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Britain’s broadband networks prove more resilient than expected during lockdown

Britain’s broadband networks have held up better than expected during lockdown despite remote-working leading to a surge in demand, experts told MPs this week.

As millions of workers across the UK transitioned to home-working, internet service providers have been forced to stretch non-corporate networks to their limits.

But parliament’s digital, culture, media and sport select committee heard that the networks have proved more resilient than had been feared at the start of the crisis.

“People were concerned that the sheer pressure on the network would cause significant problems and actually we haven’t really seen that,” Which?’s head of external affairs, Richard Piggin, told the committee.

A survey conducted by Which?, a consumer rights group, revealed that 72 per cent of respondents felt their connections had met their needs during lockdown. “The general consensus is that the broadband network has held up pretty well over the last few months,” said Piggin.

Nevertheless, a significant percentage of consumers have still experienced issues with their connections. A third of respondents reported problems and a quarter said their connections had become more unreliable. Virgin Media suffered an outage in June that left thousands of Londoners without broadband access for several hours.

Piggin has warned that the crisis had exposed the impact of Britain’s digital divide. “Those with good quality broadband will have been able to work from home, stay in touch with friends and family and homeschool,” he said. “Those without a good connection will have struggled to do many of those things and struggle to engage with many day-to-day activities whether that’s shopping for groceries online or banking online.”

Broadband and the UK’s economic recovery

Felicity Burch, director of innovation and digital at the CBI trade association, agreed that businesses and consumers had generally seen good performance during lockdown. But she said that it was now critical that the government invests in digital technology to support the UK’s economic recovery.

“We’re going to have to think quite carefully about some of the investments we’re going to need to make going forward to power the recovery,” Burch told the committee. “There we do need to make sure that the government is pulling out all of the stops to make sure that gigabit capable networks are delivered for firms and the growth of the UK economy.”

Julian Knight, a Conservative MP and the chair of the committee, asked Burch if the government’s pledge of rolling out a UK-wide gigabit broadband network by 2025 was realistic.

Burch described the target as challenging but said that “good government targets often are challenging”. “We’ve had the target for about a year now and we’ve seen some quite significant progress,” she added, noting a range of government funding announcements, including a £5bn commitment for upgrading broadband networks. “The challenge though is that there’s still quite a lot to do. We do need the government to really pull out all the stops to achieve the target.”

Burch was also asked about the government’s decision to ban Huawei from the roll-out of the UK’s 5G network. She said the move would “limit the UK’s opportunity to be a 5G world leader”.

“Our view has always been that we do ave to be led by the government on national security but that we were concerned and remain concerned about the economic impact that this will have,” Burch added.

“But there’s a broader point here that the government’s decisions and announcements do affect how businesses invest in infrastructure in technology more generally and changing decisions does make it difficult for businesses to invest. I guess that’s why we hope the government will work very closely with industry to mitigate the impact of that decision.”