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Grotesque soundbyte alert: UK government opens wallet to help rural areas get 'gigafit'

Tough luck if you're in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales

To quote the Mancunian philosopher Stephen Patrick Morrissey: "Stop me if you've heard this one before." The UK's Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has promised a fresh tranche of funding for rural full-fibre internet in a new initiative called Project Gigabit.

The cash, part of the £5bn initially promised last year, includes £210m to connect premises in Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Cumbria, Dorset, Durham, Essex, Northumberland, South Tyneside, and Tees Valley. An additional £110m has been allocated to wire up rural GP surgeries, libraries, and schools.

The government has said it intends to put the contracts to tender this spring, with work to commence the following year. A second round of procurements are expected to go ahead in June, focusing on premises in Norfolk, Shropshire, Suffolk, Worcestershire, Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight.

Noticeably absent from either of these procurement rounds are homes and businesses in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Each of these home nations have significant rural communities, with internet connectivity decidedly patchy in far-flung parts.

Today's announcement was hailed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as "the rocket boost that we need to get lightning-fast broadband to all areas of the country."

"This broadband revolution will fire up people's businesses and homes, and the vital public services that we all rely on, so we can continue to level up and build back better from this pandemic," he said.

Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden added: "Project Gigabit is our national mission to plug in and power up every corner of the UK and get us gigafit* for the future.

"We have already made rapid progress, with almost 40 per cent of homes and businesses now able to access next-generation gigabit speeds, compared to just 9 percent in 2019. Now we are setting out our plans to invest £5 billion in remote and rural areas so that no one is left behind by the connectivity revolution."

Rural dwellers

Canny observers of previous government-backed broadband upgrade programmes will note a mixed success record when it comes to wiring up rural properties. The previous superfast programme prioritised country-dwellers last, with independent research commissioned by DCMS showing it had a limited impact on overall speeds. Separately, the National Audit Office has warned the government risks repeating its previous mistakes, citing limited cast-iron guarantees that infrastructure providers won't put city-dwellers at the front of the queue.

Additionally, the government said it planned to seek proposals for improving connectivity in remotest one-percent of properties, which the DCMS had previously described as "prohibitively expensive" to connect via fibre. Potential solutions mooted by DCMS include 5G and satellite connections, such as those provided by Saint Elon's Starlink.

Today's announcement was welcomed by industry, with Openreach CEO Clive Selly commenting: "We're already building Full Fibre broadband to 20 million homes and businesses under our own steam – including in rural and hard-to-reach areas – and we welcome this as a vital next step to connect the toughest parts of the UK.

"We'll be considering these proposals for the final 20 per cent with interest and we're keen to support the Government. This is a massive opportunity to level-up the country and boost the bounce-back after the pandemic, so it's important the process moves quickly and that all operators do their bit."

Paul Stobart, CEO of Zen Internet, added: "The past 12 months has put enormous strain on everyone and it has really highlighted the need for an upgrade to broadband infrastructure across the UK. With much of our social and working lives shifting fully online, this updated roadmap for 'Project Gigabit' has provided much needed clarity and is a welcome development.

"Along with the Ofcom announcement yesterday there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel for those in need of increased connectivity, particularly in remote areas. The government should now be looking to work closely with the industry to ensure the roll out is smooth and can accelerate from here."

Telecoms analyst Paolo Pescatore noted this was a welcome change of direction, after the government backslid on its initial plans to extend full-fibre connectivity. "[This] is a step in the right direction after the UK Government scaled back on its grand plans," he said.

"The focus must be on connecting the unconnected and improving connectivity in rural areas. Future proofing UK's fixed line infrastructure is paramount. However, appetite for gigabit speeds is still limited at current market prices. Arguably, providing robust and reliable connections should be the priority." ®

*Anyone else reminded of The Thick Of It's Peter Mannion MP? "I call App Britain."

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