Government risk widening rural broadband divide with new plan

rural broadband

The government’s plan to extend fibre-optic broadband to every home by 2025 could exacerbate the divisions between rural and urban download speeds, the public spending watchdog has warned.

In a report published today, the National Audit Office (NAO) said the “challenging” deadline to provide a universal fibre service could further marginalise households and businesses in remote areas.

Extending the fibre network to the “hardest to reach premises” could prove “particularly difficult to achieve”, running the risk that consumers in the “most rural and remote locations will be left further behind”, the NAO warned.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport would have to “manage the tension between meeting a challenging timeline and serving those in greatest need,” Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said. “Failure to do so risks leaving the hardest to reach areas even further behind and widening the urban-rural divide.”

The NAO’s report examines the effectiveness of the department’s Superfast programme, which was set up a decade ago to offer access to faster broadband to 95 per cent of premises. The watchdog said the target been met “broadly on time”, but if found that many businesses and households “still experience poor broadband”.

The Superfast programme spent £1.9 billion to subside download speeds of at least 30 megabits per second for 5.3 million premises where it would have been uneconomic for telecoms operators to reach.

The target was reached on time, but the NAO warned that a divide persisted between rural and urban areas. In remote regions, some 80 per cent of premises have access to superfast broadband, compared to 97 per cent of urban users. The lowest rate was in Northern Ireland, where just 66 per cent of premises have access to download speeds of at least 30 megabits per second.

Minsiters are finalising plans for the nationwide fibre network, which will be built by BT, Virgin Media and a number of smaller firms like CityFibre and Gigaclear. Telecoms companies will need to lay half a million kilometres of fibre-optic cable to connect around 31 million premises to the one gigabit a second service, according to the NAO.

To achieve the 2025 target, telecoms operators will need to increase their expansion plans four-fold, which the NAO warned would be “difficult to achieve in the hardest to reach areas”. The final 1 per cent could be too expensive to connect to the fibre network and many need alternative access technologies, such as satellite.

At present just 27 per cent of UK premises are covered by gigabit-capable infrastructure, with just 14 per cent able to access full-fibre, which is one of the lowest rates in Europe, according to the NAO.