MPs criticise plans for gigabit broadband rollout

20 January 2022, 13:52   By Dr Lucy Brown, Editor

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has renewed their criticism of Government's approach to gigabit-capable broadband rollout.

The committee of MPs says the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCSM) has failed to get a grip on the detail of the rollout.

They recommend the Government work with the National Audit Office to confirm how often progress should be reported, plus they advised the DCSM to explain in writing how future updates will be provided by the end of March 2022.

The PAC suggests the gigabit capable broadband rollout so far has been too reliant on commercial providers and risks leaving the most remote areas behind.

fibre broadband on technology background

Lack of detail

In their latest report on delivering gigabit capable broadband, the PAC states reporting from the department responsible for the rollout lacks consistency and detail.

They say the DCMS is unable to fully explain how they are recording their progress and recommend two immediate steps:

  • DCSM should work with the National Audit Office to work out which metrics they should be reporting on and how frequently they should be reported
  • DCSM should write to the PAC by the end of March 2022 to let them know the results of this work and outline how they plan to provide updates on the rollout in the future

As an example, according to the PAC report, the DCSM was unable to say exactly how much of the increased gigabit capable broadband available in the UK in May 2021 was due to Virgin Media O2's upgrades and how much was due to other rollout schemes.

The PAC suggested this demonstrated they did not have a grip on the programmes.

Commercial reliance

The report was also critical of the Government's reliance on commercial rollouts to reach their coverage targets

They say they are unconvinced of the assertion by the DCSM that they will meet their minimum target of 85% coverage by 2025, highlighting the fact that no new infrastructure subsidy contracts have been signed and target dates for signing contracts keep slipping.

Again, the PAC report requests a written response from the DCSM with details of any new infrastructure contracts signed and what further contracts need to be in place to meet their coverage targets.

Further criticism was levelled at the DCMS's approach to gigabit capable coverage which, the PAC say, could perpetuate digital inequality. They also suggest there is no detailed plan to ensure the very hardest to reach premises are not left behind.

Approximately 0.3% or 134,000 premises are unlikely to be suitable for fibre-based approaches, yet the PAC say the DCSM has not yet offered an update on what technologies they plan to use for those homes and businesses.

Gigabit rollout

This isn't the first time the PAC has taken aim at the Government's handling of the gigabit capable broadband rollout.

Around this time last year, they criticised the programme plans as vague and highlighted the lack of a clear timeline with clear milestones.

A year on, the criticisms are much the same but we're a year closer to the projected completion dates of 2025 for 85% coverage and 2030 for full gigabit capable coverage.

The rapid increase in the number of customers who have access to 1GB broadband speeds over the last year has been largely down to Virgin Media O2's upgrade to their cable network which brought gigabit capable speeds to all 15.5 million premises they cover.

This has been supplemented by rollouts from Openreach, CityFibre and others as commercial providers expand their services to commercially viable areas.

Yet the homes and businesses beyond these areas need a detailed plan in place and, the PAC suggests, this has yet to materialise.

It's important to note the PAC is an independent cross-party committee and their reports are rarely generous to the Government. Their remit is looking at costs to taxpayers and working out whether the way the Government is delivering a project offers the best value for money.

However, their intervention is significant mainly because it suggests little has changed in the last year and there are still no metrics in place to assess exactly how the gigabit rollout programme is performing and whether it's on track.


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