More than 250 small towns and villages at risk of being left behind in the internet revolution are to get next-generation full-fibre broadband over the next three years.
Millions of homes and businesses located in rural areas, from the Scottish Highlands to the Welsh valleys, have suffered from poor internet service because providers have been reluctant to build faster networks due to prohibitive costs and low economic returns. Telecoms regulator Ofcom estimates that there are about 9.6m homes and businesses situated in this so-called “final third” of the country.
BT subsidiary Openreach has unveiled plans to guarantee to build full-fibre broadband to 3.2m premises in these hard to reach locations over the next three years. Locations on the list include Thurso in the far north of Scotland, Aberystwyth on Cardigan Bay in Wales and Lingfield in Surrey.
“This commitment will provide a great economic boost for rural areas, where it is clear connectivity has traditionally lagged behind more urban areas,” said Tim Bonner, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance. “As we have seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, digital connectivity has been essential for the millions who are home schooling and working from home.”
The UK has been a global laggard when it comes to the rollout of full-fibre broadband, as currently only about 10% of UK households have access to it, with BT’s Openreach sticking to its old copper network instead of investing in new technology.
“We are determined to find inventive engineering solutions and effective partnership funding models to reduce costs and enable us to connect as many communities across the UK without public subsidy,” said Clive Shelley, chief executive of Openreach.
Boris Johnson has said he wants a complete “gigabit speed” UK network by 2025, a combination of full fibre and other super fast technology used in Virgin Media’s cable broadband network, and has pledging a £5bn fund to support services reaching the most remote parts of the UK.
“This announcement is a welcome step towards eradicating the digital divide between urban and rural areas,” said Mark Bridgeman, president of the CLA, whose members own or manage about half the rural land in England and Wales.
Full-fibre broadband to every household would enable at least 400,000 more people to work from home or remotely, and 300m commuting trips could be saved each year, according to research by the Centre for Economics & Business Research (CEBR).