Not so fast: Stourbridge’s MP and Minister for Digital admits it will be another 15 years before the UK gets nationwide ‘super quick’ fibre optic broadband coverage

The Government’s promise of ’lightning quick’ fibre-optic broadband connections across the UK will not be met until 2033, Digital Minister and Stourbridge MP Margot James confirmed in Parliament.

Ms James’ low-key acknowledgement came just months after she toured radio stations and newspapers to promote the Government’s ’superfast success’.

The extent of the 15-year timescale the Govt has now set itself was revealed in Ms James’ reply to another MP’s unrelated question on regional broadband funding.

She told opposition MP Dan Jarvis: “We are committed to full fibre across the whole of the UK with nationwide coverage by 2033’.

Ms James’ department’s long-term target emerged after telecoms industry insiders concluded that a quoted £200m package of support for the national network that was announced in the October Budget involves no new money.

Instead, some of the public funding that was previously earmarked to support private initatives like the controversial Virgin Media-led Project Lightning excavation and installation programme will be shifted from an urban focus to rural roll-outs. Even so, industry analyst Mark Jackson questioned if the ‘aspirational’ 2033 target is ‘viable’.

Ms James said in her statement that the shift in priorities is so that hardest-to-reach areas get connected at the same pace as the rest of the country. The Government has been under heavy pressure from the influential Country Landowners Association (CLA) to focus on a rural roll-out to more remote businesses and properties.

The much hyped declaration by Ms James’ Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to get the UK ‘globally connected’ has been dogged by delays, confusion and complaints about private providers’ broken promises on streaming speeds and damage to properties.

In January, Ms James – the then newly appointed Digital Minister – hit local headlines when she embarked on a promotional campaign to ‘celebrate’ the Government’s policies in broadband expansion, highlighting parts of the Black Country as superfast hotspots.

At the time, the MP challenged local customers who she said were slow to grasp the new higher speeds now available with fibre broadband. She Tweeted that ‘roughly half who (could) have access have not yet taken it up.’ She urged them to contact their provider and get connected.

But just weeks earlier, a survey of global internet performance indicators had delivered a damning verdict on the connectivity standards and charges experienced by users in the UK. It concluded that the domestic network is ‘far slower and more costly’ than services in other countries’

Consumer telecoms analysts for internet connectivity consultants who took part in the study said global broadband speed tests showed that the UK is ‘a broadband laggard’ with average speeds that rank it 31st in the world.

In Decermber 2017, the DCMS amended the Electronic Communications Act to give broadband installers like Virgin Media far freer access to public and private properties, giving them enforcement powers over individuals, landowners and local authorities who ‘obstruct’ their progress.

In October 2018, Ms James Tweeted her delight at Virgin Media’s victory over a cash-strapped local authority’s attempt to impose charges on the media corporation for access after residents complained about damage caused by their sub-contracted broadband installation crews.

The Stourbridge MP has taken a high-visibility role in the Government’s strategy to switch the UK to a digital economy with emphasis on the creative industries, including gaming, television and films. She represented the UK at the four-day WebSummit conference in Lisbon in November, among a string of appearances at digital culture events and launches.

Low Fibre diet? In June, Ms James told Parliament that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has ruled that broadband companies can describe their hybrid fibre/copper broadband packages as ‘fibre’ (high capacity ‘speed-of-light’ optical links) even though the connection to customers is partly over the older, much slower copper network that still carries much of the UK’s internet traffic. A Judicial Review into an appeal against the ASA decision was lodged by small all-optic cable company CityFibre the same month has yet to be concluded.

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