The UK government has been throwing money around like a sailor on-shore leave since the corona virus hit the country. The Conservatives have abandoned all pretence to ownership of the fiscal orthodoxy (for which, most recently, read ten years of relentless service-shredding austerity) on which it has prided itself since before Ebeneezer Scrooge was in training as a junior usurer, and is borrowing left, right and centre to keep the economy afloat.
Meanwhile, Matt Warman, the Honourable Member of Parliament (MP) for Boston and Skegness and Minister for Digital Infrastructure (You should see his remarkable legerdemain with a pack of cards, a bag of soot and a baffled ferret. It is going down a treat in his summer show on Skegness Pier whilst Parliament is in recess) is, apparently, “struggling” to give away free money.
It seems there is still some £70 million of your actual British Pounds Sterling – plus some bits of shrapnel and a few odd nuts and bolts left over from the last time he he tinkered with the country’s Internet infrastructure – left sloshing around in a fund set aside for rural wannabe broadband users to claim and then use to deploy “ultra high-speed” connectivity. Mr Warman says the cash is “still there for the taking”, if anybody wants it. You’d think a government giving away money for the asking would attract a lot interested parties, but it seems not.
In a statement, the Minister said, “Today I urge people in rural communities in the digital slow lane to apply for the immediate financial help available so they can seize the benefits of better connectivity.”
Under the terms of the government’s £5 billion commitment to building a fully digitally connected Britain by 2025 it introduced the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme via which domestic homes and (generally small) businesses in rural areas of the UK could apply for funding towards the cost of installing gigabit-capable broadband when (and this is the important part) “part of a group scheme”
Rural premises with broadband speeds of less than 100Mbps could use the vouchers (which were worth £1,500 per home and up to £3,500 for each small to medium-sized business) to part-pay the cost of installing new high-speed connectivity. According to Ofcom, the UK’s telecoms regulator the average broadband speed across the country is just 64 Mbps.
The lack of uptake of the £70 million that is still available seems mainly to be down to mixed messages and a lack of clarity on the part of the government, something we have all got used to on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis where Covid-19 is concerned. But this is broadband and it seems many applicants expected to do little more than fill in an online form containing a name, an address and a postcode to request a Gigabit Voucher and than sit back and wait for a bung to arrive in the form of £1,500 in slippery plastic tenners straight off the government’s overworked printing presses.
For very sound reasons, the scheme doesn’t work like that and individuals applicants don’t get their hands on ready money. They have to be part of a group of two or more to qualify for the grant and have to contact, from an approved government list, a broadband supplier in the local area who actually gets the subsidy and then does the work.
Take your partners by the hand, lead them to the promised land
To successfully be able to complete the intricacies of the Gigabit Quadrille to the satisfaction of the powers that be, applicants have to: 1) Find a register supplier and sign up for a gigabit capable connection. 2) That supplier then asks the government for a voucher. The authorities conduct a check and email the applicant/s to ensure they want to go on to the full-on commitment of the do-si-do movement (whereby in various folk dances, two dancers approach each other, pass back to back, and return to their original positions).
If they are so committed then it’s on to Phase 3) where the supplier actually does the infrastructure deployment work. 4) When the work is completed, the supplier contacts the government authorities to confirm all is tickety-boo. (This phrase is straight out of the days of the British Raj in India. In Hindi/Urdu “Thīk hai, Bābū, means “ It’s alright, sir”, or words to that effect. In 5) the authorities step in (or in fact email-in) to check if the new service is up and running. Then comes 6) The final twirl at the end of what is, quite literally a marathon line dance, when the government caller re-appears at the centre of things to make further checks before it ante’s up the moolah. It’s a somewhat complicated and decidedly time-consuming process and it seems to put people off.
That said, official figures from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport show that some 45,000 Gigabit Vouchers worth north of £100 million have been distibuted but 16,000 of them have yet to be certified as operational.
Matt Warman also launched another new initiative “to make people more aware to make more people aware of just how beneficial better, faster broadband can be.” How many more will it, can it, possibly take before the message gets through? Surely everyone in the UK must have heard about it and be aware of it by now? The Minister accepted that the 2025 deadline to make the UK a gigabit digital master of the universe is “ambitious” and refused to confirm that he expects the government to meet it. All he would say is that “we will get as close as we can”. As they say, “a miss is as good as a mile.”
Which, for some reason, puts me in mind of the sanitised 1960 US biopic of Werner von Braun who was the inventor of Hitler’s V-2 “Vengeance” ballistic missile which caused so much damage to Britain in late 1944 and early 1945. 1,400 of them hit the capital. von Braun was a member of both the Nazi Party and the SS and was working on an intercontinental version. the V-3, which would have had the capacity to hit the Eastern seaboard of the US with atomic warheads, when he was spirited out of the ruins of Germany and into the US space programme.
The film is called “I aim at the stars”. When it was released in the UK, a brilliant but unknown wag wrote below the title on a poster outside an East-End cinema, “But sometimes I hit London”.