The government’s ambition to “level up” the nation by providing next-generation fibre broadband to every home by 2025 is likely to be missed, unless issues including pricing and concrete plans on reaching remote towns and villages are addressed, according to a new report.
Addressing the UK’s status as a global laggard in rolling out gigabit speed broadband was a key promise of Boris Johnson’s election manifesto. The huge demand for reliable, high-speed internet connections as millions moved to home working during the coronavirus pandemic has added further impetus to hit that target. Only 14% of UK homes have access to full-fibre broadband, compared with up to 80% in many developed countries.
A new report from the Social Market Foundation thinktank has warned that the 2025 target will be missed without swift action from government. This includes clear plans on how its £5bn fund will ensure hard to reach places do not get left behind.
“Delivering the rollout of full-fibre broadband fairly and quickly is hugely important for the UK economy, and all the more so because of pandemic restrictions that have left so many of us working and socialising online,” said Scott Corfe, research director at SMF. “The 2025 target is extremely ambitious and the UK still has a mountain to climb to reach it. Getting there will require some radical changes.”
The report says the government should commit to purchasing full-fibre broadband for public sector buildings such as hospitals and schools, to create demand in regions that commercial companies find uneconomical to build new networks.
The report also raises concerns over the impact of telecoms regulator Ofcom allowing BT-owned Openreach, which owns and runs most of the UK’s broadband network, to raise the wholesale prices it charges companies who then sell broadband packages to consumers. There are fears the ability to raise wholesale prices, which come in from next April, will be passed on to consumers’ broadband bills and make them less likely to shift to the new technology.
“We welcome the government’s ambition for gigabit connectivity for everybody by 2025, but this is in serious danger of being missed without swift action,” said Tristia Harrison, the chief executive at telecoms company TalkTalk. “Investment into Britain’s full-fibre rollout is critical both to help the country to build back better and also to support the government’s levelling up agenda. However, people cannot be forced to pay higher prices just to increase the profits for builders.”
Openreach, which has pledged £12bn to rollout full-fibre broadband to 20m homes by the end of the decade, has argued Ofcom’s decision is fair as it has to be able to make a fair rate of return on its considerable investment.