MPs say ‘litany of failures’ leaves citizens facing many years of slow broadband

Public Accounts Committee criticises DCMS and points to need for more funding and legislative changes
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By Sam Trendall

12 Jan 2021

UK consumers are likely to be “struggling with slow broadband for many years to come” after the government has thus far failed deliver on meeting its election promises.

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has published a report examining progress towards meeting the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto pledge of ensuring universal gigabit-capable broadband by 2025; this marked a significant acceleration on the previous government's target of achieving this goal by 2033.

In November, evidence provided by officials from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport led the committee to conclude that the new target was “unachievable” – something which the government itself has now accepted. Its revised ambition, set out alongside the recent Spending Review, is to deliver gigabit connectivity for no less than 85% of the country by 2025. The current figure is 27%.

The PAC says ensuring this programme delivers to the hardest-to-reach 20% of the UK will require a government subsidy of £5bn – less than a quarter of which was provided by the review, which committed just £1.2bn.

On top of this lack of funding, DCMS has also made no “meaningful progress” on making the requisite alterations to policy and law, according to MPs.

“It has yet to secure the legislative and policy changes that industry deems necessary to address major barriers to delivering gigabit infrastructure at pace,” the committee said.

“Responsibility for addressing many of these barriers, including changes to planning regulations, business rates treatment of fibre and requirements for new build properties, are spread across other parts of government and we got no assurance that they are being addressed urgently. Suppliers believe that legislation recently introduced to enable easier access to properties while welcome addresses only part of the problem. The department is not clear about the potential for delay or for cost escalation if these barriers are not addressed before suppliers start work. It is also vague on the potential costs and delays from removing telecommunications equipment supplied by Huawei.”

To address these problems, MPs recommend that DCMS provides details of its intended timeline for meeting the new 85% target, including when major milestones will be achieved. They also urged the publication of yearly progress updates.

PAC members also recommended that officials should “identify which risks and barriers have the greatest potential to add delay and cost to the programme and provide a clear plan for how and when they will be addressed”.

The department has also been asked to provide a plan for ensuring that the local government sector retains the necessary “knowledge, skills and delivery expertise” to support the rollout. 

Perhaps the most damning finding of the report is that the current programme “is yet again failing to prioritise consumers in rural areas”, many of whom may be left with a lack of choice of gigabit broadband providers – if they are served by any at all.

MPs recommended that the DCMS “should set out how it will establish which properties do not yet have superfast broadband, how reliable the data it will use to identify them is, and when they can expect to receive gigabit-capable broadband”.

DCMS and regulator Ofcom should also work with suppliers and telecoms industry groups to try and ensure consumer choice and fair pricing, and avoid the possibility of one supplier having a monopoly in a particular geographical area.

PAC chair Meg Hillier said: “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. 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.” 

She added: “For the foreseeable future, ever more of our lives is moving online, whether we like it or not. Government cannot allow digital inequality to continue to compound and exacerbate the economic inequality that has been so harshly exposed in the Covid-19 pandemic. It needs to be clear about timelines in each area so that businesses and individuals can plan for their digital future.”

Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this story first appeared

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