rural internet broadband

Johnson’s 2025 full-fibre rollout pledge does not ‘grasp the extent’ of the problem

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to roll out universal full-fibre broadband by 2025 does not “grasp the extent” of the digital divide between urban and rural areas, a group of MPs has said.

In a report on rural broadband and mobile, the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee said that it welcomed Johnson’s commitment, but was “unclear” how the target would actually be met.

“Although there has been a significant improvement in both broadband and mobile coverage since 2015, it has only barely kept up with increasing demand,” the report reads.

“Many rural communities and businesses, particularly in the hardest to reach areas, still struggle as a result of poor or no access to broadband and poor coverage of mobile data services.

“The digital divide between urban and rural areas, and between rural towns and sparser rural settlements, continues to marginalise communities and be the cause of significant frustration.

“Given the continued challenges posed to rural communities and businesses, we are not confident that the Government has fully grasped the extent of the problem, the scale of the challenge, or the wider cost of poor connectivity for rural communities and the rural economy.”

It added that poor connectivity has been hampering rural businesses and prevents people from using online services like the rest of the country does.

Johnson first pledged to install full-fibre connections across the country by 2025 as part of his Tory leadership bid - an acceleration of the original 2033 target.

Last month, senior figures from the UK’s telecoms industry wrote to the Prime Minister to say “work needs to start now” to meet the target and urged him to tackle the necessary regulatory issues within the next year.

Whereas connections that rely on copper wires tend to be slower, full-fibre networks use fibre-optic cables to connect homes directly to broadband services, making them capable of delivering speeds greater than one gigabit per second (Gbps).

Ofcom reported that as of February 2018, 95 per cent of UK premises had access to the internet at speeds of up to 24 megabits per second (Mbps).

The final 5 per cent, however, are the most difficult to connect, infrastructure-wise. Under the current Universal Service Obligation, the government is obliged to provide a download speed of 10 Mbit/s and an upload speed of 1 Mbit/s to all homes in the UK by 2020, although some peers have objected to the plan saying that the proposed speeds are too low.

Kim Mears, managing director for strategic infrastructure development at Openreach - the firm which looks after the UK’s broadband network - said that while the company is “determined to lead the way” in installing new connections, she admitted “building full-fibre technology to more than 30 million front doors won’t be quick or easy”.

She added: “The vast majority of the £33bn required will come from the private sector, so we welcome the committee’s recognition that government can do much more to help the industry go further and faster.”

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