William Eichler 19 January 2022

Council chiefs call for digital champions to help gigabit broadband roll-out

Council chiefs call for digital champions to help gigabit broadband roll-out image
Image: Anucha Cheechang / Shutterstock.com

Local authority leaders have urged the Government to allow councils to create digital champions to help speed up the roll-out of gigabit-capable broadband in hard to reach areas.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has criticised the Government’s delivery of super-fast broadband and warned that it is unlikely to reach even its downgraded target of full coverage by 2030. The target was originally 2025.

In its new report, published today, the PAC criticised the Government for not having a clear timetable for how they will meet even the downgraded target for gigabit roll-out and for relying too heavily on the private sector.

The premises in the UK with access to gigabit broadband increased from 40% to 57% between May and October 2021. However, this was largely due to Virgin Media O2 upgrading its cable network. According to the committee’s report, the DCMS ‘has made little tangible progress in delivering internet connectivity beyond that achieved by the private sector.’

The PAC also warned that the goal of full coverage by 2030 ‘does not cover the very hardest to reach areas, which include around 134,000 premises’. There is also no detailed plan in place for reaching communities where it is not commercially viable to do so.

‘DCMS’ planning and project management show all the signs of the previous roll-out – that the focus will continue to be on the easier to reach areas and there is still no clear plan for the hardest to reach communities,’ commented PAC chair Meg Hillier.

‘It couldn’t really explain how broadband has got as far as it has in this critical national strategy, beyond “thanks to Virgin Media”, and incredibly it still doesn’t have a real plan for getting the rest of the way to its own downgraded targets.

‘What DCMS does know full well is it can’t rely on the private sector to get fast broadband to the hardest to reach, excluded and rural areas, and despite its repeated promises to do exactly that we are apparently little nearer to closing “the great digital divide” developing across the UK nor addressing the social and economic inequality it brings with it.’

A DCMS spokesperson described the PAC report as ‘misleading’ and said they ‘remain on track.’

‘We are investing £5bn so hard-to-reach areas can get gigabit speeds, have already upgraded 600,000 premises, and in three years national coverage has rocketed from six per cent to 65%,’ they said.

‘Our policies and investment also mean 97% of premises can access superfast broadband which meets people's current needs and helped us through the pandemic.’

In response to the PAC report, Cllr Mark Hawthorne, digital connectivity spokesperson for the Local Government Association (LGA), called on the Government to provide councils with more funding and enable them to create local digital champions.

‘The Government should empower councils to place a local digital champion in every local area to help facilitate delivery and support providers to install gigabit-capable broadband as quickly as possible,’ he said.

‘This will be essential to avoiding local bottlenecks and the slowing down of delivery. We are concerned there is no detailed plan in place to ensure those in the very hardest to reach areas are not left behind.

‘A local digital champion would be a central contact point for government and broadband providers to help problem solve deployment issues in the local area.’

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