Gov Expanding Gigabit Broadband Vouchers to UK Urban Areas

Sources have informed ISPreview that the Government’s Building Digital UK (BDUK) agency has decided to extend the availability of their Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme (GBVS) to include urban areas. The scheme has, until now, only offered grants to help rural properties get a 1Gbps capable ISP connection installed.

The GBVS currently offers grants worth up to £4,500 to rural homes and businesses to help them get a gigabit-capable broadband service installed, which is available to areas with speeds of “less than 100Mbps” – assuming there are also no future plans for a gigabit deployment in the same area (either via private investment or state-aid). Some Local Authorities (LA) have, in the past, also provided top-up funding to boost the voucher values.

NOTE: The GBVS is currently being supported by an investment of £210m via the wider £5bn Project Gigabit programme. Since 2017, over 118,000 vouchers have been used to fund a connection so far through the current and previous voucher schemes.

However, over the past year the GBVS has become somewhat diminished in its capacity to assist in rural areas, which is largely intended to avoid duplication of public investment with the wider Gigabit Infrastructure Subsidy (GIS) programme (i.e. awarding large state aid funded broadband deployments, for rural areas, to specific suppliers). As a result, the GBVS is currently suspended across much of the UK.

GBVS Availability Map

Despite this, we recently reported that the voucher scheme had been extended to run up to March 2028 (here). On top of that, BDUK is also known to have been exploring how the Project Gigabit programme could be expanded to help tackle poorly served urban areas (here), which can often sit neglected as patches of poor service, typically dotted about like small islands inside major cities and towns.

The latter problem can be caused by all sorts of challenges (e.g. high build costs, issues with securing wayleave / access and permits or road closures etc.), while state aid and competition law often make it difficult to use public funding in such areas (i.e. locations where private investment should be able to resolve without intervention).

The easiest solution to the legal and competition dilemma has typically been to use a voucher scheme, which was tried before and eventually morphed into today’s more rural-focused scheme. But the latest development appears to confirm that BDUK are going to give this approach another bash.

Gigabit Vouchers for Urban Areas

At present, the details of this are still subject to change, but our sources have informed us that the plan seems to involve a “soft launch” in June 2024 that will expand the voucher scheme into urban areas and run for about 10-weeks. The initial focus will be on 11 as yet unspecified areas, which are understood to contain a total of approximately 15,000 initial eligible premise.

The BDUK agency will spend the rest of this month conducting various market engagement work in order to help finalise their policy and assess how much interest might exist, as well as to identify any potential barriers that could hamper such builds.

As before, the aim of this expansion is to connect both businesses and residents to gigabit-capable broadband in urban areas, where there is no existing coverage, planned commercial coverage or coverage through other Project Gigabit schemes. The same voucher values (£4,500) and timescales as exist today will continue to apply (i.e. successful voucher projects must be delivered within just 12-months).

A DSIT spokesperson told ISPreview:

“We are committed to delivering lightning-fast gigabit broadband to communities across the UK, particularly to those who are hard to reach and not included in current commercial rollout plans.”

Assuming all goes to plan and there’s enough demand for urban gigabit vouchers, then BDUK will look to introduce phased extensions to the scheme from around September 2024. As usual, this expansion will be both demand-led and based on evidence.

Overall, we think this is a positive development, although it remains to be seen whether expanding the voucher scheme in this way will be enough to overcome some of the complex challenges that building in the remaining urban pockets of poor connectivity can often present (it’s not always a money problem).

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