Today’s report from the National Audit Office (NAO) finds that the Superfast Broadband Programme helped the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (the Department) to extend the UK’s superfast broadband coverage, although many people still experience poor broadband. The government has set a challenging timeline for rolling out faster gigabit coverage nationwide by 2025, which will be particularly difficult to achieve for the hardest to reach premises and there is a risk that those in the most rural and remote locations will be left further behind.
In 2010, the government announced its aim for the UK to have the best superfast broadband network in Europe and set up the Superfast Programme to subsidise broadband roll out to areas that were not commercially viable for providers to reach.
Today’s report finds that along with the commercial roll out, the Superfast Programme helped the Department to achieve its target of 95% superfast broadband coverage by 2017 broadly on time. The Superfast Programme has provided £1.9 billion of public subsidy to support the delivery of faster broadband to 5.3 million premises that are not profitable for the telecoms industry to reach.Today, 95% of UK premises have access to Ofcom’s recommended superfast download speed of 30 megabits per second, of which, 17% (5.1 million premises) were reached through the Superfast Programme.1
Despite wide coverage, many people in the UK still experience poor broadband. Suppliers to the Superfast Programme were encouraged to prioritise roll out to the easiest to reach premises, which meant premises in rural or remote areas were left behind.Rural coverage of superfast broadband is now at 80%, compared to 97% in urban areas, and is the lowest in rural Northern Ireland, at just 66%. Only 57% of UK premises that have access to superfast broadband are signed up to superfast packages as they may be unaware that faster services are available, may find their existing service sufficient, or consider faster services too expensive. Consumers may also not experience their advertised broadband speeds for several reasons including factors in the home.2
The existing broadband infrastructure has beenput to the test in the COVID-19 pandemic. Ofcom considers the existing infrastructure to have held up well, although some stakeholders representing areas with large rural populations told the NAO that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the rural-urban divide.
So far, the Department has prioritised increasing broadband coverage over speed. While superfast broadband is fast enough for most household use today, internet use is rising by 40% each year driven largely by video streaming and the Department is now focused on ensuring that the UK has a broadband network that will meet future demand. In 2018, to meet future demands of consumers and businesses, the government announced a new policy for the UK’s telecoms industry to provide infrastructure capable of faster gigabit speeds to 50% of premises by 2025, and nationwide by 2033. It later committed to accelerating this target and achieving nationwide coverage by 2025. It is still finalising its plans for its £5 billion Future Programme supporting delivery to the hardest to reach 20% of premises and has much work still to do and little time to do it. At present only 27% of UK premises are covered by gigabit-capable infrastructure.14% can access full-fibre, which is one of the lowest rates in Europe.
The government has set a challenging timeline in promising nationwide gigabit coverage by 2025 and the Department is now finalising its plans for what will be delivered by when. Rolling out the necessary infrastructure requires the telecommunications industry to deliver connectivity to approximately 31 million premises and lay around half a million kilometres of cable. The Department estimates that this would require a four-fold increase in building rates, which will be difficult to achieve in the hardest to reach areas. The Department told the NAO that the final 1% of premises could be too expensive to include in the Future Programme and is exploring alternative solutions to gigabit broadband.
The NAO recommends that the Department presents a detailed plan and schedule for the Future Programme that sets out how it will meet the proposed deadline and is transparent about reporting on the plan. In addition, it should set out whether the Future Programme will prioritise the hardest to reach premises first.