Broadband and the road to 5G Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

The Government’s targets and funding for digital connectivity

1.Sticking to unachievable targets benefits no-one, and it was inevitable that the Government would have to abandon its unrealistic manifesto pledge to deliver nationwide gigabit connectivity by 2025. Ministers should be ready to respond openly, in answering questions from members of a select committee, accepting that a target will not be met when they already possess sufficient information to know that it is not going to be achieved. We welcome the fact it has finally listened to concerns, rethought the target and taken a more realistic outlook. However, the time it has taken to do so will have delayed industry, local bodies and consumers receiving the information they need to plan or build a robust investment case. Moreover, given that the previous target had been staunchly defended to us makes us question how much of a say DCMS had in the decision to scrap it, and the extent to which both the new target and its likely implications have been fully considered in consultation with industry. (Paragraph 27)

2.It would not be acceptable having abandoned one unrealistic target, for the Government to fail to meet a second, less ambitious, target through lack of effective planning or inadequate investment. The Government should outline, in its response to this Report if not before, how it settled on the new gigabit-capable broadband target of 85% coverage by 2025, a full assessment of how likely it considers it to be met, and the detail of how it plans to deliver it. The Government should also clearly state its target date by which it expects the remaining 15% of premises to be served with gigabit-capable broadband. (Paragraph 32)

3.The Government’s technology-agnostic approach to securing a nationwide gigabit-capable network makes sense in the context of delivering faster connections to as many premises as possible as quickly as possible. However, the Government must not let it come with a trade-off in performance or longevity: any technologies used to deliver gigabit connectivity must be future-proof. Moreover, fibre will be a significant component of other gigabit-capable technologies, such as 5G, and therefore the challenges of rolling out a truly nationwide full-fibre network must not be underestimated. (Paragraph 40)

4.It is difficult to see how £5 billion will be enough to meet the Government’s aim of delivering gigabit broadband to the hardest-to-reach 20% of premises. Investment in digital infrastructure is too important to be compromised. It is therefore disappointing that over the next four years, the Government will make available only 25% of the £5 billion it had committed to support the roll-out of gigabit-capable broadband to the hardest-to-reach premises. This will undermine the ambition for such premises to receive better connectivity at the same time as other parts of the UK. (Paragraph 49)

5.The Government should outline in its response to this Report, if not before, how the remaining £3.8 billion has been ringfenced and when it expects to make it available for delivering gigabit-capable broadband to the hardest-to-reach properties. (Paragraph 50)

6.There are technical reasons why 5G will not be the silver bullet for delivering gigabit connectivity to rural areas but this will be exacerbated if the roll-out of 5G follows the same commercially-driven pattern as previous generations of mobile technology. Even if roll-out in urban areas means the majority of the population is able to access 5G by 2027, which is by no means assured given the restrictions on the use of Huawei equipment, Government must do more to ensure that rural areas do not get left behind. (Paragraph 59)

7.The Government should complete a formal review of progress towards its targets for gigabit-capable broadband and 5G by the end of 2022 and report back to us on progress. (Paragraph 60)

Demand for gigabit connectivity

8.Ensuring there is sufficient demand for gigabit-capable broadband must not be an afterthought and based on consumer behaviours and take-up of existing technologies, cannot be assumed to be a given. We are concerned that the Government has not given enough priority to this policy area to date and does not fully recognise the potential role that Government could play now. We await the findings of GigaTAG’s work and urge DCMS to act promptly on their recommendations. (Paragraph 78)

Delivering gigabit connectivity at pace

9.Getting the design of the gigabit programme right is absolutely essential, especially as its budget for the next four years will be only 25% of what was expected. Some parts of the country will still get left behind when it comes to the roll-out of gigabit-capable broadband, the consequences of which have been magnified during the COVID-19 outbreak. Ensuring people can work remotely, wherever they live, will spread the economic benefits of digital connectivity to the whole country. (Paragraph 88)

10.The Government should outline in its response to this Report, if not before, what the Spending Review and 85% target mean for its ‘outside-in’ ambition and its strategy for delivering to those semi-urban areas unlikely to benefit from commercial roll-out. Given the centrality of the principle of levelling-up to the Government and its National Infrastructure Strategy, we recommend it continues to prioritise those with worst connectivity. (Paragraph 89)

11.The roll-out of gigabit-capable networks will put considerable strain on local authorities, which are already facing considerable pressures on their budgets. The Government must retain the expertise gained through the superfast programme and ensure local authorities are resourced sufficiently to support the roll-out of gigabit-capable connectivity at pace. (Paragraph 92)

12.We are not convinced that the technology-agnostic approach to delivering gigabit-capable broadband extends much beyond ministerial pronouncements. The Government needs to take a more joined-up approach to fixed and mobile telecoms policy, especially when it comes to interventions for the hardest-to-reach properties. In its response to this Report, if not before, DCMS should clearly outline what technology-neutrality will mean in the gigabit programme and how it will be delivered. (Paragraph 95)

13.We are concerned that Ofcom has significant catching up to do for its regulatory regime to deliver the Government’s goals and protect consumers. The regulatory framework proposed in the Wholesale Fixed Telecoms Market Review has the potential to undermine the Government’s £5 billion subsidy for hard-to-reach areas and does not accurately reflect the competitive landscape for fixed telecoms. Consideration will also have to be given to the potential impact of the Government’s new target and spending plans. We expect Ofcom to address these issues in its final statement on the Wholesale Fixed Telecoms Market Review 2021–26 and to write to us explicitly outlining how it has done so. (Paragraph 109)

14.Judging by the legislative measures to date, the scale of the Government’s efforts to tackle the most serious barriers to roll-out does not match the scale of its ambition for gigabit connectivity. Despite the challenges of the 2025 target, the Government intends to “wait and see” about complex problems such as third-party access instead of addressing them as a matter of priority. We recommend that the Government reforms the wayleave regime for telecommunications infrastructure in the next Parliamentary session to address unresponsive and/or uncooperative landlords in urban and rural settings, including third-party land. (Paragraph 118)

15.Again, the Government’s ‘wait and see’ approach to ensuring sufficient numbers of engineers does not reflect the scale of the infrastructure and industry challenge to meet its targets for rolling out nationwide full fibre. The Minister’s assertion that the UK has enough engineers for its current need contradicts what we have been told by industry and is scant reassurance when build rates need to increase four-fold to reach 85% of the country by 2025. We encourage the Government to introduce time-limited visa solutions that enable engineers from the EU to address the industry’s labour needs until such time that these can be met by the domestic workforce. (Paragraph 122)

16.Industry’s calls for regulatory and business rate reform, as well as removing barriers to roll-out, will not come as any surprise to Ministers; however, these long-standing policy recommendations demonstrate a gap between the Government’s ambition and the action it has taken to date. Even getting to 85% gigabit-capable coverage by 2025 will require a rapid rise in build rates and for industry to roll-out just as fast as under previous targets. Urgent action to address these barriers that stand in the way of them doing so is therefore as important as ever. (Paragraph 126)

Published: 22 December 2020 Site information    Accessibility statement