UK gov’t slammed for ‘litany’ of failures in full-fiber broadband rollout

The promise to ensure nationwide access to gigabit services by 2025 will likely be broken.

The UK government has been criticized for a "litany" of failures that could leave countless residents with slow Internet services for "many years to come."

The UK's Public Accounts Committee (PAC), responsible for monitoring and investigating government spending, said on Friday that a pledge made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2019 to "turbo-charge" the nation through a "broadband revolution" has been dogged by a "litany of failures" which makes such a prospect unlikely. 

Johnson promised that by 2025, UK residents would have access to full-fiber broadband services, many of which would offer gigabit speeds. To achieve this goal, £5 billion ($6.8bn) would be allocated and invested. 

In October 2020, the accounts committee called the goal "ludicrously unrealistic," and now, it seems, the pledge has been shown to be unachievable. 

The UK is back under lockdown and both children and teachers are relying on connectivity in remote learning programs. Our increased reliance on Internet services has also highlighted issues surrounding the 'digital divide' and there is a worry that children in underserved areas -- as well as those without a reliable connection at home -- may not have access to education through no fault of their own. 

On Friday, the committee released a report blaming the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) for failures in making any substantial progress toward the broadband pledge. 

The report claims that the DCMS has failed to make "meaningful progress" in tackling issues faced by operators in rolling out gigabit connectivity, and also slammed the government for making only 25% of the £5 billion fund readily available.

According to PAC, the original pledge has proven to be "unachievable," and while the government has revised its target to "at least 85%" coverage by 2025, more needs to be done to come anywhere close to this goal. 

In addition, the committee says that there is no clear plan for subsidizing broadband installations in the hardest to reach, rural and remote areas -- potentially leaving 20% of UK premises out of the plan. 

The committee recommends that the government creates and publishes a clear timeline for achievable milestones in rolling out improved broadband coverage, adding that barriers to implementation -- such as changes in planning regulations and business rates -- need to be identified and solutions found as a matter of urgency. 

In addition, MPs say that potential shortages of talent and skilled workers need to be addressed; suppliers for gigabit services need to be worked with more closely, and the government must set out its plan to improve targeting -- especially within rural areas. 

"The department is yet again failing to prioritize consumers in rural areas," the report says. "The DCMS says that it intends to take an 'outside-in' approach to the roll-out of gigabit-capable broadband, focussing on those areas that currently do not have access to superfast [broadband] so that they do not remain left behind. But the most difficult-to-reach premises are not neatly grouped together, and the department is not yet clear on how it will prioritize its interventions to ensure that they are served." 

Finally, the committee has urged the DCMS to tackle the potential problem of monopolies in underserved areas, and to explain how it will reduce the risk of consumers being overcharged. 

"For the foreseeable future, ever more of our lives is moving online, whether we like it or not," commented Meg Hillier MP, Chair of PAC. "[The] 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."

Speaking to ZDNet, Catherine Colloms, MD for Corporate Affairs at Openreach said it was always going to be an "ambitious" target, but given how critical broadband now is during the COVID-19 pandemic -- and likely beyond -- barriers to the rollout need to be addressed. 

"At Openreach, we've consistently championed the need for faster action on rural broadband upgrades, because we don't want communities left behind and we know it will underpin the UK's economic, social and environmental recovery," Colloms commented. "We're very keen to lean in and do our bit but, as the PAC report notes, there remain barriers preventing the industry from going faster -- like business rates and access to property and land -- so it's vital that these are addressed by government as a priority."

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