The Government’s target is for gigabit broadband to be available nationwide by 2030. This paper covers the Government’s targets and policy on gigabit-broadband roll-out.
What is gigabit-capable broadband?
Gigabit-capable broadband means download speeds of at least 1 gigabit-per-second (1 Gbps or 1000 megabits per second, Mbps). A 1 Gbps download speed would allow a high-definition film to be downloaded in under 1 minute.
Gigabit-capable broadband can be delivered by a range of technologies, including: full-fibre connections, high-speed cable broadband and potentially 5G networks.
Does the UK need an infrastructure upgrade?
95% of UK premises have a superfast broadband connection available (download speed of at least 30 Mbps), provided mostly by part-fibre, part-copper networks.
Although superfast broadband is sufficient for most household needs, the demand for services that use a lot of data, such as online video streaming, is increasing. The coronavirus pandemic has further highlighted the need for widely available and reliable digital connectivity. Around 1.3 million premises do not have a superfast broadband connection available as of September 2021.
Where is gigabit-broadband available currently?
In September 2021, 46% of UK premises had a gigabit-broadband connection available, according to telecoms regulator, Ofcom.
In early December 2021, Virgin Media O2 completed upgrading its network so that all connected premises could access gigabit download speeds. Ofcom estimated that gigabit-broadband was available to 60% of UK premises at the end of 2021 following this upgrade.
Broadband data website Thinkbroadband reported that 66% of premises had gigabit-broadband available in the week commencing 7 February 2022. Thinkbroadband uses a different methodology to Ofcom and its data is published weekly. Its coverage figures tend to be a few percentage points higher than Ofcom estimates that follow later. Ofcom’s next release, showing data up to January 2022, is due to be published in May.
The Library’s broadband data dashboard allows users to explore where gigabit-broadband is available by constituency.
The Government’s manifesto commitment was to deliver nationwide gigabit-broadband by 2025. That target was revised in November 2020 to a minimum of 85% of premises by 2025.
The Levelling Up White Paper published in February 2022 set a new target: for gigabit-broadband to be available nationwide by 2030. Nationwide coverage means “at least 99%” of premises.
The Government says it remains committed to meet 85% of premises by 2025. The ‘nationwide-by-2030’ target therefore puts a timeline for connecting the remaining 15% of premises, which will mostly require public funding support.
The 2030 target is considered more realistic by industry stakeholders but the delay from 2025 has been described as a “blow to rural communities”. The Government says the revised targets reflect how quickly industry could build in hard to reach areas requiring public funding alongside their commercial roll-out.
The Public Accounts Committee said in January 2022 that it was “not convinced” that the Government was on track to meet its targets and that its approach to gigabit-broadband roll-out “risks perpetuating digital inequality across the UK”.
How will gigabit-broadband be rolled out?
The Government’s policy is that gigabit-broadband infrastructure will be mostly built using private investment. Private companies decide when and where to build infrastructure based on commercial factors. There are many companies are building new networks including small operators focusing on particular geographical areas.
The Government has pledged £5 billion funding to deliver gigabit-broadband to properties not reached by the commercial market (around 20% of the UK). These properties are mostly in rural areas. Funding plans for these areas is covered in the Library briefing, Gigabit-broadband in the UK: public funding.
Policy reforms required to meet the target
Part of the Government’s strategy on gigabit broadband roll-out is to bring policy reforms to make it easier for the telecoms industry to build infrastructure and to promote a competitive market for new networks.
The Government has been working on reforms including to make it easier to access land to install infrastructure and to ensure that new homes are built with gigabit-broadband installed. Industry stakeholders have also been calling for further tax relief on new gigabit investments and for the Government to address skilled labour shortages that could delay roll-out.
In January 2022 the Public Accounts Committee said it was disappointed that the government had “still not taken significant action to remove barriers” to roll-out.
In the last two years commercial investment and build plans have significantly expanded. Chief executive of the National Infrastructure Commission James Heath said in November 2021 that the Commission now felt the Government had a “clear plan in place” for digital infrastructure roll-out that was “working so far”. The Government says it is confident that 85% of premises can be met by 2025.
Is telecommunications a reserved power?
The UK Government has primary responsibility for broadband policy and coverage targets because telecommunications is a reserved power.
However, the delivery of broadband infrastructure projects often involves local authorities or devolved responsibilities, such as building regulations, planning and business rates.