UK government hands CityFibre £318M for rural broadband builds

Openreach rival promises first live connections by next summer

The UK government has said it will stump up £318 million ($403 million) in funding for network provider CityFibre to link around 218,000 premises in three English counties with fiber internet access as part of its plans to get more of the country connected.

Unveiled as the latest step in the government's "Project Gigabit" initiative, this move covers rural homes and businesses in parts of Norfolk, Suffolk and Hampshire, and promises them gigabit-capable fiber connections.

According to the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), CityFibre has been awarded £318 million funding to carry out this work, following a competitive process, and will add £170 million ($215 million) of its own investment to deliver the project.

Survey work is expected to start immediately, with the first installations due to be complete by early 2024 and the first live connections operating by next summer. Once connected, residents and businesses in the areas in question will be able to access broadband services over a network capable of supporting speeds of up to 10Gbps, according to DSIT.

CityFibre also said it had committed to providing internship opportunities for local people in Norfolk, with all interns to be offered long-term employment in the supply chain. In Suffolk, it will provide free gigabit fiber connections and six months of free internet access to 30 community centers.

Announcing the latest funding, Minister for Data and Digital Infrastructure John Whittingdale said access to high-speed broadband was a key part of the government's plans for driving economic growth and levelling up communities.

"218,000 homes and businesses across Norfolk, Suffolk, and Hampshire will benefit from a modern digital infrastructure, helping to power local communities and our plan to boost connectivity all over the UK," he said in a statement.

However, Elizabeth Anderson, interim CEO of charity the Digital Poverty Alliance, said that more needed to be done by the government to address the lack of internet access in some sectors of society as well as rural areas.

"Building on broadband initiatives is a positive step but there is still significant work to be done to support the millions across the UK who suffer from digital poverty, going without essential online services," she said.

"Continued rollouts alongside digital skills training and access to devices must be at the forefront of government policy, businesses and communities to collectively tackle digital exclusion."

CityFibre, one of the UK's largest independent network providers, recently expressed its displeasure at UK regulator Ofcom giving the go-ahead to BT's Openreach for a new discount pricing scheme for ISPs signing customers to its fiber network, with the claim it gives Openreach an unfair advantage.

However, late last year, Openreach was said to be restricting its own investment in fiber to curb costs and said it would prioritize investment in areas where network buildout had already begun, rather than on starting on new builds in additional areas.

Telco analyst Kester Mann of CCS Insight told The Reg: "This is welcome news both for CityFibre's broadband expansion plans and for customers in some of the UK's most remote locations. It also underlines the Government's ambition to narrow the UK's digital divides which were so openly exposed during the pandemic. CityFibre is cementing its credentials as the UK's third broadband provider, bringing much-needed competition to BT's Openreach unit and Virgin Media O2."®

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