Some UK officials had a bit of a think about telecoms infrastructure and were so pleased with the outcome they wrote it down and published it.
Whitehall’s condensed telecoms wisdom has manifested itself in the form of the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review – a 90-page brain dump full of top tips on how to make the UK better at telecoms, with a heavy emphasis on ‘full fibre’. Only this, it seems, will keep our national pipes healthy and regular.
We want everyone in the UK to benefit from world-class connectivity no matter where they live, work or travel,” said new Secretary of State for this sort of thing Jeremy Wright. “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.”
Sounds good Jezza, so let’s take a closer look. Here are the key recommendations from the report:
- New legislation that will guarantee full fibre connections to new build developments;
- Providing operators with a ‘right to 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 is 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 innovative 5G services
- Infrastructure (including pipes and sewers) owned by other utilities such as power, gas and water, should be 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, 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.
To be fair there do seem to be some genuinely useful measures in that list. Improved access to sites is something regularly called for by operators and if that, together with a significantly more benign regulatory environment, is actually delivered, then telcos will have far fewer excuses for not just cracking on with the job. Having said that the obligation for new builds to have full fibre connections could further inhibit that already feeble industry.
“We welcome the government’s review, and share its ambition for full-fibre and 5G networks to be rolled out right across the UK,” said Ofcom Chief Exec Sharon White. “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.”
The ‘notes to Editors’ at the end of the press release seek to further illustrate what a great idea ‘full fibre’ (i.e. FTTP) is. In a blow to technologies such as Gfast they note that running fibre and copper in parallel is inefficient. They also reckon that ‘if we get the conditions right’ the market should deliver 80% FTTP coverage (Portugal is already at 89%), despite onlt being at 4% right now.
The company largely responsible for delivering 20x more fibre than we currently have will be Openreach. “We’re encouraged by the government’s plan to promote competition, tackle red tape and bust the barriers to investment,” said an Openreach spokesperson. “As the national provider, we’re ambitious and want to build full fibre broadband to 10 million premises and beyond – so it’s vital that this becomes an attractive investment without creating digital inequality or a lack of choice for consumers and businesses across the country.”
The report doesn’t quantify the total number of premises in the UK but it does say around a million currently have FTTP, and since that represents 4% of the total that gives us 25 million premises. In turn that means Openreach’s lofty ambition would still only get us half way to 80% so there remains a lot of work to be done.
A lot of that, it seems, will be done by CityFibre, which is aiming to connect 20% of the country to fibre by 2025. “Today marks the day the government decided once and for all to leave copper behind and commit the UK to a full fibre future, making clear that a new generation of infrastructure builders is the vehicle for delivering its bold ambition for all homes and businesses to be connected to full fibre by 2033, not just Openreach,” said Mark Collins, Director of Strategy at CityFibre.
“However, it is critical that the consumer is at the heart of this fantastic opportunity from the start, as this is the key to unlocking demand. That means avoiding price rises, ensuring switching between networks is simple and ending the years of misleading ‘fake fibre’ advertising. Getting both sides of the equation right is key to ensuring millions of homes and businesses will benefit – we now need to see the Government and Ofcom push these plans through.”
CityFibre isn’t the only independent fixed infrastructure player to cautiously welcome the report, but with an air of ‘I’ll believe it when I see it. “We welcome the Government’s statement today that a switchover from hybrid to full fibre networks could be underway in the majority of the country by 2030. But the devil is in the detail,” said Evan Wienburg, CEO of full fibre infrastructure provider TrueSpeed.
“While the Government is right to state that a full-throttle drive to nationwide full fibre connectivity requires competition and commercial investment to succeed, a fair and equitable playing field for all infrastructure providers is essential,” said This has not always been the case. There are numerous examples of tax payers’ money being wasted by national incumbent providers building FTTC/FTTP networks in areas where privately funded infrastructure providers have already deployed.”
Coinciding with the publication of this report is the formation of a pan-European alliance of indie fibre providers, including CityFibre. Its aim seems to be to promote the wholesale-only model and make sure fibre means fibre in broadband advertising. The alliance doesn’t seem to have a name yet but something like the Fibre Union of Connectivity Kings might do the trick.
At the very least this report and its recommendations give outfits like CityFibre a concrete set of parameters to refer to when embarking on one of their regular moans about how unfair the UK infrastructure market is. It looks like the government is committed to doing everything it can to encourage fibre investment and it should definitely be held to account for that over the coming years.