UK government announces new full-fibre & 5G comms strategy

UK government announces new full-fibre & 5G comms strategy

Internet of Business says

The UK government has announced plans to make full-fibre broadband mandatory for all new-build homes, along with a new commitment to connect rural areas as part of a new national telecoms strategy.

The Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR), which is part of the government’s revamped Industrial Strategy, sets out the changes that are needed to give the majority of the population access to 5G, connect 15 million premises to full-fibre broadband by 2025, and provide full-fibre broadband coverage across all of the UK by 2033.

Currently, the UK only has four percent full-fibre connections, according to the government’s own figures – a one percent increase on its previous assessment in March. A one percent rise per quarter means that, at current rates, 96 quarters need to elapse before the UK reaches 100 percent full-fibre coverage: 24 years, or the year 2042. The government aims to reduce that timescale, but only by nine years.

A telecoms also-ran

The big-picture challenge is that the UK already lags a long way behind nearly all of its key competitors in Europe, such as Spain (71 percent full-fibre connectivity), Portugal (89 percent), and France (28 percent and increasing quickly), according to the government’s own statement on its plans.

Indeed, the IHS Markit Broadband Coverage in Europe 2017 study, conducted on behalf of the European Commission, ranked the UK 26th out of 28 EU member states in terms of full-fibre coverage. The study showed that only 0.65 million UK homes had access to full-fibre broadband as of June 2017, as operators prioritised incremental upgrades to existing copper networks.

A more up-to-date snapshot of the UK’s telecommunications ranking comes from global broadband benchmarking service Speedtest.net, which places the UK at 31st in the world in average fixed-line broadband speeds, and a lowly 48th in mobile broadband. Its last global assessment took place in June 2018.

A full-fibre diet

A full-fibre infrastructure is vital to underpin 5G coverage, says the government, as it moves towards a medium-term strategy of ditching copper entirely. However, its own figures reveal that progress to date has been painfully slow, and even with the proposed new measures under the FTIR, the UK is nowhere in global terms.

However, at least the statement of intent to force the UK out of the communications dark ages – brought on by BT’s intransigence, arrogance, and mismanagement, coupled with a lack of political will to force change on a deregulated market – is welcome, if years overdue.

One of the problems has long been that, even in city centres and so-called digital hotspots, broadband connections are slow unless businesses pay BT – a company that has been the single biggest brake on the UK’s digital ambitions – a premium. As a result, BT has had zero incentive to improve baseline connection speeds for years.

Arguably, massive underinvestment in last-mile connectivity was one of the biggest direct effects of telecoms deregulation, along with having dozens of providers competing to make those connections – a market that might be competitive, but offers few real benefits to consumers or the country.

In this specific regard, the UK’s digital interests would have been better served by having government-managed central investment in upgrading the national infrastructure. The mantra that the market always knows best is – demonstrably – false when applied to telecommunications. If it were true, the UK would be in the top five broadband providers worldwide, not languishing outside the top 30.

Meanwhile, BT has been investing billions in sports and media coverage in an embarrassing bid to become a global media player: a national scandal, and a bid undermined by its own strategy of treating speed and quality as premium add-ons.

As a private company, BT has the right to do whatever it wishes to please its shareholders. However, having BT representing the UK in the global digital race has been like running a pig against a pack of greyhounds.

New secretary of state

The government’s new approach is aimed at driving large-scale commercial investment in the fixed and wireless networks that are vital for the UK to remain competitive, said the new secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, Jeremy Wright.

“We want everyone in the UK to benefit from world-class connectivity, no matter where they live, work or travel,” he said.

“This radical new blueprint for the future of telecommunications in this country will increase competition and investment in full-fibre broadband, create more commercial opportunities and make it easier and cheaper to roll out infrastructure for 5G.”

The strategy is wise and welcome, but hardly radical – merely long overdue. At present, the FTIR’s own analysis confirms that, without change, full-fibre broadband networks will at best only ever reach three-quarters of the country, and it would take more than twenty years for them to do so.

Other key recommendations from the FTIR include:

  • Providing operators with a ‘right of entry’ to flats, business parks, office blocks, and other tenanted properties to allow those who rent to receive fast, reliable connectivity, from the right supplier at the best price.
  • Reforms to the regulatory environment for full-fibre broadband that will drive investment and competition, and are tailored to different local market conditions.
  • Public investment in full fibre for rural areas to begin simultaneously with commercial investment in urban locations.
  • An industry-led switchover from copper to full fibre, coordinated with Ofcom.
  • A new nationwide framework which will reduce the costs, time, and disruption caused by street-works by standardising the approach across the country.
  • Increased access to spectrum for 5G services.
  • Infrastructure (including pipes and sewers) owned by other utilities such as power, gas and water, should be made easy to access, and available for both fixed and mobile use.
  • Ofcom to reform regulation, allowing unrestricted access to Openreach ducts and poles for both residential and business use, including essential mobile infrastructure.

Alongside the FTIR, the government has also published a Digital Infrastructure Toolkit, which will allow mobile networks to make far greater use of government buildings to boost coverage across the UK.

The FTIR will drive competition and commercial investment in full fibre networks across as much of the UK as possible, claims the government. However, there will still be parts of the country where it will be unlikely that the market will be able to deliver solutions alone.

Nationwide availability of full fibre is likely to require additional funding of around £3 billion to £5 billion to support commercial investment in the final ten percent of areas, according to government estimates. These often rural areas must not be forced to wait until the rest of the country has connectivity before they can access gigabit-capable networks, says the government.

As a result, Whitehall said it would be pursuing an ‘outside in’ strategy, meaning that while network competition serves the commercially viable areas, the government will support investment in the most difficult-to-reach areas at the same time.

“We have already identified around £200 million within the existing superfast broadband programme that can further the delivery of full-fibre networks immediately,” said an announcement from DCMS.

Next steps

The government says that it will shortly publish consultations on the legislative changes needed to mandate fibre connections in new builds. The conclusions of the Review will also form the basis of the government’s Statement of Strategic Priorities (SSP) to Ofcom, setting out the watchdog’s future policy objectives.

Sharon White, Ofcom chief executive, said: “We welcome the government’s review, and share its ambition for full-fibre and 5G networks to be rolled out right across the UK.

“The government and Ofcom are working together, and with industry, to help ensure people and businesses get the broadband and mobile they need for the 21st Century.”

Plus: Post-Brexit regulations

In related news, the EU’s new directive for electronic communications – the European Electronic Communications Code (EECC) – is currently under negotiation, and likely to be adopted across the EU shortly.

If adopted, the UK government said, “We are minded to implement, where appropriate, the substantive provisions in UK law, on the basis that it would support UK’s domestic policy objectives. This will enable the extension of market review periods to five years and provide mechanisms to aid fibre network rollout in certain areas.”

Chris Middleton
Chris Middleton is former editor of Internet of Business, and now a key contributor to the title. He specialises in robotics, AI, the IoT, blockchain, and technology strategy. He is also former editor of Computing, Computer Business Review, and Professional Outsourcing, among others, and is a contributing editor to Diginomica, Computing, and Hack & Craft News. Over the years, he has also written for Computer Weekly, The Guardian, The Times, PC World, I-CIO, V3, The Inquirer, and Blockchain News, among many others. He is an acknowledged robotics expert who has appeared on BBC TV and radio, ITN, and Talk Radio, and is probably the only tech journalist in the UK to own a number of humanoid robots, which he hires out to events, exhibitions, universities, and schools. Chris has also chaired conferences on robotics, AI, IoT investment, digital marketing, blockchain, and space technologies, and has spoken at numerous other events.