Another Prime Minister, another broadband pledge. British politicians can’t take power without promising the moon when it comes to internet connectivity – Theresa May pledged £600 million for fibre, David Cameron wanted the fastest broadband in Europe – but the details are always thin on the ground when it comes to delivery.
This time around, prime minister Boris Johnson has pledged full-fibre broadband coverage by 2025. That sounds good, but it’s not much of a difference from existing broadband policy; all it does is move the goalposts forward by eight years, as the current plan is full-fibre by 2033 – that date is “laughably unambitious”, Johnson wrote in his paywalled Telegraph column.
And 2025 is a handy date, just far enough out to not become an election issue, should the current administration somehow manage to stick around for the maximum five years. But neither the 2033 deadline nor the 2025 adjustment are as yet backed by actual plans. “Without any detail it is just a pledge,” says Andrew Ferguson, editor-in-chief of broadband comparison site ThinkBroadband. “The key to getting excited is dependent on what the pledge means in terms of help for commercial roll-outs and extra funding to ensure that areas unlikely to see commercial roll-out for a number of years can be moved forward.”
As of January, official government figures suggest the UK has 7.1 per cent full fibre coverage; it’s moved on a bit since then, with BT’s infrastructure company Openreach covering off about 80,000 homes a month; to hit Johnson’s target, that needs to accelerate to as many as 400,000 a month. “We’re now building fibre to the premise (FttP) out to 20,000 premises a week – up from 13,000 in November. We’re now on track to reach four million front doors by March 2021, up from three million in the same timeframe, and our ambition is to reach 15m by the mid-2020’s, up from ten million, if the conditions are right to invest,” an Openreach spokesperson says.
If the government decided to take broadband seriously, is full fibre possible by 2025? Sure. Is it likely? No. Would it be great? Absolutely.
The UK actually has more fibre in its network than those figures would suggest, but it mostly stops at cabinets — the green boxes on your street that you’ll sometimes see Openreach engineers fiddling with. That’s because there’s two main types of fibre broadband in the UK, fibre to the premise (FttP) and fibre to the cabinet (FttC). The former, FttP, is where fibre is used for the entire connection between the exchange, the local cabinet, and your home or business. With FttC, fibre runs from the exchange to the street-level cabinet, with copper cables finishing the last leg between the cabinet to your home. The former is faster; the latter is cheaper and easier to roll out – which is why the UK actually has 95 per cent coverage of superfast networks, if you take into account full fibre and part fibre. Now, we just need to fill in the last bit between the cabinet and homes – 30m or so of them.
Last year, a government report (PDF) laid out the potential costs of covering the UK with full fibre by 2033, suggesting the final bill would be roughly £33 billion. Of that, about 90 per cent would be privately funded – paid for by the likes of Openreach or ISPs such as Virgin Media – with the remaining 10 per cent coming from public funds.
“The existing 2033 ambition has in theory identified the hardest 10 per cent of areas and is attempting to target these via the Rural Gigabit Voucher scheme, which over a period of more than a decade should see most of that 10 per cent covered,” says Ferguson. The government is convinced the remaining 90 per cent will be paid for by industry, but Ferguson suggests that’s a big assumption. “The harder bit then is what will happen with the 25 per cent or so that the commercial operators have shown no interest in yet,” he says.
Under Johnson’s plans, it’s reasonable to assume that shifting deadlines up by eight years will cost even more than that report predicts, as more staff will be needed and incentives may be required to get broadband companies to work faster. How much more? Not even Johnson knows. Ferguson says industry is concerned about the availability and cost of labour, as an accelerated timetable means more construction workers and engineers will be required. Gareth Williams, CEO of fibre firm Gigaclear, agreed, calling for the government to remove immigration limits on skilled construction workers.
Money isn’t the only problem. The government’s telecoms investment report last year listed other hurdles to fibre rollout, but hasn’t yet done much to address them, says Openreach. “We’ve seen very little progress to tackle those barriers identified,” says the Openreach spokesperson.
Openreach says it’s unable to access about four in ten multiple-dwelling units, largely because of absentee landlord, adding to costs and delays; because of that, Openreach would like to see easier routes to consent, with local authorities granting access to council-owned or managed properties, for example. Access is also a problem via wayleave rights; you need permission to access properties, rip up roads and trample through fields to install fibre, and to string cables along telegraph poles. Williams called for a government facilitated wayleave process to ease the way and avoid delays, while the Internet Services Providers’ Association (ISPA), welcomed Johnson’s “ambition”, but said it needs to be matched with equally ambitious regulatory change. “In the short-term, this requires reforming the fibre tax, implementation of wayleave reform and targeted funding support for the hardest to reach areas,” says Till Sommer, Head of Policy at ISPA.
But there are more problems. Another challenge is organising the work of private companies – be it Openreach and Virgin Media, or smaller players like Hyperoptic or Gigaclear – as they sometimes roll out to the same areas where there’s enough customers to make enough revenue for a return on investment, so-called “overbuilding”, when two or more ISPs install infrastructure to the same location. Overbuilding is good for competition as it offers residents choice, but means some streets have multiple fibre providers when others have none. Mandating that operators organise their efforts could help speed up the process, says Ferguson. “This does raise regulation questions as collaboration like this would likely breach competition law,” he adds.
To help, Ferguson called on the Department of Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) to publish details on its actual plans and timelines, as well as what is meant by full fibre, rather than conducting long studies and consultations with industry. “With such a short timeline and a big ladder to climb, six months lost in meetings would be crucial,” he says. It would also help, he added, to get more detail from private providers on their future plans, in particular where they plan to spread full fibre next.
That’s the private side of the coin, where all Johnson and government needs to do is encourage and enable ISPs and infrastructure companies to move faster; after all, Gigaclear is planning to cover 500,000 rural homes by 2025, Hyperoptic aims to cover five million homes by 2024, and Openreach is already hitting those 80,000 homes a month with full fibre.
The hard bit is the remaining 10 per cent that the government doesn’t believe private companies will be motivated to cover with full fibre — and many of those people are the ones left languishing on the slowest connections. According to Ofcom, five per cent of the UK only has access to a connection below 30Mbps, with two per cent of the UK stuck on connections below 10Mbps. Perhaps the government’s priority shouldn’t be fibre, which is already on its way for most of us, but finally sorting out a decent connection for those few percentage points worth of homes and businesses sputtering along on crappy connections. Achieving that would be a genuine accomplishment, but so far it’s been left to local governments and community projects to work out, with a bit of public funding.
There are public-funding programmes in place for such community-level work — notably the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme — but the fact remains that if a home doesn’t have a solid broadband connection in the UK, it’s likely been deemed too expensive or difficult by private infrastructure providers.
“The current Broadband Delivery UK subsidy programme helps companies like Gigaclear to build to areas that other providers have discounted due to the investment required,” says Williams, referencing the long-running BDUK, which has recently been renamed Building Digital UK. “However, for every £1 of BDUK subsidy, Gigaclear invest between £4 to £7. The answer isn’t always money in projects like this, but it certainly helps, as the more remote the property the more subsidy required to get full fibre to them to allow them to enjoy Ultrafast broadband services at a commercially viable subscription charge.”
Openreach echoed that: “Government will need to subsidese rural deployment in areas which are otherwise not commercially viable,” the spokesperson said. “Without this, the hardest to reach areas will not receive the benefits of full fibre.” How much are we talking? Based on the National Infrastructure Commission, Openreach is suggesting £5bn to be made available immediately for large, regional contracts, saying that’s the fastest way to roll out fibre, though smaller rivals may disagree.
Full fibre can be a bit of a red herring – it may never be perfectly possible, as the government admitted in 2017 that 0.3 per cent of people would only ever be able to receive broadband via satellite. According to Ofcom, while 95 per cent of premises in the UK already have access to superfast broadband — which the regulator defines as above 30Mbps — only 45 per cent have signed up for it.
Though we may well change our minds by 2025, plenty of us don’t yet want fibre; it’s often more expensive, and for those near a cabinet, partial fibre is already pretty fast. If your home is within a couple hundred meters from a fibre-enabled cabinet, the drop off in download speeds isn’t all that significant, though there are other issues such as interference to consider. Should we spend money ripping up roads to extend fibre more quickly to homes that already get decent speeds when plenty of others lack a sufficient service?
Even for those in rural or otherwise underserved areas, there are solutions that mean fiber isn’t necessarily the best option. If fibre is run to the local cabinet, aerials on roofs can fill in that last mile of connectivity via fixed wireless without digging trenches for fibre, for example. In urban areas, BT has worked to squeeze more speed out of FttC using G.Fast, which, at its most basic, is a node that brings fibre a bit closer to homes – it’s sort of like a mini fibre-enabled cabinet between the cabinet and your house.
All that said, there’s no question the future of broadband is fibre. Johnson’s goal can be met, but it’ll require broadband leadership that no British government has yet displayed, as well as hundreds of millions of pounds and plenty of hard work. “It’s not that I don’t think it is possible,” Ferguson says. “We just need to acknowledgement that tripling the amount being built today and sustaining that pace for month after month is not going to be simple or cheap.” Whenever we do get full fibre — whether we shell out for 2025 or continue to wait patiently — just don’t let them call it Borisband.
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