Gigabit broadband could add $50bn to UK economy – analyst

Assembly Research has estimated gigabit speed broadband services could add as much as $50 billion to the UK economy over the next five years.

While the UK has been making steady progress over the last five years in delivering full-fibre connectivity to households, it still lags behind European leaders. While accessing the cash to fund the rollout of these services, as well as 5G in parallel, will always be a difficult equation to balance, the legislative agenda is also an area which needs to be addressed.

“Access to reliable, future-proof digital infrastructure for all isn’t a luxury, but now accepted as a necessity whether it’s used for work, education or play,” said Matthew Howett, Founder of Assembly. “Increasing investment in key digital infrastructure will provide the bounce-back and economic recovery the UK will desperately need in the months and years ahead.”

While the UK could be said to be a leader in the 5G race, it is an also ran with a gammy leg in the broadband stakes. According to the FTTH Council Europe, the UK has only passed 15.1% of residences, significantly behind the likes of France (57.1%), Spain (85.6%) and Iceland (96.7%), but it has problems selling fibre connectivity also. Only 2.8% of UK households currently have a fibre connectivity contract.

This could be viewed as the polar opposite to 5G progress, as the UK was one of the first countries worldwide where all major MNOs had launched a 5G service, and deployment has been progressing very healthily.

Broadband is a very important aspect of the Gigabit Economy however, explaining the brash commitment by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in committing to a 2025 deadline for ubiquitous full-fiber coverage across the country. Although this acceleration is still laughable, there are a few areas of UK Government policy which could be addressed according to Assembly Research.

  1. Ensure sufficient funding exists for non-commercial areas if the whole country is to be covered and nobody is to be left behind
  2. A commitment to a technology neutral approach to reach the hardest parts of the country on time and in a cost-effective way
  3. Supporting market entry and expansion by alternative network operators, but recognising competition will vary by geography
  4. Making the cost of deployment as low as possible by addressing remaining barriers, which both increase costs and cause delays
  5. Ensure the demand side is given more attention to encourage take-up and help lower investment risk

What is important to note here is the technology-neutral approach to deploying the Gigabit Economy. This is a key consideration, as while fixed wireless access (FWA), the means to deliver broadband wirelessly, will not replace broadband there are usecases for deployment in the rural environment.

The issue with Government targets in the past is that they are technology-orientated not outcome-orientated. There is a valid argument that everyone will need gigabit speed connections at some point in the future, but it does not have to be delivered via fibre. It should be delivered in a cost-responsible manner which guarantees service quality, but this does not necessarily mean fixed broadband. A fixation on single technologies presents a problem, as it does not offer flexibility for companies who are under financial strain.

UK Gov releases another £95 million for local full-fibre diets

Over the last year, the UK Government has been proudly preaching of massive investments into digital infrastructure. It’s questionable how much has made its way into reality, but an additional £95 million has been released today.

The Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) Challenge Fund has announced £95 million has been made available to aid the roll-out of full fibre networks. Local authorities and public sector bodies around the UK can apply to the Local Full Fibre Networks Investment Panel to access the investment, which has been earmarked for rural areas, regions which have higher than average hurdles to 5G, the public sector and the development of local technology hubs. A plan to spend the money by March 2021 would have to be tabled to be applicable, with the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport believing £95 million should be enough to fund roughly 20 projects.

“We recently set out our ambition for a nationwide full-fibre broadband network by 2033, and initiatives like this will be instrumental in achieving that,” said Minister for Digital, Margot James. “We want to hear from any local authority interested in taking part, so we can work closely with them on their plans to help them secure funding.”

The first two rounds of grant funding released £105 million into the economy, while this £95 million will deplete the funds bank account. The cash itself is part of the government’s expanded £31 billion National Productivity Investment Fund, £740 million has been reserved for digital infrastructure. How many cheques have been signed so far is unknown, though questions still remain whether £740 million is a big enough commitment considering the lost ground on global leaders.

As it should be, emphasis will be placed on the proposals which plug the gaps from private sector investment. Rural regions are of course an area of interest here, as are regional technology hubs, potentially decreasing the reliance of the UK economy on London. The Midlands is an excellent example of this initiative, with the region targeting the development of electric cars and the components in creating its own hub of technical excellence.

For those interested in wrestling investment away from the fund, an email expressing interest would have to be sent by September 30 2018.