Gigabit broadband and 5G: The challenging road to 2025 and beyond
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has published its findings following the ‘Broadband and road to 5G’ inquiry, concluding that the Government and Ofcom need to take “bolder, faster action” to address the causes of costs and delays to the infrastructure roll-out.
The Committee notes the changing timescales and technological scope of the Government’s targets for gigabit connectivity—from full fibre to all by 2033, to the recent technology-agnostic aim of nationwide gigabit-capable broadband by 2025—reflecting that the targets would be a challenge. However, it was the November announcement that the Government is “working with industry to target a minimum of 85% gigabit capable coverage by 2025 but will seek to accelerate roll-out further to get as close to 100% as possible” that the Committee sees as a reflection of its findings that there was little confidence that nationwide gigabit-capable broadband by 2025 could be delivered and “no genuine belief” within the sector that it was achievable.
techUK shares the Committee’s disappointment that the target has been revised down to 85%, though it certainly does appear achievable: industry has kept up its pace of deployment throughout 2020, despite the unprecedented challenges facing the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smoothing the path for gigabit rollout
However, the Committee is right to point to the policy levers and legislative measures Government has yet to fully deliver on. While public investment and state subsidies are welcome, there are other significant barriers yet to overcome. For the gigabit programme, the design, procurement processes and prioritisation of areas and consumers most in need are all identified by the Committee as key to delivering gigabit connectivity at pace. The technology-neutral approach is questioned, with calls for the Government to take a more joined-up approach to fixed and mobile telecoms policy, especially when it comes to interventions for the hardest-to-reach properties. Finally, the Committee calls for the right competitive and regulatory environment: incentivisation, new build legislation, ensuring the labour supply, and reforms to the business rates regime.
5G deployment in the UK
The report notes that the Government’s targets for 5G have changed less than those for gigabit-capable broadband. However, aiming for the majority of the UK population covered by 5G by 2027 is less detailed, with fewer plans on issues such as planning and local-level coordination. Similarly, as fibre is a significant component of the gigabit-capable speeds of 5G, the challenge of rolling out the next generation of mobile connectivity “must not be underestimated”.
The Committee calls on the Government to outline how it settled on the new target of 85% by 2025, as well as detailed plans on how it will deliver and what the strategy is for the remaining 15% of premises. There is also a call to outline how the remaining £3.8 billion has been ringfenced and when Government expects to make it available for delivering gigabit-capable broadband, what the Spending Review and 85% target mean for its ‘outside-in’ ambition and its strategy for delivering to those semi-urban areas unlikely to benefit from commercial roll-out.
To that end...
Coinciding with the publication of the DCMS Select Committee’s report, the Government has set out its next steps in its £5 billion strategy to deliver gigabit-capable broadband to the UK.
A consultation has launched on the draft procurement strategy for the UK Gigabit Programme, detailing a broad range of interventions to deliver gigabit broadband: publicly funded contracts, broadband vouchers and other solutions across all nations of the UK.
The consultation anticipates up to 26 large regions of England that are most likely to attract commercial investment but require subsidy to reach the hardest 40,000 to 80,000 premises in each area. The government expects larger broadband suppliers, including challengers to incumbents, to bid for these areas and prioritise people with slow speeds. In addition there will be smaller contracts to connect around 1,000 to 8,000 premises, to stimulate competition across a wider range of small, medium-sized and rural specialist telecoms providers and help them to scale up.
In Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, the R100, Project Stratum and Superfast Cymru projects respectively are rolling out large scale superfast contracts which will deliver gigabit connections over the coming years. The Government is also seeking industry views on how to extend its successful Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme from April 2021, as well as views on the strategy to define small and large procurement boundaries, to ensure that priority areas are served.
The document Planning for Gigabit Delivery in 2021 is available on gov.uk here.