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Government risks missing 5G and faster broadband targets, MPs warn

Martyn Landi, PA Technology Correspondent
·3-min read

The Government risks repeating the legacy of mobile signal “not-spots” through its handling of the introduction of 5G, MPs have warned.

A report from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee said plans to target 5G signal at population density rather than landmass could create rural signal blackspots.

It also said that evidence given to the committee as part of its Broadband and the Road to 5G inquiry suggested there was little confidence in the Government to deliver on its pledge of gigabit-capable broadband nationwide by 2025, with “no genuine belief” within the telecoms sector that the plan was achievable.

MPs highlighted the Government’s decision to already row back on the promise – it is now aiming for 85% coverage by 2025 – warning that it would not be acceptable to have abandoned one unrealistic target only to then fail to meet a second through a lack of effective planning or inadequate investment.

The Government’s target for majority 5G coverage by 2027 is also labelled “equally ambitious” by the report, and MPs warn that the ban of using high-risk vendors such as Huawei in network infrastructure is likely to cause issues.

Julian Knight, chairman of the DCMS Committee, said: “The Government’s decision to abandon its 2025 gigabit-capable broadband target within weeks of ministers reassuring us of their commitment to it was a belated recognition that it was unrealistic and unachievable, underlining concerns we’d heard from industry.

“Valuable time has been lost, making meeting even the revised-down target a major challenge.

“On 5G, the Government’s target to deliver to the majority of the population, rather than the majority of the country, risks repeating the same errors that led to mobile ‘not-spots’ with investors cherry-picking areas of high population and leaving people in remote rural areas without a hope.”

In 2019, 5G began rolling out in the UK, with the fifth-generation mobile technology predicted to spark a data revolution around the world thanks to its ability to handle larger amounts of data and process it more quickly.

In its recommendations to the Government, the committee urges ministers to outline how likely it considers its 85% coverage broadband target to be met by 2025 and to detail how the remaining £3.8 billion of a £5 billion budget for delivering the high-speed broadband to hard-to-reach areas has been ringfenced.

The committee also encouraged the Government to continue to prioritise those with the worst connectivity during the rollout of new technologies.

In the wake of the report, the Government published its next steps in its £5 billion broadband rollout plan, which says it hopes to connect the first one million homes and businesses by 2025 as well as maximise coverage in the hardest to reach 20% of the UK.

Homes and businesses who do not yet have access to superfast broadband will be prioritised.

To deliver the new connectivity, the Government said it will look to use a range of schemes, including contracts for £5 billion in public funding and broadband vouchers.

It said some parts of England will require government intervention and subsidy to deliver the required networks, and it expects broadband suppliers to prioritise people with slower speeds.

While a series of smaller contracts to connect thousands of premises will also be used in some areas in order to stimulate competition across a range of smaller and rural specialist telecoms providers.

Minister for Digital Infrastructure, Matt Warman, said: “Today we’ve set out our bold programme of national infrastructure projects to future-proof the UK’s internet networks so we can build back better from coronavirus and create new jobs and economic opportunities.

“We will begin these procurements rapidly so broadband providers big and small can move quickly to get the job done and level up communities with this much faster, next-generation broadband.”