UK’s National Audit Office warns full-fibre rollout strategy is leaving rural Britain behind. Again

The UK government’s strategy for deploying full-fibre broadband shows signs of repeating the errors of previous broadband infrastructure programmes, which failed to extend comprehensive access to rural areas, a report from the National Audit Office has claimed [PDF].

In “Improving Broadband”, the NAO – a Parliamentary body that scrutinises public sector spending in Britain – today warned that industry will struggle to hit the government’s target of offering nationwide gigabit coverage by 2025, particularly when it comes to the hardest-to-reach 20 per cent of the country — which largely refers to rural settlements and shires.

The full-fibre broadband programme initially prioritised premises unable to access 30Mbps connections, in a strategy dubbed “outside-in.” The NAO expressed concern that as the 2025 deadline looms, infrastructure providers may be tempted to shift their focus to so-called “low-hanging fruit,” namely high population density areas like towns and cities.

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The NAO said that if providers opt to take this route, the gap in broadband provision could widen. “By the end of 2025, some premises may still lack superfast speeds, let alone gigabit connectivity,” it said.

This prediction affirms previous expressions of concern from infrastructure providers, as well as from the Deaprtment of Culture, Media and Sport, which said reaching the final 1 per cent of the country will be “prohibitively expensive”, and would likely require the use of alternative technologies.

To date, 14 per cent of the UK has access to full-fibre broadband. Gigabit coverage extends to 27 per cent when you count other similarly-capable technologies, like 5G. Overall, this penetration ranks among the lowest in Europe.

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To prevent the further deepening of the rural/city broadband divide, the NAO recommended the DCMS explicitly lay out its deployment priorities. This would accompany a detailed plan that would define how it would meet the 2025 deadline, as well as transparent progress updates.

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Similar woes befell the Superfast Broadband Programme of the 2010s. This program aimed to modernise the UK’s ageing copper-based broadband network with an ambitious FTTC (fibre to the cabinet) deployment strategy. This programme aimed to provide superfast broadband (defined as either 24Mbps or 30Mbps, depending on whether you talk to Building Digital UK or Ofcom) to 95 per cent of the country by 2017.

Unfortunately, the Superfast programme had unequal outcomes. While coverage in towns and cities was good, only 80 per cent of UK rural premises saw a speed upgrade. Coverage in Northern Ireland was particularly bad, with only 66 per cent of rural premises able to access speeds of 30Mbps, according to the report.

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The watchdog nonetheless highlighted some areas for optimism, citing the overall resilience of the UK’s broadband network in the face of increased demand at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with only marginal decreases in speed and availability. ®

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