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UK broadband expansion facilitates festive film-fest...for a few

The UK government is talking up its recent endeavours to expand access to high-speed broadband in difficult-to-reach areas, claiming to have committed more than half a billion pounds to the cause in 2023 alone.

Mary Lennighan

December 15, 2023

3 Min Read

But while its usual modus operandi is to highlight the socio-economic benefits of broader and better broadband coverage, on this occasions the government has selected a more festive focus to help spread its message.

"Gigabit broadband speeds mean households can download a high-definition film in under one minute, stream and download entertainment and shop online across several different devices at once," Friday's announcement from the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) read. "This will save families from battling over bandwidth, nipping any family arguments in the bud when parents want to tune into It's a Wonderful Life or the King's Christmas broadcast, while children want to see Kevin McCallister tangle with would-be burglars at the same time."

In fairness, it did add a comment about how Gigabit broadband can boost productivity for businesses and pave the way for new opportunities and economic growth too.

"Whether they are streaming classic Christmas movies or video calling loved ones across the world, this year thousands more families will not have to face feuds over festive films or frustrating buffering, leaving more time to spend enjoying the company of their nearest and dearest," said Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology Michelle Donelan.

The Christmas connectivity caper is a way for DSIT to demonstrate the progress it has made over the course of 2023 in expanding access to high-speed Internet via Project Gigabit. But the way the data is being presented is something of a charade.

All this talk of household harmony over the Christmas period is a bit premature. According to DSIT, the government has committed more than £530 million in funding to boost broadband to 330,000 hard-to-reach homes and business across the country this year. That's great. But how many of those homes and businesses will actually have Gigabit broadband by Christmas? The announcement doesn't say, but the pace of development with these things is rarely rapid.

Indeed, one of the major recipients to date of Project Gigabit funding is major UK altnet CityFibre, which won funding for a rollout in Cambridgeshire back in March, followed by a handful of other locations later in the year. It contracted engineering firms in September and pledged to have the first Cambridgeshire homes passed sometime in October. There may be live customers on some of the 2023 Project Gigabit awards, but probably not many (see below).

Further, the most recent funding award that bumped the total up to the government's headline figure came on Friday, when it announced a £33 million funding award for a project to cover 17,000 homes and businesses in rural Derbyshire. "Spades [are] expected in the ground by next summer," it said.

Thus it could be next Christmas at the earliest before those residents are able to watch two different family favourites at once.

Nonetheless, the UK connectivity project is moving forwards. Gigabit broadband coverage in the UK now stands at 79%, the government said, reminding us that it is shooting for 85% by 2025 and nationwide by 2030. It also reiterated the figures from Building Digital UK's (BDUK's) latest progress update, published last month, that show 929,700 homes and businesses had access to Gigabit broadband as of March, as a result of its various interventions.

However, the bulk of those were via the government's Superfast Programme, which dates back to 2010, while just over 200,000 were connected as a result of the Vouchers scheme that enables eligible residents and businesses to apply for small grants to cover the cost of extending Gigabit broadband to their premises.

The same set of figures puts the number of premises passed via Gigabit contracts at zero, although the small print shows that there were actually a few – fewer than 200 – and some are still subject to further testing.

So, as much as the government has packaged up this Gigabit connectivity data into a pretty package, accompanied by images of happy families hunched over their separate screens while they tackle the turkey, that half a billion pounds of state funding committed this year will not have an impact on anyone's Christmas in 2023. Bah, humbug!

About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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