More than a million homes in remote locations across the UK are set to be upgraded to next-generation broadband speeds, as the government launches the first phase of its £5 billion ($7 billion) “Project Gigabit” initiative.
The government unveiled the first list of areas where the deployment of gigabit broadband will be subsidized by public funds. They span across the country, from Cornwall to Northumberland, including among others Cambridgeshire, Durham, Norfolk and the Isle of Wight – but what they all have in common is that they are not considered commercially viable to connect up by telecoms companies.
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Procurement contracts with specific telecoms providers for each location will be announced in the next few months, and builds for the physical networks are expected to start next year to connect an initial 510,000 homes and businesses. Another 640,000 premises are set to be connected at a later stage, representing in total about 3% of UK households.
Once they are upgraded, households will see broadband speeds increase to more than 1,000 megabits or one gigabit per second. In addition, the government has committed £210 million ($290 million) to renew a gigabit broadband voucher scheme, which grants residents and businesses in eligible areas vouchers worth up to £1,500 ($2,074) to support the installation costs of new gigabit-capable connections. Another £110 million ($152 million) will be made available to connect up 7,000 public buildings such as rural schools or doctors’ surgeries to gigabit broadband.
“Gigabit Britain” is a long-established promise from the government, which in 2019 committed £5 billion ($7 billion) to bring faster connectivity to the whole of the country before 2025. There are multiple ways that gigabit speeds can be deployed, but the target is largely expected to be achieved thanks to full-fiber technology – a costly, complex enterprise that requires digging up roads and laying down kilometers-worth of new networks.
Telecoms providers such as BT are already building those networks at pace, and have committed to speed up the deployment of gigabit-capable infrastructure further. According to the government, almost 40% of homes and businesses in the UK can now access gigabit speeds, compared to just 9% in 2019.
Investments from private companies like BT and its rivals are predicted to eventually connect up to 80% of the country, which is why the government has committed to covering the remaining 20% of households located in harder-to-reach areas, thanks to public funding made available through Project Gigabit.
Since the early announcement of the project, however, targets have been revised. From the initial promise of upgrading every household in the UK to gigabit speeds in the next five years, the government is now targeting 85% gigabit-capable coverage by 2025, with the goal of accelerating rollout further to get “as close to 100% as possible.”
In addition, the government has only made £1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) of the original £5 billion available up until 2024.
This has caused concern among those advocating for better connectivity in the UK, and led to fears that some households and businesses located in the country’s most remote regions might be left behind the national switch to gigabit speeds.
For others, however, the government’s targets were too ambitious to start with – and will be tough to meet even now that they have been watered down. “These are very ambitious targets from the government,” Kester Mann, director of consumer and connectivity at analysis firm CCS Insights, told ZDNet. “They were downgraded to 85%, but even that is an ambitious target for within four years and a half.”
Some areas, which are located in the most remote zones in the UK, are likely to remain a sticking point due to the prohibitive cost of building a gigabit-capable broadband network to, even with substantial public subsidy. The government estimates that this is the case of 100,000 premises, or about 0.3% of the country, which are mostly located in Scotland, Wales, as well as some national parks in England.
For those homes and businesses, solutions are yet to be found. The government has launched a call for evidence to examine how different technologies might ease the challenge, and has previously suggested the option of using wireless 5G networks or satellite-based connectivity.