Boris Johnson has been accused of trying to bury bad news after the government quietly ditched his pledge to give all homes superfast broadband by 2025.
The prime minister came under fire from business and telecoms chiefs as the small print of the chancellor’s spending review revealed that planned spending on the roll-out of the technology had also been slashed from £5bn to £1.2bn.
Labour said Johnson had been caught “sneaking out” the abandoned target and the spending cut as the country focused on plans for new coronavirus tiers.
Up to 5 million people are set to lose out as a result and critics have pointed out that high-speed broadband is needed more than ever during the coronavirus pandemic as home working becomes the norm.
The Tory election commitment to deliver “gigabit-capable” broadband to every home and company across the UK within five years was a landmark pledge, bringing forward by eight years a similar goal of predecessor Theresa May.
Johnson repeatedly campaigned on the promise, which he said was a central part of his “levelling up” agenda to make rural and urban parts of Britain ready for a post-Brexit future.
The broadband pledge was first made in his speech on the steps of Downing Street when he first took office. He had ridiculed May’s own 2033 timetable as “laughably unambitious”.
The manifesto boasted: “We know how difficult it will be, so we have announced a raft of legislative changes to accelerate progress and £5 billion of new public funding to connect premises which are not commercially viable.”
But buried in this week’s spending review was a sharp drop in planned spending. The accompanying National Infrastructure Strategy confirmed the target of 100% of homes with superfast broadband by 2025 had been watered down to a “minimum of 85% coverage” by that date.
The strategy said that the government would “seek to accelerate roll-out further to get as close to 100pc as possible”.
Shadow digital secretary Jo Stevens told HuffPost UK: “Not only is this broken promise another kick in the teeth for businesses and families up and down the country, it’s yet another example exposing his hollow promises.
“This year has underlined just how essential good broadband is for businesses, families and individuals. No one should be held back and penalised because of poor broadband connection. Sneaking this out in the spending review is not good enough – the government should be much more ambitious for our country.”
Johnson said in October last year he was not sure what gigabit broadband was but promised it would be “sprouting through every home like a kind of very informative vermicelli”.
Government insiders say that the main reason for the change was feedback from some industry providers that the works on the hardest to reach 20% of homes could not be achieved within the PM’s timeframe.
But without the cash, several firms say privately that they are more likely to focus on the more commercial rollout of the broadband network.
Some in Whitehall also claim that both the pandemic and the decision to exclude Chinese firm Huawei from future infrastructure plans have setback the scheduled works.
Craig Beaumont, of the Federation of Small Business, said: “Covid has shown that a good connection at home is fundamental for work and business.
“This is not good news for businesses in rural areas, nor those made redundant in the coming months who we hope will want to become self-employed and set up in business from their kitchen table.”
The broadband industry is entering the key deployment phase for the new gigabit capable network and many firms are demanding immediate clarity on the remaining £3.8bn and how they should recalibrate their build plans, recruitment and investment decisions.
The industry’s Internet Service Providers’ Association said it was disappointed to see only a quarter of the committed spending on broadband allocated across the next four years.
Andrew Glover, chair of ISPA, said: “The announcement scaling back the government’s ambitions for supporting broadband rollout in the hardest to reach areas is a blow to rural communities.
“This will not stop providers from continuing to press ahead with their commercial rollout plans, but it puts an even greater emphasis on tackling the regulatory and practical barriers that make rollout more difficult than it should be.
“As our experiences over 2020 have proved, our broadband infrastructure is fundamental to propping up the UK’s economy in periods of lockdown, so we urge the Government to ensure that this policy pivot does not lead to longer term digital exclusion of those in harder to reach areas.”
Sarah Lee, head of policy at the Countryside Alliance, said: “The spending review has prompted questions over when, how and whether rural communities will get gigabit broadband.
“This is a significant concern for rural communities and businesses who now more than ever need better digital connectivity. If ever the business potential of the countryside is to reach its full potential, indeed recover economically from COVID-19, it must have gigabit broadband sooner rather than later.”
Digital minister Matt Warman had told MPs on the digital select committee a few weeks ago that the 2025 100% rollout was “a stretch goal that we are more than capable of meeting.”
Kevin Brennan, a Labour MP on the committee, accused Warman at the time of spouting “meaningless drivel”. Brennan told HuffPost UK: “This is typical of Boris Johnson’s casual relationship with keeping his word - if he pledged a target to keep 50% of his promises few people would even believe that.”
A DCMS spokesperson said: “We remain committed to ensuring the UK’s hardest-to-reach areas benefit from our record £5 billion gigabit broadband investment. We will continue working with the industry to maximise rollout in rural areas to get as close as possible to nationwide coverage by 2025.”