United Kingdom

Minister Matt Warman admits there is NO firm date for connecting whole UK to high-speed broadband

The minister in charge of the UK's digital infrastructure admitted today that he did not know when the whole UK would have access to an ultra-high-speed connection.

Matt Warman made the admission as a new plan to connect almost two million more premises across rural parts of England to gigabit internet was launched.

It is part of the Government's £5 billion gigabit upgrade plan, which hopes to connect 85 per cent of the nation by the middle of the decade.

But critics have attacked the plan, which comes after Boris Johnson last year shelved a Tory 2019 election manifesto pledge to connect 100 per cent of the UK by 2025.

Mr Warman, the Digital Infrastructure Minister, was asked when that might now be achieved, in an interview with BBC Radio 4's Today programme. 

'There's an element of how long is a piece of string on that, but what we have said is that we will get to that 85 per cent by 2025, we will go as fast as we possibly can,' he replied.

He added that the Government was 'technology neutral', meaning that not all homes will get fibre broadband if similar speeds can be achieved more efficiently by another means, including 5G and satellite internet.

Matt Warman made the admission as a plan to connect almost two million more premises across rural parts of England to gigabit internet was launched.

Critics have attacked the plan, which comes after Boris Johnson last year shelved a Tory 2019 election manifesto pledge to connect 100 per cent of the UK by 2025.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden today announced that a further 1.85 million premises across 26 English counties will get access to gigabit speed internet, equivalent to 1,000 megabits per second.

It comes after the first areas to benefit from the multibillion-pound broadband upgrade - a key part of the Prime Minister's so-called levelling up agenda - were revealed in March, including Cornwall, Cumbria, Essex and Northumberland.

As part of this second announcement, almost half a million premises in Shropshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Worcestershire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight will be among those to benefit, with work due to start in 2022. 

Work will then be undertaken in counties including Derbyshire, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Lancashire, Surrey, Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Staffordshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. 

The speeds will allow users to download a HD movie in less than 30 seconds and lay the foundations for next-generation tech such as 8K-quality video streaming, according to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Project Gigabit has allocated £24 million to roll out gigabit broadband in 10 local authority areas in Northern Ireland, while 234,000 homes and businesses in Wales have been confirmed as in scope to receive upgrades through the programme, DCMS said.

A further £4.5 million will go towards helping thousands of people in central Scotland get next-generation connections.

The investment is part of Boris Johnson's target of achieving at least 85 per cent gigabit-capable UK coverage by 2025, with officials stating that the Government is 'on track' to meet the commitment. 

But critics have questioned this assessment. The target for 100 per cent coverage was downgraded to 85 per cent last November.

In January MPs the Public Accounts Committee report warned that 'those in rural areas may have to pay more and may reach gigabit broadband speeds late'.

The MPs also pointed to the Government's decision not to allocate three-quarters of the £5 billion programme, to subsidise gigabit rollout to the hardest to reach, until after 2024-25.

The committee said it was concerned that event the 85 per cent target will be challenging to meet.

It warned many consumers, particularly in rural and remote areas, may have to wait 'well beyond 2025 for gigabit broadband speeds and may not even get superfast speeds before then'.

MPs pointed out that 1.6 million UK premises, mostly in rural areas, 'cannot yet access superfast speeds' as the Government focuses on 'upgrading' the connectivity again.

Monday's announcement takes the total number of houses, businesses and public facilities set to benefit to 2.2 million, the department said, with more areas expected to be announced.

Labour's shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens said: 'The Conservatives are keeping the UK in the digital slow lane with their broken promises on the gigabit rollout, shifting their targets again and again'

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: 'Project Gigabit is our national mission to level up rural areas by giving them the fastest internet speeds on the market.

'Millions more rural homes and businesses will now be lifted out of the digital slow lane thanks to our mammoth £5 billion investment and one of the quickest rollouts in Europe.

'This broadband revolution will create jobs, power up businesses and allow everyone to access vital services at lightning fast speed, helping us build back better from the pandemic.'

But Labour's shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens said: 'The Conservatives are keeping the UK in the digital slow lane with their broken promises on the gigabit rollout, shifting their targets again and again.

'Conservative dither and delay is harming our digital infrastructure and our economy.'

Rocio Concha, policy and advocacy director at consumer choice group Which?, said: 'The coronavirus crisis has highlighted how vital fast and reliable broadband is, so it's good to see the Government prioritise more rural areas which have suffered for too long with poor internet connections.

'The Government should clarify when these communities will actually be able to benefit from these connections, as consumers are relying on the internet more than ever and improving connectivity will play an important role as we recover from the pandemic.'

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