MPs warn that counties could become ‘poor relation’ to cities in gigabit broadband rollout, with just one in five rural properties connected so far

CCN Latest News, CCN News 2021 | 21 October 2021

Just one in five businesses and homes in county areas have access to gigabit broadband speeds – compared to over three quarters of London – with MPs warning that rural shires could be the ‘poor relation’ to cities in the government’s gigabit rollout.

The findings come in a new report Levelling Up Digital Connectivity in Counties from the County All-Party Parliamentary Group, which explores the challenges in rural connectivity.

The study analyses the rollout of the government’s flagship gigabit broadband scheme so far which aims to have 85% of the United Kingdom accessing gigabit speeds by 2025. Earlier this month, the Prime Minister said that the government was on track to roll out gigabit to 68% of the country by the end of 2021.

But today’s analysis, produced with the County Councils Network (CCN) shows that just 21% of premises in county areas have access to gigabit broadband –  2.4m out of a total of 11.7m, based on the latest Ofcom data.

Those areas are lagging far behind London, which has 77% gigabit coverage, and large towns and cities in the North and the West Midlands, which have on average 51% coverage.

Ten counties have got less than 15% gigabit coverage – Cumbria, Dorset, Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, North Yorkshire, Northumberland, Shropshire, Somerset, and Surrey.

MPs say that there is a real risk that those county areas end up the ‘poor relation’ to the urban areas and cities for gigabit speeds, as they were for years with superfast speeds. County MPs have called on the government to prioritise their areas from now on.

In August, the government committed to connecting an additional 1.8m properties across 26 counties as part of its ‘Project Gigabit’ fund, but ahead of the Spending Review, county MPs have called on the government to urgently ramp up its investment further. Only £1.2bn of the £5bn for ‘Project Gigabit’ will be made available up to 2024 – including just £100m in 2021-22.

County MPs fear that the government’s downscaling of its original 100% gigabit reach target to 85% of the UK’s properties could mean counties are de-prioritised with ministers instead focusing on the places easiest to rollout gigabit broadband to hit their 2025 target, putting county areas at a long-term disadvantage.

The government estimates that 20% of the UK will need to be subsidised by its £5bn fund, but the rural nature of many county areas means that the number of premises in their areas is requiring a subsidy or public sector support to achieve a gigabit connection is likely to be higher than other parts of the country. Some counties estimate up to 40% of their premises are uncommercial to connect.

But county MPs argue that improving connectivity and speeds in county areas will be integral to the levelling-up agenda and the economic recovery effort, particularly in attracting the businesses of the future who are digitally based, alongside providing opportunities to re-train people.

The report calls for the government to consider devolving digital infrastructure budgets as part of county devolution deals that are currently being negotiated between government and several county areas. This would enable local authorities to target the hardest to reach communities. MPs also recommend that government makes available a fair and proportionate amount of funding in the Levelling-Up and UK Shared Prosperity Funds to those county areas.

The report also reveals that the number of people claiming Universal Credit has doubled since the beginning pandemic – a 95% spike – the report warns that a reliable internet connection is paramount for those individuals who are seeking re-employment. It recommends that the Department of Work and Pensions recommends subsidising digital access for Universal Credit claimants.

Peter Aldous MP, Chairman of the County All-Party Parliamentary Group, said:

“Like heating and water, an internet connection has increasingly become a necessary utility for households, with the pandemic making digital an even more vital part of our everyday lives. In committing to giving 85% of the country access to gigabit speeds by 2025, the government recognises this and has made broadband one of its flagship policies.

“Whilst progress in connectivity has been rapid since 2019, much of this has been focused on London and the major cities so far, and there is a real risk that county areas are once again the poor relation in internet speeds unless the government urgently prioritises county areas.

“If the government’s levelling-up and economic recovery efforts are to be successful, providing fast and reliable broadband must be part of the equation. It is vital that this investment reaches left-behind county areas, and local county authorities stand ready to work with government on the rollout.”