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Broadband users in rural areas are being left behind, NAO warns

Broadband users in rural areas are being left behind in major network upgrade, spending watchdog warn

  • Report by the NAO says target of nationwide broadband by 2025 is ‘challenging’
  • The National Audit Office said this could mean rural areas are left until last
  • One in five premises in rural areas lack access to basic broadband speeds
  • NAO: The rural-urban divide could become worse if rural areas not prioritised

Rural communities are at risk of being left behind again in a major upgrade of the broadband network, the government spending watchdog has warned.

In a report published today, the National Audit Office (NAO) says a target to reach nationwide coverage of fibre broadband by 2025 is ‘challenging’ and could mean countryside areas are left until last.

The NAO said 20 per cent of premises in rural areas lacked access to basic broadband speeds, compared to 3 per cent in urban areas, despite a previous £1.9 billion programme to improve connectivity. 

Rural communities are at risk of being left behind again in a major upgrade of the broadband network, the National Audit Office warned today

And it said the rural-urban divide could become worse if rural areas are not prioritised.

The NAO said: ‘The UK has a broadband network that does not reach everyone and is not fully future-proof.’

A Government spokesman said: ‘We are not only helping industry speed up its work by removing the barriers to quicker deployment, but also investing £5 billion so the hardest-to-reach areas are not left behind.’

The NAO said that companies such as BT would have to increase their fibre building rates from 1.5 million premises per year to 6 million ‘immediately’ in order to meet the 2025 target – a task that industry experts say is almost impossible.

On top of this, the speed increase would also have to be achieved in rural areas where work is oftem hampered by difficult terrain.

The NAO said this posed the risk that the Government may instead put other areas first, seeking to ‘deliver to as many premises as possible in the timeframe, rather than starting with those in greatest need’.

The NAO said the rural-urban divide could become worse if rural areas are not prioritised

The NAO said 20 per cent of premises in rural areas lacked access to basic broadband speeds, compared to 3 per cent in urban areas

Gareth Davies, the watchdog’s head, added: ‘Less than a decade after launching the superfast programme the Government has identified the need to upgrade the broadband network again.

‘To deliver the vision, [it] must manage the tension between meeting a challenging timeline and serving those in greatest need.

‘Failure to do so risks leaving the hardest to reach areas even further behind and widening the urban-rural divide.’

Following a national rollout of ‘superfast’ broadband connections, defined as delivering speeds of at least 30 megabits per second, about 95 per cent of the UK now has access to decent broadband.

But internet usage is surging by 40 per cent every year, as households increasingly use high-definition video streaming services, meaning another upgrade will soon be needed.

That has prompted ministers to promise connections of 100 megabits per second or more in future, by replacing the Victorian-era copper wires that still run into most households with cutting-edge fibre optic cables.

Companies such as BT would have to increase their fibre building rates from 1.5 million premises per year to 6 million ‘immediately’ in order to meet the 2025 target

Boris Johnson last year suggested speeding up this work so that the entire UK would have gigabit coverage by 2025.

He said a previous official target of 2033 was ‘laughably unambitious’, adding: ‘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.

‘Of course they will say it can’t be done… but it can.’

But following criticism of the how the last broadband upgrade was carried out, ministers promised to take an ‘outside-in’ approach to make sure rural areas received coverage first.

However, the NAO said this could prove ‘challenging’ because of the huge increase in building activity that will be needed.

It called on the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to set out a ‘detailed plan and schedule’ for how this would be done and to be ‘transparent’ about its progress.

The NAO also called for assurance that ministers ‘will prioritise the hardest to reach premises first’.

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