UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson made some waves with his 2025 100% full-fibre broadband objectives in recent weeks, and now the telcos are asking him to prove it’s more than hot air.
In an open letter to the Prime Minister (BoJo), associations representing the telco industry in the UK have asked for more concrete commitments to broadband deployment. The fear from many is that this claim will turn out to be nothing more than campaign promises and political point scoring, BoJo does have a track-record in that area after all.
“We welcome your campaign’s focus on improving digital connectivity,” the letter states. “The nationwide rollout of full fibre broadband is an ambitious challenge, and requires a mix of leadership, pioneering spirit and Government support to be possible.
“The industry stands ready to rise to this challenge, but we need a Prime Minister who can provide the direction, idealism and commitment to fulfil this ambition. We call on you to give a full commitment that your Government will give us the tools we need to deliver future-proof connections across the UK.”
Signed by the Internet Service Providers’ Association, the Federation of Communications Services and the Independent Networks Co-operative Association, this could be seen as a communique which represents every quarter of the communications segments in the UK.
Looking at the specifics, its not necessarily anything new from these associations however…
Starting with the obvious, cash, the letter applauds the financial commitment made by the UK Government in assisting the industry in deploying future-proofed infrastructure, but more needs to be done. £3-5 billion in public funds is a good start, but the regulatory landscape should be addressed to ensure the environment is assistive when driving towards the ambitious goals.
This was the main concern from industry insiders when reacting to BoJo’s accelerated objectives for full-fibre broadband across the UK. The initial target, 2033, was already ambitious according to our conversations, though if anyone is to get anywhere near full-fibre coverage by 2025 the skills shortage and regulatory landscape were urgent challenges in need of address.
This is the crux of the letter to BoJo; sort out the red-tape maze. The fibre tax is an on-going issue, as is access to wayleaves. The latter is a very difficult issue to fix, as while the new Electronic Communications Code grants telcos more power, many landowners are hitting back with lawsuits due to unreasonable conditions imposed on them by the telcos (rent and/or access rights). The bottleneck of legal complications could risk a slow-down in both mobile and broadband deployment; this is an issue which needs addressing quickly.
Another gripe from the associations is focused on new-builds. Again, this is not a new complaint from the industry, but many feel house-builders should be forced to include fibre-connectivity as default through regulation. This might sound like an obvious trick to drive fibre deployment and adoption, but it is an area which is often overlooked, or overshadowed by other conversations.
Finally, the skills shortage has been raised. This is a point which was brought up by industry insiders following the initial pledge by BoJo; how much faster can the telcos go? Broadband deployment is labour intensive work and there are only so many bodies. Virgin Media and Openreach are already hiring extensively, and it is a bit more complicated than throwing a hard-hat on Joe or Jane Bloggs.
As it stands, roughly 7% of the homes across the UK currently have the opportunity to subscribe to full-fibre broadband, though uptake is roughly half of that number to date. To extend full-fibre to all 32 million homes by 2025, industry has suggested it would cost £30 billion, while the workforce would have to be drastically increased. BT has said it would have to hire another 30,000 field engineers to meet the demands of connecting an average of 20,000 a week to stick to the accelerated timeline.
BT CEO Philip Jansen has already come out in support of BoJo’s objectives, but like the associations here, he has suggested there will need to be changes.
“We are ready to play our part to accelerate the pace of roll-out, in a manner that will benefit both the country and our shareholders, and we are engaging with the government and (regulator) Ofcom,” Jansen said.
In order to aide this objective, BT would have to do some rejigging of its own. This might involve a rethink in how CAPEX is allocated, and even a cut to the dividend. But this would only happen if it made economic sense, and do to this, BT presumably needs more than political rhetoric from the PM.
It should come as little surprise telco lobbyists are whispering in the ear of the new Prime Minister, however there are some valid points. 2025 is an incredibly ambitious (some might say ludicrous) objective, though the red-tape maze will need to be trimmed into shape if there is any hope of getting any where near it.