Being forward looking is an excellent quality to have in a national government, but when objectives are focused on technology not the desired outcome, it is a risky approach.
In this instance, it seems the UK Government can do nothing right. For years, the focus of the fixed industry was G.Fast not fibre, believing that the connectivity half-way house was a sensible strategy. There might have been adequate arguments made at the time, but with hindsight they do seem underwhelming.
Now the position is to drive towards a full-fibre, connected nation, with targets to connect every household with the future-proofed lines by 2033. However, some are now questioning whether this is an over-correction.
The issue seems to be that the UK Government is focused on technology, not delivering the desired outcome.
“We will cover the overwhelming majority of the UK with fibre, but there are also other technology developments which will contribute to a connected Britain,” said Clive Selley, CEO at Openreach. “These include FWA [Fixed Wireless Access] and low-orbit satellites, and we have mentioned balloons, we should be open-minded.”
Fibre should be the objective but doesn’t mean you have to deliver it to everyone and everywhere tomorrow. As Selly pointed out during his time on stage at the Connected Britain event, connecting the first 80% of premises to fibre is not an issue. It is expensive, it is time consuming, but its not complicated. The next 10% is going to be much more difficult, and the final 10% is where they haven’t worked it out yet.
Another interesting point is whether customers actually need fibre connectivity right now. In the desire to go end-to-end, you have to wonder whether fibre is needed for the last-mile. Long-term, of course it will be necessary, but it is about addressing the desire not the technology.
“In my opinion, government has been focusing too much on full-fibre,” said Three CEO Dave Dyson. “I would like the government to take a step back and understand what people actually need. Full-fibre is an answer, but it is not the only answer.”
Again, we would like to emphasise fibre should be the long-term aim. But, you have to ask what the actual objective of the UK Government is. In this case, it is to deliver faster connectivity to citizens across the entire country, irrelevant to the local environment.
Understanding fibre is the long-term objective, but the mid-term objective is accessibility to faster and more reliable connectivity is an outcome-focused strategy. This is where fixed-wireless access can play a role, as can low-orbit satellites and even balloons. The last mile can be delivered through a variety of options, as long as the foundation of the network is fibre, giving the option to extend in future years.
Unfortunately, it seems the UK is in a difficult position of its own making. In not embracing fibre earlier, it is behind the trends. A commitment to full-fibre might have been the right call 6-7 years ago, but the situation has changed. The current strategy does not necessarily present the UK with the best route towards the full-fibre nation; the plan should be evolved to consider context.
Here is pragmatic example, how many people actually need speeds north of 150 Mbps right now? Not many. Fibre is the best option for the long-term, but focusing on developing the foundations, delivering the experience which customers need and expect, while also creating a more sustainable approach to ROI should be the mid-term objective.
As Dyson pointed out, FWA offers the team a more readily available opportunity to drive revenue on a per-user basis. It allows them to react to customer demand as opposed to forecasts. However, for the proposition to work as promised fibre needs to be rolled at least to the cabinets everywhere.
This is a divisive topic. Some believe the telcos should bite the bullet and simply pay to get fibre everywhere. Holding them accountable is perfectly reasonable, but you have to also take into account the telcos have to make money as well.
When you consider context, financial demands and future-proofing the network, the equation is a very difficult one to balance. Fibre should be the long-term objective, but right now the demands are for faster broadband while also addressing the appetites of those in the rural communities. The other options to satisfy the connectivity demands of today should not be ignored, which is perhaps what is being done with the Government’s hardcore focus on full-fibre.
Strategies should be outcome focused not technology defined. This is perhaps the problem the UK is facing today.