Government Changes UK Gigabit Broadband Voucher Rules

The Government has just approved some changes to the rules and eligibility criteria for both their £67m Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme (GBVS) and the £200m Rural Gigabit Connectivity (RGC) programme, which effectively harmonises both schemes and helps the funding get to the right areas.

Just to recap. The GBVS is the oldest of the two schemes and offers up to £2,500 to help businesses and homes gain access to a 1Gbps capable broadband ISP connection (homes can only get £500 and up to 10 homes can participate for every 1 SME). Meanwhile the RGC launched last year and offers up to £3,500 for small businesses and up to £1,500 for residents.

The greater value(s) of the RGC vouchers were intended to reflect the higher cost of deployment in rural areas. Crucially the RGC scheme does NOT include a business requirement like GBVS (i.e. homes can easily get a voucher), but like GBVS it is still possible to aggregate the vouchers in order to help tackle larger deployments.

Since then the Government has set aside £5bn to fuel their new ambition of deploying “gigabit-capable” broadband networks to cover the whole of the United Kingdom by around 2025 (here), albeit with a focus on the final 20% of hardest to reach premises. In response to that, and other issues, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) has now made a few changes to align this policy with their GBVS and RGC programmes.

GBVS Changes and Funding

The RGC is a younger scheme and as such the total vouchers requested so far are just 4,000 (worth £9m), with about 403 vouchers (worth £825,000) already being turned into live connections. Despite this some alternative network (altnet) ISPs have run into problems with the current minimum speed criteria of 30Mbps, which often means they can’t build gigabit-speed FTTP in rural areas when a slower “superfastFTTC network is present.

Until now some operators have got around this problem by mixing GBVS and RGC vouchers, but with GBVS coming to an end and the Government switching their focus to “gigabit” speed connectivity then it has become necessary to harmonise both voucher schemes to support the new focus (the DCMS / LFFN team have long intended to do this).

In short, the RGC eligibility criteria is today changing so that rural areas where “ultrafast” speed (>=100Mbps) is not available are now eligible (i.e. most rural premises). Now operators don’t have to worry about doing a patch-work build to avoid slower FTTC areas, or mixing voucher schemes, and can instead focus on tackling entire villages with FTTP etc.

The move also avoids an awkward debate on the questionable accuracy of Ofcom’s Connected Nations speed data, as well as the usual advertised ISP speed vs. actual speeds problem that some networks have, by setting a higher bar.

Going forward it’s been suggested that the eligibility criteria may simply adopt a “final 20%” style definition to align with the future £5bn programme, but they’ll probably want to see what impact today’s change has first. On the other hand the RGC scheme is only due to run until March 2021 and so we may see such a change occurring this year.

By Mark Jackson Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England)


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