CLA Senior Rural Business and Economics Adviser Charles Trotman explains why more investment is needed from the government for full fibre broadband to ensure the rural economy doesn’t get left behind
When Chancellor Rishi Sunak presented the Comprehensive Spending Review for the next financial year on 25 September, he mentioned that £1.2bn would be spent on rolling out full fibre broadband across the country. This would come out of the £5bn fund announced at the March 2020 budget. You will remember that the prime minister made a big play of forcing the pace on better digital connectivity during his leadership bid last year by promising to 100% fibre coverage by 2025.
However, as with most things, the devil is always in the detail. The government’s National Infrastructure Strategy, which was published on the same day as the spending review, revealed that, firstly, the £1.2bn was for four years (up to 2024/25) and not one year, and secondly, uncommercial areas of the country which mostly consist of rural areas, would not see full fibre until well after 2025. Indeed, some might not see it until 2030.
Over the last week, there have been numerous meetings to clarify why the government is going to miss yet another broadband deadline. Apparently, it’s all about capacity and that infrastructure providers don’t have enough to complete the job by 2025. Officials also said that if they could, they might be able to accelerate the process. To my mind, you can’t accelerate deployment if you don’t have the capacity.
This is not only disappointing and frustrating, but it is also a fallacy to say that capacity is the problem. The infrastructure providers are clear that they could deploy full fibre to the vast majority of the country, both commercial and uncommercial areas, if the government was to pledge a lot more than £1.2bn. If this is correct, the government must use the remaining £3.8bn to support rollout to rural communities up to 2025.
Everyone recognises the importance of having access to the best available digital connectivity. The Covid-19 pandemic has underlined that broadband is integral to rural communities and rural businesses. We need a clear statement from government that rural areas will not be disadvantaged yet again when it comes to delivery. We don’t want to see the ‘outside-in’ approach, where deployment happens in rural and urban areas at the same time, simply dismissed in this fashion. That is why we are seeking urgent clarification from the digital economy minister that rural areas will not have to wait until well after 2025 and keep to the prime minister’s promise.