In a scathing criticism of the ability of the UK government, the UK’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has slammed the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) for a mass of general failures in its plans to roll out gigabit-capable broadband by 2025, further warning of digital inequality compounding the economic inequality “harshly” exposed by Covid-19.
Just after the Conservatives’ General Election victory in December 2019, the government outlined plans to make good on prime minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to work towards “delivering full-fibre [broadband] to every home in the land” by 2025, and then chancellor Sajid Javid committed £5bn of public funding to “support the roll-out of full-fibre, 5G and other gigabit-capable networks to the hardest-to-reach 20% of the country.”
However, by November 2020, the UK government began backtracking on its ambitious targets. When announcing his Spending Review in late November 2020, chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed that the 2025 target for roll-out had been downgraded to 85% coverage by 2025 and the original commitment to provide £5bn of public funding for hard-to-reach areas had been reduced. This followed the PAC taking oral evidence in Parliament on 9 November 2020 from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), the government department responsible for the roll-out, in order to examine how the public purse was being exercised.
The PAC said that it appeared “clear that government’s 2019 election pledge to deliver nationwide gigabit broadband connectivity by 2025 was unachievable”, noting the UK government has committed less than a quarter of the £5bn funding needed to support roll-out to the hardest-to-reach 20% of premises. Since then the government has accepted that and dropped the target.
And as it published its full report examining the DCMS’ performance to date, the PAC slammed the department for a multitude of failing. This included failure to make meaningful progress to tackle the barriers faced by operators in maximising gigabit connectivity by 2025; failure to demonstrate it has learnt lessons from the superfast programme for the detailed design of the gigabit programme; failure to demonstrate how its centralised procurement model will retain the people, skills and knowledge in local authorities that were critical to success in the superfast programme; failure to give any reassurance that local authorities will get additional funding to retain their expert resources at a time when local government finances are under severe pressure from the pandemic; failure to make any meaningful progress in delivering the policy and legislative changes deemed essential by industry to achieve rapid roll-out.
Moreover, the PAC report highlighted repeated failure on behalf of the DCMA to prioritise consumers in rural areas.
The PAC was “increasingly concerned that those in rural areas may have to pay more, and may reach gigabit broadband speeds late” and is not convinced that “if and when rural users finally do get gigabit broadband, they will enjoy the same choice of service provider and the same protections as their urban counterparts”.
And in addition to the noting the historic failure to date, the PAC expressed alarm that even the reduced target would still be “challenging” and that the hardest-to-reach premises will be struggling with slow broadband for many years to come.
The report revealed that DCMS was still developing the £5 billion programme to subsidise roll-out to the hardest to reach 20% of the UK’s 31 million premises, and could not tell the Committee when it intends to deliver major milestones, such as the letting of contracts.
“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”, said PAC chair Meg Hillier.
“For the foreseeable future, ever more of our lives is moving online, whether we like it or not,” she said. “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.”
The PAC report came just weeks after DCMS committee members declared the 85% target as being unrealistic. In the DCMS Committee report on broadband and the road to 5G, MPs considered evidence on how realistic the government’s ambition was, what would be needed to achieve it, and what the government’s target would mean for businesses and consumers.
It warned that it was clear the government and Ofcom needed to take bolder, faster action to address the causes of costs and delays to the infrastructure roll-out.
It advised the DCMS to finalise and launch the contracts for delivering infrastructure to hard-to-reach properties as soon as possible and, as it finalised its regulation of the wholesale fixed telecoms market, it called on the regulator to address concerns about competition and the market dominance of BT broadband provision division Openreach.