Being ambitious is all well and good, but most would hope the ambitious are living in the world of reality. Unfortunately, with Boris Johnson’s Fibre-to-the-Home objectives, he’s operating in dreamland.
Perhaps this is a situation which we should have come to expect. Theresa May has one foot out the door and the jostling to inherit 10 Downing Street is starting to ramp up. This weekend saw the first televised debate, with one obvious omission, and soon enough the big promises to woo the Conservative Party membership are going to be dominating the headlines.
Politicians tend to exaggerate when it comes to promises on the campaign trail, and Tory leadership hopeful Boris Johnson (BoJo) certainly has history; who could forget the £350 million we were going to save the NHS every day by leaving the European Union.
The latest promise from BoJo is his government would deliver full-fibre broadband to every single person in the UK by 2025. This target would wipe off eight years from the current strategy set up by the Government in the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR).
Just to emphasise this point. The current objective is seen as ambitious and would see the full-fibre rollout complete in just over 13.5 years, but BoJo is suggesting it can be done in less than half that time.
The feedback from our conversations with industry is simple; what planet does BoJo think he is on?
However, what is worth bearing in mind is that the ambitious always have been criticised. When someone comes out with a bold idea, sceptics will beat them back. It is easy to criticise BoJo with this claim, because it is almost impossible to imagine how it is going to be done, but on the other hand, it is almost impossible to criticise the ambitious because there is no substance, no detail and no plan. It’s not something which should be taken that seriously because there are no details in place to actually make it happen.
One of the questions you have to ask is when did BoJo become a telco guru? We’re struggling to think of any examples of when he has contributed in any meaningful manner to the connectivity debate. If BoJo has had these telco smarts all along, able to solve one of the biggest challenges the industry has faced in decades, he certainly was playing the long-game in keeping them to himself.
Openreach has of course been perfectly politically correct when asked for comment. “It’s hugely ambitious, but so are we,” said an Openreach spokesperson. “We agree that full fibre can be the platform for the UK’s future prosperity and no company is investing more, building faster or aiming higher than Openreach. We aim to reach four million homes and businesses by March 2021 and up to 15 million by mid 2020s if the conditions are right.
“We’re already in decent shape when it comes to ‘superfast’ broadband, which is more widely available here than in almost any other comparable nation on earth – and has led the UK to have the leading digital economy in the G20.
“But building full fibre technology to the whole of the UK isn’t quick or easy. It requires £30 billion and a physical build to more than 30m front doors, from suburban terraces to remote crofts. We’re determined to lead the way and there’s a lot that Government could be doing now to help us go further and faster.”
But let’s assume BoJo is the master of telco, as we don’t have to be as nice as those in the industry; we have a couple of questions. Firstly, where is the money coming from? Secondly, where are the scissors to cut through the red-tape maze? Thirdly, where are the new employees going to emerge from? And finally, how did he actually come to this figure without actually speaking to anyone in the industry?
Starting with the money, the big query from our contacts was where is the cash coming from? The telcos are working as fast as they are commercially capable of, but BoJo believes they can go faster should the right incentives be put in place. The industry suggests full-fibre infrastructure would cost in the region of £30 billion, and it won’t be stumping all of that cash up. That’s not how investment strategies work.
A sensible and scalable capital investment strategy is focused on gradual rollouts, with an emphasis on ROI as the deployment progresses. You need to reclaim the investment as you are continuing to spend otherwise you are making yourself vulnerable to seesaw of market trends through over-exposure.
If BoJo is suggesting massive government funding projects, fair enough, but considering the NHS is underfunded, schools are overcrowded and there aren’t enough coppers on the beat, we’re not too sure where he is going to find this cash to fix what is fundamentally a first-world problem.
Secondly, you also have to wonder whether BoJo has put any thought into the bureaucratic challenges which the industry is facing. This is what our industry insiders were so confused about; has there been any thought to the administrative and bureaucratic challenges which are some of the biggest hurdles to deployment?
The 2033 target is one which has been put in place with these challenges in mind. The Government is considering proposals which would address way leaves, access to new builds or business rates for fibre, but these are still question marks. Perhaps BoJo is going to come in and carve away all the red-tape which is holding deployments back, creating a light-touch regulatory environment.
2033 will only be achieved should the right regulatory conditions be cultivated. If BoJo is going to correct this challenge, he’ll have to take a very large hatchet to the rulebook. This point has also been echoed by the Internet Services Providers’ Association:
“Boris Johnson’s ambitious commitment to achieve full fibre coverage by 2025 is welcome, but needs to be matched with ambitious regulatory change, including reform of the Fibre Tax,” said Andrew Glover, ISPA Chair. “Broadband is a largely privately financed infrastructure and together with outdated planning laws, fibre business rates are holding our members back from accelerating their roll-out plans.”
Another consideration is on the people side of things. Openreach recruited 3,000 engineers last year and is planning to recruit another 3,000 this year. Virgin Media is continuing to recruit to fuel Project Lightning, but you have to wonder how many bodies these companies will need to meet the 2025 target.
Even if there was an aggressive recruitment drive, people with the right skills are not just lazing about on street corners. One person pointed out that it isn’t a case of simply putting a hard hat on Joe Bloggs and asking them to dig a hole; there is a lot of training which goes into the recruitment progress. Another wondered whether there would be enough potential recruits if BoJo achieves another one of his headline promises; Brexit. How much of a talent drain will there actually be?
The speed at which full-fibre networks are being deployed is already pretty quick, the industry is connecting 3-4 million homes a year to meet current objectives. To hit Bojo’s ambitions, this number would have to be north of 5 million a year. Virgin Media’s Project Lightning is adding 400,000-500,000 premises a year, while Openreach is adding more than a million. Add in the alt-nets and progress is promising. Going faster is going to be tricky in today’s world.
We’re not too sure who BoJo has been talking to when he came to the 2025 target, but one thing is pretty clear; he’s not on the same page logistically, bureaucratically or financially as the telcos.