Government outlines delivery plan for £5bn ‘Project Gigabit’ 

The government has today announced details of the first phase of Project Gigabit. This follows its public consultation, “Planning for Gigabit Delivery in 2021”, which sought views on how to spend its £5 billion funding commitment to bring gigabit broadband to hard to reach areas.

The first phase of the project will reach more than one million “hard to reach” homes and businesses in the following areas:

  • 110,000 to 130,000 premises in Durham, South Tyneside & Tees Valley and areas of Northumberland - including Darlington, Stockton, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, Sunderland, Gateshead and South Tyneside
  • 60,000 to 80,000 premises in West Cumbria including in the Lake District National Park
  • 30,000 to 50,000 premises in North and West Northumberland and East Cumbria - including Brampton and Rothbury
  • 120,00 to 140,000 premises in Cambridgeshire and adjacent areas - including Peterborough and parts of Northamptonshire, Essex, Hertfordshire and Rutland
  • 40,000 to 60,000 premises in East Cornwall - including Launceston, Callington and Looe
  • 30,000 to 50,000 premises in West Cornwall - including in Cambourne-Pool-Redruth and Penzance and the Isles of Scilly

Contracts for these first areas will go to tender in the spring, with work to commence in the first half of 2022. In June the government expects to announce the next procurements to connect up to 640,000 premises in Norfolk, Shropshire, Suffolk, Worcestershire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

The government-funded projects prioritise areas that currently have slow connections and which would otherwise have been left behind in broadband companies’ rollout plans.

Oliver Dowden, the digital secretary, explained, “Project Gigabit is our national mission to plug in and power up every corner of the UK and get us gigafit for the future. We have already made rapid progress, with almost 40 percent of homes and businesses now able to access next-generation gigabit speeds, compared to just 9 percent in 2019. Now we are setting out our plans to invest £5 billion in remote and rural areas so that no one is left behind by the connectivity revolution.”

Greg Mesch, CEO of CityFibre, said, “Project Gigabit is another welcome accelerant that will propel the UK towards a full fibre future, supporting economic growth and levelling up opportunity right across the country. As the nation’s largest independent full fibre platform, with a build programme underway to a third of the UK market, CityFibre is ready to extend our network even further to reach rural communities. We look forward to participating in this important programme to ensure no one is left behind.”

Gareth Williams, Gigaclear CEO, added, “As a rural operator already delivering multiple ‘Superfast’ BDUK contracts, we are naturally delighted to see the next step in the development of the Outside In programme. We look forward to playing an active role in meeting this ambition and will review these opportunities in detail.”

Reaching all nations

There are already major programmes delivering gigabit broadband in the devolved administrations, including R100 in Scotland and Phase 3 of the UK government’s previous superfast broadband programme in Wales. In Northern Ireland, the UK government has invested £150 million in Project Stratum, which will connect approximately 76,000 homes and businesses to gigabit broadband. The first live connections under the scheme were delivered last week in County Tyrone.

In England, on top of these six regional contracts, there will be further local supplier contacts in Essex and Dorset. This first release of procurement contracts for England follows central Scotland recently being named as the first area to receive Project Gigabit funding.

Voucher scheme

The government is also investing up to £210 million to build on the success of its Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme. Launched in March 2018, the scheme provided rural homes and businesses struggling with slow broadband speeds with vouchers to cover the installation costs of bringing gigabit connectivity to people’s homes and businesses. Over 66,000 vouchers, worth up to £127 million, have been issued to premises across the UK.

The new vouchers are worth up to £1,500 for residents and up to £3,500 for businesses. They will go live on 8 April 2021, and there will be a new online postcode checker available so people can check if their home or business is eligible for a voucher.

Public sector

The government also wants to connect up to 7,000 rural public buildings in order to improve public services. Up to £110 million will be invested to connect public buildings such as rural schools, doctors’ surgeries and libraries to gigabit broadband.

The Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport said it will engage with local bodies and government departments to identify suitable projects, and expects the first of these to be progressed this summer.

Call for evidence 

There are remote places in the UK that may be too expensive to build a gigabit-capable broadband network to, even with substantial public subsidy. For these areas, which are mainly located in remote and isolated locations in Scotland and Wales, and some National Parks in England, a call for evidence has been launched to explore the barriers to improving their broadband and how innovative new technologies might help change this.

This could lead to the government “encouraging industry” to use emerging connectivity technologies, such as low-orbit satellites or high-altitude platforms to reach these areas.

Industry response

Initial reaction to today’s announcement has been broadly positive, yet some question the current timeline. Matthew Evans, director for markets at technology trade organisation techUK, said, “Project Gigabit is the missing piece of the puzzle for delivering world class digital infrastructure to the whole of the UK, with the private sector set to deliver up to 80 per cent coverage following Ofcom’s announcement yesterday. Gigabit services will help boost national and regional economies, improve the resilience of our networks and help transform how we deliver public services. To accelerate the pace of the rollout it is essential that Government works with the grain of industry’s existing offerings which is why the voucher scheme is particularly welcome.

“However, if we are to meet the ambitious targets for Gigabit coverage, then government must bring forward more than the £1.2bn that is currently allocated up to 2025. This, combined with action to reduce barriers to deployment, will ensure that the hardest to reach businesses and households benefit from better connectivity as quickly as possible.”