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The Government’s target is for gigabit broadband to be available to 85% of the UK by 2025 and nationwide by 2030. This paper discusses the background to these targets and the Government’s policies on the rollout of gigabit broadband.

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.

What is gigabit-capable broadband?

Gigabit-capable broadband means download speeds of at least 1 gigabit-per-second (1 Gbps or 1,000 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, high-speed cable broadband, and potentially wireless technologies.

New gigabit-capable networks are primarily being built using full fibre technology. The cable broadband network is owned by Virgin Media O2, which has finished upgrading its network to gigabit speeds. Wireless networks may be the most economically viable option in very hard to reach areas.

Where is gigabit-broadband available currently?

In January 2023, 72% of UK premises had a gigabit-broadband connection available, according to telecoms regulator, Ofcom.

Broadband data website Thinkbroadband reported that 76% of premises had gigabit-broadband available in June 2023. 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 May 2023, is due to be published in September.

The Library’s broadband data dashboard allows users to explore where gigabit-broadband is available by constituency.

Government targets

The Government’s 2019 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, most of which will 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 Public Accounts Committee argued in January 2022 that the Government’s approach to the gigabit broadband roll-out “risks perpetuating digital inequality across the UK”.

The Government says the revised targets reflect how quickly industry could build in hard to reach areas that need public funding alongside their commercial roll-out.

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 expects that with the support of targeted policy reforms 80% of UK premises can be reached through commercial investment alone. The remaining 20% will require public subsidies.

Policy reforms 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.

Public funding for gigabit broadband

The Government has promised £5 billion to subsidise the roll-out of gigabit-broadband to the ‘hardest to reach’ premises in the country that will not be reached by private investment (20% of the UK). This is around 5 million premises, mostly in rural areas.

The funding programme is called ‘Project Gigabit’. It is delivered by Building Digital UK (BDUK), an executive agency within the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT).

Project Gigabit has three main parts:

  • A series of procurements subsidising the roll-out of gigabit-capable broadband in specific areas. Broadband suppliers bid for contracts to build in each area.
  • A voucher scheme for residents and businesses in eligible rural areas to subsidise the cost of a new gigabit-capable connection. A postcode-checker on the Government’s voucher scheme website allows individuals to see if they are in an eligible area.
  • Funding to connect public sector buildings such as schools (called ‘GigaHubs’).

BDUK is planning for Project Gigabit to reach at least 1.56 million premises by 2025. That equates to 5% of UK premises. The agency says that 600,000 have already been reached, primarily by reconfiguring existing contracts awarded during the rollout of superfast broadband. It anticipates transitional years of slower growth as these contracts expire and new ones go out for procurement.

BDUK publishes quarterly progress updates that provide indicative timetables for procurements across the UK.

The devolved administrations also have their own broadband roll-out projects ongoing that are building gigabit-capable connections. These are: the R100 programme in Scotland, Superfast Cymru in Wales and Project Stratum in Northern Ireland.

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