The new spending review from UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak has scaled back plans to provide every home in the country with gigabit-speed broadband.
An updated version of the UK Gigabit Programme was laid out in the newly published National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS), forming part of a larger £100-billion investment in infrastructure.
Originally, the plan aimed to provide 100% coverage by 2025 – that has now been reduced to a minimum of 85%.
The budget for the rollout remains the same at £5 billion, though the portion of that allocated for 2021 is lower. In addition, only £1.2 billion has been allocated until 2024, with the remaining £3.8 billion now stretched out over the programme’s longer lifespan.
“The total level of investment required to upgrade the nation’s broadband networks to be gigabit-capable speeds is in the region of £30 billion; the vast majority of this is expected to come from the private sector,” the NIS stated.
According to the report, the private sector will deliver around 80% of the UK’s gigabit-capable broadband. The UK Gigabit Programme is aimed at providing subsidies to connect the remaining 20% of premises that are expected to be uncommercial.
“The government is working with industry to target a minimum of 85% gigabit-capable coverage by 2025 but will seek to accelerate roll-out further to get as close to 100% as possible. The government will continue to implement an ambitious programme of work to remove barriers to broadband deployment and maximise coverage in the hardest to reach areas of the country,” the report noted.
Gigabit-capable broadband can provide speeds of over 1,000 Mbps, over forty times faster than standard superfast broadband.
“These speeds provide new opportunities across the UK, for consumers and businesses alike, and enable 5G technology,” the report said.
The NIS touted recent successes in developing the UK’s gigabit network, with connected premises rising from 9% in July 2019 to over a third currently. The report predicted that this will reach half of all premises by next year.
In addition, plans to extend 4G mobile coverage to 95% of the UK were also laid out, along with £250 million to ensure resilient and secure digital networks.
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Expanding the UK’s broadband network has been a key goal of governments in both Westminster and Holyrood. With people relying more on broadband as Covid-19 increases remote working, high-speed internet is more important than ever.
Commenting in the NIS report, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “In a world likely to be working less from the office, our massive gigabit-capable broadband programme looks more important than ever. It has enormous potential for levelling-up: with cheaper property, more relaxed lifestyles and superb internet connections, previously left-behind towns could become homeworking hubs.”
However, there are still major gaps in the UK’s broadband network, especially outside towns and cities. There have been recent indications that the pandemic is fuelling an exodus away from large cities towards rural areas.
The Office for National Statistics has said that the population in the English countryside is likely to rise by 6% by 2025 as remote working removes the need to live in cities. Estate agents ESPC reported a rise in searches for rural properties in Scotland.
To help roll out gigabit-speed broadband, the Scottish and UK Governments recently combined their voucher schemes, offering subsidies of up to £8,500 for SMEs and up to £6,500 for homes to connect to networks.