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DCMS Update on Plan for UK Rural Gigabit Broadband Vouchers


The UK Government (DCMS / BDUK) has confirmed a few more details about the future of their £200m Rural Gigabit Connectivity (RGC) programme to broadband ISPs, which is due to end on the 31st March 2021 but is widely expected to be superseded by a new programme with a fresh pot of “over” £250m.

The RGC was launched in May 2019 with the goal of helping properties, particularly those in some of the remotest rural locations, to access significantly faster broadband. One part of that involves a voucher scheme, which normally offers up to £3,500 for small businesses or up to £1,500 for residents, to help them get an ultrafast or gigabit broadband connection installed (many of these vouchers were recently doubled in value).


NOTE: Gigabit capable broadband networks currently cover 37%+ of UK premises and rising rapidly (here), thanks largely to commercial builds in urban areas (expected to reach 70-80% of premises).

Sadly, this scheme was always due to end on 31st March 2021 (or sooner if the funding runs out first), although a successor programme will follow as part of the Government’s £5bn UK Gigabit Broadband Programme (F20), which itself aims to help extend “gigabit-capable” network coverage to a minimum of 85% by the end of 2025 – before getting “as close to 100% as possible” (this scheme targets its help toward the final 20% of predominantly rural premises).


Until now we haven’t seen a lot of detail concerning how this transition would be handled, such as whether or not the new scheme would be a carbon copy of the old one with a few tweaks (it needs to be done in a way that complements rather than competes with F20) or exactly how much funding would be allocated to it.

The Building Digital UK programme (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport) has now issued a new letter (email) to network providers that answers a few of these questions. ISPreview.co.uk has also seen this message and we’ve summarised a few of the key points below.


RGC Closure and New Scheme Plans

— All RGC vouchers issued in connection with requests made prior to the closure of the scheme still have a 12-month validity, during which time the connections should be made and vouchers claimed (i.e. ISPs will have 12 months to complete their deployments after the last voucher is issued, so BDUK will be paying out for these up until 31st March 2022).

— The last date a supplier will be able to submit a Pre Registered Package (PRP) voucher application under the Scheme will be 5pm on Friday 19th February 2021 (after this point there “will not be enough time” to process these before the RGC scheme closes).

— BDUK says they’re “considering over” £250m worth of new funding for vouchers as part of the wider UK Gigabit Programme.

— The new voucher scheme would no longer treat premises that are in an Ofcom Area 2 area as eligible to receive voucher funding, which is intended to target the funding at delivery in the hardest to reach areas which are least likely to receive commercial rollout. Area 2 is a new “potentially competitive area” definition (part of the Wholesale Fixed Telecoms Market Review 2021-26) that generally reflects locations where one or more existing alternative ultrafast networks are already present or where one or more operators have a plan to deploy (and Ofcom considers the future rollout could be economic).

— The transfer of existing PRPs to the new programme is a possibility. A “large” number of in-flight, fluid projects exist that don’t feature any Ofcom Area 2 premises and which have headroom for more vouchers in the future, albeit after the old scheme ends. As a result, a new process is being established for a supplier to indicate a preference to transfer a PRP to any voucher funding that may become available under the new scheme. Obviously, this won’t be extended to any Ofcom Area 2 premises. Active projects can expect to hear more about the impact of this shortly.


However, it is important to note that the arrangements and details of the new scheme have not yet been confirmed, although the Government’s recently published Draft Procurement Strategy was fairly clear that it “includes demand-led approaches such as Gigabit Broadband Vouchers.”

We strongly suspect that further details on all of this will be confirmed at around the same time as the annual UK Budget 2021 announcement on 3rd March. The new scheme would then takeover more or less immediately after the RGC one ends.


Article by Mark Jackson

ISPreview

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