Government commits to rural connectivity
The first regional Project Gigabit contract, worth £108 million, has been awarded to Fibrus to connect 60,000 premises in Cumbria. This announcement, combined with a trial of satellite connectivity for very hard to reach areas, shows Government commitment to improving digital connectivity and closing the digital divide.
£108 million has been awarded to Fibrus to provide gigabit-capable broadband to Cumbria in the first regional Project Gigabit contract.
Cumbria, as found by techUK’s 2022 Local Digital Capital Index, does not just have the lowest rate of gigabit-capable broadband connectivity in the entire UK, but one of the UK's lowest ratings for digital skills. Fibrus’ commitment to create 90 new apprenticeships and spend £50,000 on a training centre at Penrith, alongside the rollout of gigabit-capable broadband, represents a multi-faceted levelling up of the region’s digital economy, and will aid in solving the communications infrastructure skill shortage identified by techUK in the medium term.
The awarding of the contract to Fibrus, a Belfast-based firm with 190,000 premises connected across Northern Ireland and Great Britain, will further level up communications providers outside the southeast of England, in line with the government’s levelling up and telecoms diversification strategies.
The regional contract for Cumbria was announced alongside The Autumn Update of the Project Gigabit Delivery Plan, which revealed that 72% of premises are now able to access gigabit capable broadband, from 6% in early 2019.
The best connected nation of the UK is Northern Ireland, but all nations face significant urban and rural connectivity disparities. Wales, South-West England and Scotland are the three least well-connected nations and regions.
Aside from the contract for Cumbria, two contracts worth £7.3 million and £6.6 million for North Northumberland and Teeside have been awarded. Contracts for regions such as Cornwall and Cambridgeshire are set to be awarded in January 2023.
As of yet, BDUK have no dates for contracts for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Projects such as the Scottish government’s R100 programme and the Welsh government’s Superfast Cymru programme are providing connectivity though, with the former connecting 12,000 premises already and the latter 37,000 by March 2023.
However, with contracts for Lancashire, Surrey and Oxfordshire deferred and most projects in the immediate future targeted at Southern England, there are signs that the need for increased rollout speed highlighted by the FTIR: Fit to Deliver for 5G and full fibre four years on? report has yet to be reflected in Project Gigabit’s contract awards. With spending cuts pencilled in for 2025 by the Autumn Statement, improving the speed of rollout has never been more imperative.
The other major news for Project Gigabit is the raising of voucher values redeemable by businesses and individuals from £3,500 and £1,500 to £4,500 each. While most of Project Gigabit’s work is the Gigabit Infrastructure Subsidy, this will increase rollout to hard to reach areas and allow the market to lead expansion.
Satellite broadband trials
Project Gigabit is designed to reach rural areas unlikely to benefit from commercial gigabit-capable broadband rollout. 0.3% of premises though count as ‘very hard to reach areas’ and are too remote for Project Gigabit to cover.
Recently announced satellite broadband trials, following the USA, Canada and Australia, will provide information on the viability of satellite broadband for these areas. Starlink was selected due to the present availability of the technology, allowing the trial to go ahead sooner, with OneWeb and other providers being contacted for future trials.
The trial has been made possible by the proliferation of low Earth orbit satellite constellations. These constellations offer additional connectivity speeds over older satellite tech, and were singled out in the original DCMS consultation on connectivity to very hard to reach areas.
The trial will focus on:
- Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire
- Wasdale Head in the Lake District
- Snowdonia National Park in Wales, which will see Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue Organisation and Ty Cornel outdoor activity centre connected.
These trials will establish the utility of broadband via satellite both for life-saving services and educational purposes. The next stage in trials is likely to be islands off Great Britain, which will provide more useful information on providing connectivity to entire communities.
Connection speeds are advertised at 100 Mbps, but may be more like 85 Mbps. According to ISPreview though, this is faster than these sites currently receive.
Improving the UK’s digital economy is a key priority for the UK Government, with the UK technology sector holding the potential to contribute £41.5 billion to the economy. The continued funding for Project Gigabit and exploration of satellite connectivity for the remotest areas shows that this is no fairweather commitment, but rightly treated as essential to the prosperity of the UK and its people. However, faster Project Gigabit rollouts have the potential to further increase the benefits derived from the digital economy.