highlight innovative new approaches that can speed up deployment and adoption. Critically industry needs certainty over public policy and regulatory conditions.

Malcolm Corbett, INCA’s CEO said, “The altnets have proved themselves over the past few years as a highly capable network of organisations tackling both large-scale city projects and sparsely populated rural areas. Government and Ofcom increasingly understand the value of the independent sector, and with more effective support the altnets can move even faster to help meet the scale of the challenge.”

“We share the PAC’s concerns about rural areas being left behind, and that’s why we are working closely with BDUK and Ofcom to ensure that the Government’s revised ‘Outside In’ strategy has the best chance of success,” he confirmed.

INCA’s most recent survey undertaken with Point Topic showed that the independent sector attracted more than £1.7 billion of additional investment during 2019 and 2020, bringing total anticipated investment in the sector is to more than £8 billion by 2025. This is in addition to investment by BT in Openreach, and Virgin Media.

 


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