BoJo’s 2025 fibre promise has no basis in reality

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.

Tory leadership favourite makes 2025 FTTH commitment

Former-Foreign Secretary and the favourite to be the UK’s next Prime Minister Boris Johnson has undercut DCMS and Ofcom commitment for full-fibre by eight-years.

Writing an op-ed piece for The Daily Telegraph, Johnson (BoJo) has suggested his government would commit to delivering fibre-to-the-home (FTT) broadband connectivity to 100% of the UK population by 2025, beating out current commitments by eight years.

“Think what we could achieve if the whole country had the same lightning access to this essential tool of progress,” BoJo stated. “If the Spanish can do it, why can’t we? Let’s say goodbye to the UK’s manana approach to broadband and unleash full fibre for all by 2025.”

As it stands in the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR), the UK Government has targeted full-fibre broadband for all households by 2033. This might sound like a ludicrous amount of time, though it is the final 10% which is envisioned to be the most difficult. There has been progress in upgrading the UK from copper to fibre, though the UK does seem to be falling behind other European nations.

According to the latest statistics from the Fibre to the Home Council Europe, 1.5% of UK subscribers have adopted fibre services. The industry is suggesting 7% availability of fibre services, while the Government is targeting 15 million premises to be connected by 2025. Steps forward have been made, albeit smaller ones than the likes of Spain, Latvia, Lithuania and the Nordics.

The issue with connecting all of these homes is down to the commercial gain for the telcos. When you get to the rural regions of the UK, delivering FTTH, or even fibre-to-the-cabinet, is not commercially attractive. Not only do you have to worry about the raw materials, there is the complication of civil engineering and the difficulties of navigating the red-tape maze of local authority governance.

This is why the Government is not worried about the first 90% of UK premises, but it is the final 10% which everyone should be concerned over. To connect these final premises, the telcos would have to be encouraged with public funds, as the commercial gain is seemingly below-par.

“But when I mentioned another priority of mine – almost casually – those farmers smote their weatherbeaten hands together and roared their assent,” said BoJo. “They want better broadband. They are indignant at the current failure to provide it – and they are absolutely right.

“A fast internet connection is not some metropolitan luxury. It is an indispensable tool of modern life. You need it for your medical prescription, for paying your car tax, for keeping up with the news and with your family and friends. It is becoming the single giant ecosystem in which all economic activity takes place. It is the place you find bargains. It is the place you find customers.

“It is not only the place you can find a job. It is the means by which you can be interviewed, and your talents uncovered, without incurring the cost of a rail ticket. If your area has a truly fast broadband connection, that area will be a better place to live, to invest, to set up a business; and that area will have a better chance of retaining talented young people and allowing them to start-up businesses and bring up their families.”

Undercutting Government objectives is of course a good way for a leadership hopeful to gain column inches and woo party members, many of whom will live in the more affluent rural areas, but is it actually possible? BoJo has already faced criticism because of dubious claims, just think back to the £350 million a week savings which was emblazoned across the bus during the Brexit campaign.

Telcos can of course be coerced into getting on with their jobs faster than they would like to, but this is an arduous process; the telcos have become masters of stubbornness. And as you can imagine, BoJo has been light on details as to how this accelerated rollout would be achieved, simply stating it would require more government investment.

So here is the question; does BoJo genuinely believe he can speed-up the transition to a fibre diet, or is this another suspect claim which will lead to another member of the general public taking him to court?

CityFibre bags £1.1bn for nationwide fibre rollout

During yesteryear, CityFibre was known for moaning for the sake of moaning, but in securing a debt package of £1.12 billion, the firm’s ambitions are starting to look very real and very interesting.

Seven banks have financed the transaction, ABN AMRO, Deutsche Bank, Lloyds Bank plc, Natixis, NatWest, Santander and Société Générale, which will serve as the first installment of CityFibre’s £2.5 billion commitment for a nationwide fibre rollout. CityFibre has given itself a target of providing fibre to five million homes, a third of the Government’s target of 15 million, by 2025.

“The appetite from these institutions to support our financing is further evidence that CityFibre’s strategy is the right one for the UK,” said Terry Hart, CityFibre’s CFO.

“As our networks are rolled out, this will benefit everyone, driving innovation and increasing fibre penetration across the UK, providing the future-proof digital connectivity the UK needs. CityFibre’s target to reach five million homes by 2025, as well as thousands of businesses and public-sector sites, will catalyse huge economic growth in regional towns and cities across the country.”

CityFibre made it abundantly clear in its statement that this is an endorsement of the firm’s business model from heavy hitting financial institutions, and perhaps it does indicate a change in attitudes from investors.

Back in October, we attended an investor panel session at Broadband World Forum featuring the likes of the European Investment Bank and also Amber Infrastructure, a specialist venture capitalist firm. The message was clear from this panel session; investors are increasingly happy to fuel fibre rollouts as the business case has been justified and consumer demand has been validated.

This is where CityFibre sits. It doesn’t want to be a telco but become a serious infrastructure player. Owning the relationship with the consumer is of zero interest but creating a nationwide alternative to Openreach and becoming a connectivity wholesaler is the big picture. However, to be considered a viable alternative, there needs to be more of a presence than there is today.

Telcos don’t want to have a patchwork of relationships across a country to meet the connectivity demands. Multiple relationships create more overheads and more opportunity for something to go wrong. CityFibre has made good progress in rolling out fibre spines in numerous areas across the UK, but the gaps will have to be plugged if it wants to be a viable and realistic alternative to Openreach.

That said, CityFibre is looking like a business which has the right ingredients for a market which is primed for disruption. Aggressive ambitions, a head-strong CEO and the confidence of being owned by one of the world’s most powerful businesses. CityFibre is a very strong contender to make a genuine and permanent dent in the connectivity infrastructure game.

And a £1.1 billion investment from seven major financial institutions is a very good place to start.