Access to rural-broadband funding plagued by delays

rural broadband

The government has been accused of dragging its feet over a rural-broadband funding scheme that expires on Wednesday but still has many open applications awaiting approval.

Changes to rural-broadband vouchers mean some areas will be ineligible for a new version of the scheme in April.

More than a million homes could be affected, industry sources say.

But the government says no areas “will miss out”, because they will be covered by other broadband projects.

Several days

The vouchers, worth thousands of pounds per home, cover the cost of running cables to remote towns and villages.

But as of Friday, hundreds of towns and other rural communities had applications still awaiting government approval to allow network operators to issue them.

This itself could take several days.

And some have taken community groups months of work.

Most remote

James Sherwin-Smith, who, having been in touch with officials since September, finally had his application for the village of Furnace Wood, West Sussex, approved on Friday evening, said the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) was “either inept, ill prepared, or trying to manage their budget”.

The government says most are approved within a month – but there can be a delay if information is missing or more details are required.

The new version of the scheme focuses more on the most remote “area-three” parts of the country.

But many of the outstanding applications cover “area-two” premises.

The DCMS says it has prioritised those who might miss out.

“These areas will not miss out on gigabit [1Gbps] broadband,” it said.

“We always seek to get the best value for taxpayers, which is why our voucher scheme is focused on areas outside those considered commercially competitive by [telecom regulator] Ofcom or already earmarked for public subsidy.

“We will honour all vouchers already issued – and areas ineligible under the new voucher scheme are due to receive connections through planned industry rollout or our record £5bn Project Gigabit scheme.”

But while, once vouchers have been issued, the 1Gbps broadband connections are typically completed within 12 months, Project Gigabit could take years.

It aims to upgrade the infrastructure in specific regions rather than town by town, starting in:

South Tyneside
Tees Valley
Openreach, the largest network operator and a major recipient of broadband vouchers, said: “We are very disappointed that the recent criteria changes mean hundreds of communities won’t now be eligible.

“We would urge the government to look again at the criteria, which will leave so many rural communities on the wrong side of the digital divide.”