The rural-urban digital divide is one step closer to closing. Openreach, the largest telecoms infrastructure provider in the UK, announced that an additional three million homes in hard-to-reach areas will be connected to gigabit-cable broadband by December 2026.
With this announcement, comes a renewed sense of possibility - can the 2025 Project Gigabit deadline now be met?
Many people will never have heard of Project Gigabit and understandably so. In short, this is the government’s ambition to link up the UK with lightning-fast digital connectivity. But, what was an ambitious target of putting in place 100% coverage by 2025, has now been diluted to 85% by the same deadline which means that some rural areas, those in the hardest to reach parts, could have to wait until 2030.
Everyone now recognises the importance of digital connectivity, even more so during the Covid-19 pandemic. Getting access to the right connectivity is vital to the rural economies of the UK. And the government has set forth its commitment by setting aside £5bn for the single purpose of realizing the ambition of gigabit-cable broadband being ubiquitous. But it has scaled back that opportunity by only allocating £1.2bn up to 2025. The rest of the money is still there but no one knows how it’s going to be spent.
It appears that one of the major obstacles is that of available labour, mainly in the form of civil engineers. Indeed, Better Delivery UK (BDUK), the implementation body created by the government, have used the potential shortage of labour as the main reason why 100% coverage by 2025 cannot be met. There is simply not enough capacity within the system to meet a 100% objective.
But is that the case? The CLA identified labour as a crucial issue well before the pandemic as a potential limiting factor through a restrictive immigration policy due to Brexit. COVID-19, however, could lead to changes in both culture and economic perceptions in a post-Covid world. Employment is likely to be in a state of flux over the next five years where it may be the case that sufficient labour becomes available.
Indeed, Openreach has come to the same conclusion by committing to create a thousand new engineering roles over the next 2 years. If the government wants to ensure that its levelling-up agenda succeeds, it must create the right environment and put in place the right conditions to encourage more domestic workers.
The 2025 deadline for Project Gigabit, although very tight, can still be met. But to get there will require direction from the government and the full use of financial levers at its disposal by fully utilising all of the £5bn fund. Government can encourage targeted employment opportunities in the telecoms sector to ensure sufficient capacity and we can do our bit by assisting infrastructure providers in self-dig schemes. If we believe it can happen, anything is possible, and by 2025 we can finally eradicate the rural-urban digital divide.