United Kingdom

Hopes for Tory pledge of every UK home getting super-fast broadband by 2025 fade

Doubts over the Government's ambitious pledge on gigabit-capable broadband deepened on Tuesday after the minister responsible for its roll-out failed to say how confident he felt about making the 2025 target.

Full-fibre and gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across the UK by 2025 was a key Conservative manifesto pledge in the 2019 general election. It brought the goal forward by eight years.

Legislative changes to accelerate progress and £5 billion of public funding were among the promises.

Matt Warman, Minister for Digital Infrastructure, was grilled on the matter by MPs but would not be drawn on how likely he felt the target could still be reached.

Legislative changes to accelerate progress of high-speed wifi and £5 billion of public funding were among the promises made by Matt Warman, Minister for Digital Infrastructure, today

'I think it's important to be honest that the manifesto commitment that we made itself highlights that this is a difficult challenge - and what you don't often put is things are difficult in manifestos - but we have also seen the Covid crisis, we have also made a very important, and I think right decision, on the involvement of high-risk vendors, these things make that target harder to reach,' he told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

'We are absolutely committed to making sure that we remove every possible barrier and making sure that we set those market conditions as well as they can be.'    

Labour MP Kevin Brennan described Mr Warman's responses as 'meaningless drivel', after the minister declined to say on a scale of one to 10 how confident he felt about the 2025 aim.

'Anybody watching these proceedings will not believe on the basis of those answers that the Government is going to reach the target,' Mr Brennan said.

Mr Warman told the committee he believes gigabit-capable connectivity should be available to half of the UK within the next year or so.

Strong full-fibre broadband was promised to all UK homes and business by 2025 in the Tory 2019 election pledge

'Yes there has been Covid, yes, there has been the decision on Huawei, but when we said in December that this is a difficult target to meet, it was difficult then - it is, yes, somewhat more difficult now but I am not going to pretend that either Covid or Huawei are deal breakers in our ambition,' he responded.

The evidence session was the last by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, in its inquiry into broadband and the road to 5G.

Making the pledge in June of last year Mr Johnson said having a quick internet connection should not be seen as 'some metropolitan luxury' but as an 'indispensable tool of modern life'.

He also attacked as a 'disgrace' the current situation where many homes are unable to get online with any degree of speed as he promised to tackle the UK's 'deep digital divide'.

Announcing the pledge, he said: 'It cannot go on like this. The Government has just set a new target for the 100 per cent roll-out of full-fibre broadband - by 2033!

'Tell that to rural Lincolnshire. As a deadline, that is laughably unambitious.

'If we want to unite our country and our society, we should commit now to delivering full fibre to every home in the land not in the mid-2030s - but in five years at the outside.'

Justice Secretary David Gauke waded in, wishing 'good luck' to whoever would be Mr Johnson's chancellor - now Rishi Sunak - as he warned the spending commitment would have major consequences for the public finances.  

The Government estimated at the time of making the pledge that it would cost between £3billion and £5billion to help deliver full-fibre in the final 10 per cent of remote areas which are not as commercially viable as more populated towns and cities.

Now UK national debt has surpassed a record high of more than £2 trillion as Chancellor Sunak bankrolls furloughed employees' wages and hands out rescue loans for businesses during the covid-19 pandemic. 

UK's Huawei ban followed intense pressure from Donald Trump to deny China a foothold in the West's critical infrastructure

Mr Sunak hinted that tax rises will eventually be required to get the public finances back on an even keel as he said he will have to make 'difficult decisions' in the future. 

Despite these major costs facing the government Warman, Minister for Digital Infrastructure, refused to say that their 'ambitions' for super-fast broadband across the country had been brought to a standstill. 

Logistical issues during the lockdowns of the covid-19 pandemic have also slowed progress on building the high-speed broadband infrastructure.

The minister also listed Boris Johnson's decision to block Huawei from the UK's 5G network in July 2020 as a challenging factor, with all of the firm's technology to be ripped out by 2027. 

The move, announced by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, represented a major U-turn after the Government said in January 2020 that the Chinese tech giant would be allowed to help build the infrastructure. 

The decision, agreed by the National Security Council, is thought to have delayed the completion of the rollout of the 5G network by more than two years and to have increased costs by up to £2 billion. 

Mr Gauke, a former chief secretary to the treasury, criticised Mr Johnson's broadband pledge at the time.

He tweeted: 'I'm the last person to want to curtail the leadership race. But every Telegraph column by Boris Johnson increases borrowing by £billions.'

He added: 'If Boris wins, good luck to whoever becomes his Chancellor. It would be a noble act of self-sacrifice to accept the job. Who'd do it?'

Speaking at the time Mr Johnson said enabling everyone in the UK to access fast broadband would help address one of the main factors which drove the 2016 Brexit vote.

'If there was one lesson from that referendum in 2016, it was that too much of the country feels unable to take part in the national success,' he said.

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