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Slow rural broadband blamed on DCMS; gigabit plans deemed ‘unachievable’

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The government has been warned that rural areas that cannot access superfast internet speeds will be “left even further behind” if it fails to ramp up its broadband infrastructure plans.

In 2019, the Conservative Party pledged in its election manifesto to deliver nationwide gigabit broadband connectivity to all homes by 2025.

After taking evidence in November, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said that this pledge was “unachievable” - a judgement the government ultimately accepted.

More than 95 per cent of UK premises can now access broadband speeds of at least 30Mbps and, according to Ofcom, the country’s infrastructure has held up well to unprecedented internet demand during the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, the PAC warned that 1.6m UK premises, mainly in rural areas, cannot yet access superfast speeds and it is “increasingly concerned” that the very hardest-to-reach premises will be struggling with slow broadband for many years to come.

The PAC said the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) “must do more” to protect those with limited access to the internet, due to concerns that the DCMS has not made “any meaningful progress” in delivering the policy and legislative changes deemed essential by industry if it is to achieve rapid roll-out of gigabit internet.

PAC chair Meg Hillier said: “With the grim announcement that the country and economy will be locked down for months, the Government’s promises on digital connectivity are more important than ever.

“Due to a litany of planning and implementation failures at DCMS, those promises are slipping farther and farther out of reach – even worse news for the ‘rural excluded’, who face years trying to recover with substandard internet connectivity. For the foreseeable future, ever more of our lives is moving online, whether we like it or not.

“Government cannot allow digital inequality to continue to compound and exacerbate the economic inequality that has been so harshly exposed in the Covid-19 pandemic. It needs to be clear about timelines in each area, so that businesses and individuals can plan for their digital future.”

DCMS is still developing a £5bn programme to subsidise roll-out to the hardest-to-reach 20 per cent of the UK’s 31 million premises and could not tell the Committee when it intends to deliver major milestones, such as the letting of contracts.

In September, a report found that the UK’s internet speeds were lagging behind most of Europe, with average speeds of just 37.82Mbps. 

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