Boris Johnson’s election promise to connect the entire country to cutting-edge broadband speeds by 2025 has been dubbed “ludicrously unrealistic” after the parliament’s spending watchdog warned that rural internet users risk being left behind by the slow pace of progress.
The comments from Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, followed a National Audit Office report that said the 2025 target was “challenging” and warned that those rural areas risk being further left behind.
The government launched a £5bn plan to subsidise the upgrade of telecoms networks to full fibre from older copper networks in rural areas in September 2019. The funds were designed to connect the final 20 per cent of the country but little progress has been made in delivering on the plan, according to senior industry executives.
In a report to be published on Friday, the NAO said only 27 per cent of households can connect to” gigabit speed’ broadband, and only 14 per cent to full-fibre lines, which is one of the lowest levels in Europe.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “To deliver the government’s vision of achieving nationwide gigabit connectivity, the Department (for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) must manage the tension between meeting a challenging timeline and serving those in greatest need. Failure to do so risks leaving the hardest to reach areas even further behind and widening the urban-rural divide.”
Ms Hillier, whose committee scrutinises whether taxpayers are getting value for money, said the government had not done enough to ensure rural areas are keeping up.
“The new promise that gigabit broadband will be available almost everywhere by 2025 is ludicrously unrealistic. It risks deepening the digital divide by encouraging providers to focus on picking the low-hanging fruit once again,” she said.
£12bn Amount BT has committed to upgrading its network
Openreach, BT’s engineering arm, is increasing the pace of its full fibre rollout while Virgin Media is investing in more fibre. Smaller “altnets” such as Community Fibre and Zzoomm have raised hundreds of millions of pounds to expand full-fibre networks in pockets of the country.
However, industry executives have warned that rural areas are at risk of missing out unless the government makes rapid progress in rethinking its £5bn plan.
A DCMS spokesman said 96 per cent of homes had access to “superfast” broadband. “We are now driving the rollout of even faster gigabit broadband . . . We are not only helping industry speed up its work by removing the barriers to quicker deployment but also investing £5bn so the hardest-to-reach areas are not left behind.”
BT has committed £12bn to its network upgrade but has warned that the government could miss the 2025 target by eight years. Only 70 per cent of the country will to be upgraded on time, it said. It has called for policy changes to lower the cost of deploying fibre by lowering business rates and reforming planning laws to speed up the process.
Meanwhile, Ofcom has opened an investigation into BT for potentially quoting excessive amounts to connect people in very remote areas.
The company has an obligation to connect homes to a superfast connection if the cost is below £3,400 but some residents in very rural areas have been quoted sums costing more than the value of their homes for the connection. The regulator said it was concerned BT may not be complying with regulatory conditions when providing those quotes.
Matt Warman, the DCMS minister for broadband, highlighted a number of cases in parliament last week including the Scottish island of Iona that had been quoted more than £1m for a connection.
A BT spokeswoman said the company “strongly disagreed” with Ofcom’s assessment but admitted a new approach, potentially utilising the OneWeb satellite the government has backed, was needed.