William Eichler 22 December 2020

Invest in local digital champions, council chiefs say

Local authority leaders have called on the Government to fund local digital champions to support the broadband roll-out.

A new report by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has warned the Government that it risks failing to meet its revised-down target for gigabit-capable broadband in the face of considerable challenges to infrastructure roll-out.

The Government aimed to achieve nationwide gigabit-capable broadband by 2025. It has since revised its target and is now aiming for 85% coverage by that date.

The committee report says it would not be acceptable having abandoned one unrealistic target, for the Government to fail to meet a second less ambitious target through lack of effective planning or inadequate investment.

MPs also flagged concerns that only 25% of the Government’s £5bn to support roll-out to the hardest-to-reach premises will be made available during this period.

The report also found that the Government's target for majority 5G coverage by 2027 was ‘equally ambitious’, given rulings banning the use of equipment by high-risk vendors.

Commenting on the report, Cllr Mark Hawthorne, digital connectivity spokesperson at the Local Government Association, said: ‘As this report rightly recognises, councils need to have the local powers and adequate funding to help this ambition become a reality across all communities.

‘Many councils are under even greater financial pressure as a result of the pandemic and will struggle to prioritise work to remove barriers to digital roll-out over key statutory services. This could place a significant risk on the Government’s delivery timescales.

‘The Government needs to fund councils to put in place a local digital champion to help coordinate delivery locally. This would also enable them to recruit extra capacity within highways and planning teams to respond to surges in local roll out activity, such as street works permit requests or planning applications, that take place when a provider commences roll out in a specific area.

‘This will be essential to avoiding local bottlenecks and the slowing down of delivery. 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.’

Cllr Hawthorne added: ‘We are disappointed at the downgrading of the Government’s 100% target and agree with the committee that it must announce as soon as possible a revised timeline for reaching the remaining 15 per cent of premises that will not be served with gigabit-capable broadband by 2025.’

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