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August 30, 2022updated 01 Sep 2022 4:33am

Boris Johnson’s government has played a limited role in the UK 5G broadband roll-out

While the UK is on target to reach 85% of 5G broadband coverage by 2025, it will fall to telco companies rather than government to deliver.

By Sophia Waterfield

Up to 70% of UK homes and businesses can now access 5G broadband, also known as gigabit broadband, with the UK government boasting that one million premises have been connected to the ultra-fast internet in the past five months alone. But despite the government being keen to take credit for the roll-out, an expert told Tech Monitor its success so far is largely down to private sector providers.

Culture secretary Nadine Dorries and Prime Minister Boris Johnson take a look at the progress of the high speed broadband installation in Dorset today (Photo by Number 10 Press Office/ Flickr)

The announcement comes as a Wessex Internet was selected to deliver a contract worth around £6m to provide over 7,000 rural properties with the high-speed internet. To date, the total value of 5G procurements launched is over £690m.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and DCMS secretary Nadine Dorries visited Dorset today to take a look at how the roll-out is progressing, tweeting that he is “proud” of his government’s record on increasing superfast connections.

Dubbed “levelling up in action” by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), access to 5G broadband has reached 70% or 31.4 million premises, according to the research from Think Broadband. This is partly due to the completion of the roll-out of Virgin Media O2 Data Over Cable (DOCSIS 3.1) service at the end of 2021 as well as full fibre (FTTP) roll-outs.

5G broadband coverage in the UK has increased substantially since 2019, when it was just 7%, says DCMS, and is expected to reach the government’s target of 85% coverage by 2025. However, Think Broadband has warned that this target can only be reached if FTTP roll-outs progress – FTTP coverage is currently 39.91%.

“A lot of those roll-outs are overlapping with the Virgin Media O2 cable network, but the Gigabit figures are rising at between 0.5 and 0.8 points a month, so the next 15 points of coverage could be 30 months away or might be as soon as 19 months,” the report says, cautioning that “pace may change” when the roll-out reaches hard to access areas, and as the cost-of-living crisis and high inflation bite.

5G broadband in rural areas over coming months

As part of Project Gigabit – the government's £5bn programme to bring 5G broadband to areas considered too difficult or expensive to connect – over 7,000 hard-to-reach premises will be connected to gigabit broadband.

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Wessex Internet, which was awarded the £6m contract, will connect the first home in Dorset to 5G broadband by the end of 2022, with an expected completion date for all houses by 2025. The project covers rural outskirts of towns, villages and hamlets across the region.

DCMS says work is also due to begin on other rural areas in Cornwall, Cambridgeshire, Cumbira and several areas across north east England before the end of the year.

"Thousands of hard-to-reach homes and businesses in the region will get access to faster connections and join the 20 million properties we’ve helped connect over the past three years," says Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries.

So far, over 740,000 premises have been connected to 5G broadband through government funding. Dorries says that this has been achieved through extending the Superfast programme, the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme and initiatives for public services, known as Gigahubs.

Gigabit uptake is down to private sector and customers, not government

Though the government is keen to take credit for the uptake of 5G broadband through its Project Gigabit programme, it has not been key to the success of the roll-out, says Rob Pritchard, senior analyst at GlobalData.

Speaking to Tech Monitor, Pritchard explains that private telecommunication companies such as Virgin Media O2, OpenReach and CityFibre are the ones that are getting gigabit broadband into homes. However, he warns that there's no clear understanding of the "true customer demand" for 5G broadband and that currently it's a bit of a "land grab".

Pritchard also cautions that broadband "not-spots" could hinder the government's ambitions of reaching the 85% coverage target. "Ironically, you have places in London that are non-spots because there's no space on the pavement for the street furniture," he says.

The cost-of-living crisis could also play a part in uptake of 5G broadband, as customers – both consumer and business – might not move over to gigabit from Superfast Broadband, which has 97% coverage in the UK, if the price isn't low enough.

"The nature of the customer is going to change because of the recession," says Pritchard. "I know gigabit is where the market is going, but it is going there today or in two or three years time?"

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Read more: How 5G is pushing mobile operators into the telco cloud

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