The telecoms sector has “no genuine belief” the government will be able to meet its broadband targets, a parliamentary inquiry has found, despite those targets having been cut just weeks ago.
In its national infrastructure strategy, published in late November, the government announced plans to connect 85% of the country with ultrafast gigabit broadband, which usually requires a fibre-to-the-home connection, by 2025.
That target was a downgrade from a previous goal, affirmed as recently as October, to connect 100% of the country by that date. “There is no genuine belief that it is achievable,” one witness told the DMCS select committee about the nationwide goal.
But despite the reduced ambitions, the committee has warned that the government still risks missing the new target unless it improves management of the infrastructure plan.
“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,” the committee writes in the final report from its inquiry into the UK’s broadband infrastructure.
“The government should outline … how it settled on the new gigabit-capable broadband target of 85% coverage by 2025, a full assessment of how likely it considers it to be met, and the detail of how it plans to deliver it,” the report adds.
The committee was also doubtful that the government’s belated shift to a “technology-neutral” approach would help achieve the target.
Whereas the initial focus had been on securing full-fibre connections, running fibre-optic cables to the doorstep of every home in the UK, the new strategy takes into account other modes of delivering ultrafast broadband, including the latest technology underpinning Virgin Media’s cable TV network, and the fastest varieties of 5G.
While the shift makes sense, the committee reported, “the government must not let it come with a trade-off in performance or longevity: any technologies used to deliver gigabit connectivity must be future-proof.
“Moreover, fibre will be a significant component of other gigabit-capable technologies, such as 5G, and therefore the challenges of rolling out a truly nationwide full-fibre network must not be underestimated.”
The committee also warned that the funding from the government, a £5bn pledge to bring broadband to the hardest to reach fifth of the country, was not enough.
“It is difficult to see how £5bn will be enough to meet the government’s aim [and] it is therefore disappointing that over the next four years, the government will make available only 25% of the £5bn it had committed,” the report finds.
On Tuesday, the Government set out how it intended to spend that tranche of funding, releasing a procurement strategy that prioritised upgrades to homes that do not yet have access to super-fast broadband.
“Today we’ve set out our bold programme of national infrastructure projects to future-proof the UK’s internet networks so we can build back better from coronavirus and create new jobs and economic opportunities,” said Matt Warman, the minister for digital infrastructure. “We will begin these procurements rapidly so broadband providers big and small can move quickly to get the job done and level up communities with this much faster, next generation broadband.”