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UK.gov to trial vouchers for 'gigabit-capable' connectivity with SMEs

Wants to hand out £40m from £200m full-fibre investment pot

By Kat Hall, 1 Aug 2017

The government is to begin trialling a gigabit voucher scheme with small businesses in autumn, according to proposals seen by The Register.

Businesses will bid for vouchers worth up to £3,000 for "gigabit-capable" connectivity, and will pay the ongoing line rental costs. That will most likely to be delivered by fibre but not exclusively so, said the documents. One source said £40m has initially been earmarked for the scheme.

The plans are part of a £200m pot for "full-fibre" investment starting in 2017 to fund a programme of local projects intended to test ways "to accelerate market delivery of new full-fibre broadband networks".

Five projects will be trialled this year, with the locations yet to be announced. A formal process will open in autumn followed by further funding rounds in 2018 and 2019.

The model is similar to that of the £100m broadband connection voucher scheme for speeds of more than 30Mbps in 2013-15, which was re-scoped after initially experiencing poor take-up from small businesses.

Blighty has just 2 per cent fibre-to-the-premise connectivity, a figure the government and regulators are keen to increase in order to keep up with other countries.

The cash pot will be released from the National Productivity Investment Fund, which will run between 2017/18-2020/21 and also be used to fund 5G trials and testbeds.

As well as the voucher scheme, the government said it will spend the rest of the £200m:

  • Bringing together local public sector customers, to create enough broadband demand to reduce the financial risk of building new full-fibre networks.
  • Directly connecting public sector buildings, such as schools and hospitals. This will bring fibre close to more homes and businesses, allowing them to be connected.
  • Opening up public sector assets, such as existing ducts, to allow fibre to be laid more cheaply.

The Independent Networks Co-operative Association has previously welcomed a gigabit connection voucher scheme. It argued such a scheme could stimulate fibre investment from alternative providers. The government first mulled those plans under a consultation earlier this year.

Openreach has additionally opened a consultation seeking input from industry to create full-fibre broadband in Britain. Under its proposals, the body could roll out fibre to 10 million premises by 2025.

BT also offered to stump up £600m to provide ubiquitous speeds of 10Mbps, negating the need for the government to legislate for a universal service obligation.

The Register has asked the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to comment. ®

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