To the surprise of absolutely nobody, the UK has no chance of fulfilling Boris Johnson’s pledge to offer gigabit broadband across the UK by 2025, the country’s spending watchdog has concluded.
In June 2019, Johnson said that Theresa May’s target of 2033 was ‘laughably unambitious’, and later made it a manifesto pledge to roll out full fibre across the UK by 2025.
Since then, though, the promise has been watered down, with a new target of 85 per cent gigabit connectivity by 2025 announced by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) late last year.
However, in a report released this morning, the Public Accounts Committee concludes that even this is likely to be unachievable, especially given the inadequate budget allocated for the work so far.
“[The government] has committed less than a quarter of the £5 billion funding needed to support roll-out to the hardest to reach 20 per cent of premises,” the PAC concludes.
The report also cites a failure to learn lessons from previous failed initiatives, a suspect centralized procurement model, a failure to allocate funds locally and a failure to introduce necessary policy changes.
“With the grim announcement that the country and economy will be locked down for months, the Government’s promises on digital connectivity are more important than ever,” says Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee.
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“But due to a litany of planning and implementation failures at DCMS, those promises are slipping farther and farther out of reach – even worse news for the ‘rural excluded’ who face years trying to recover with substandard internet connectivity.”
Currently, according to the DCMS, the number of households with gigabit broadband has increased from one in ten in 2019 to one in three today. However, it was apparently unable to tell the committee when it might hit various milestones, such as the letting of contracts.
The PAC says it’s concerned that rural communities might be left behind.
The report comes as the government faces another broadband headache: the provision of online teaching for pupils whose schools are closed due to Covid.
The government has ordered schools to stay open for vulnerable children, the children of key workers – and, for the first time, children who don’t have a suitable device or broadband at home. This has led to many ‘closed’ schools hosting very large numbers of pupils, while still being required to provide online learning.
Despite this, it’s been widely reported that education minister Gavin Williamson turned down an offer from BT to provide free or cheap broadband to struggling families.