Whether provided over a fixed line or a mobile network (and most consumers have both), broadband is becoming the 4th utility. The UK compares well with other developed countries for broadband provision. Broadband is fast enough for most consumers and is more attractively priced than in many other countries.
But the UK’s fixed broadband is overwhelmingly based on the copper lines which have been in the ground for over a century. New technologies, such as G.fast (capable of offering more than the 300Mbps “ultrafast” downlink speed, but only for premises less than 500m from the cabinet), enable the kind of services we used to think would require “full fibre”.
So why do Ministers and regulators worry about the limited number of homes and businesses which currently have access to fibre all the way to the premise?
Because they can see that the demand for faster connections, and rapidly increasing capacity usage, will increasingly bump up against what copper will deliver. Additionally, full fibre is far more reliable than copper, and has more resistance to heavy rain or flooding (as York discovered during the winter of 2015-16). Wide availability of fibre is also essential to support the 5G networks arriving in three to five years’ time.
If we rip out the copper, and replace it with fibre, the UK can be future-proofed for tomorrow’s online services. If enough consumers upgrade to full fibre broadband, then there will be a large enough target market to incentivise the development of those new services.
So why do so few consumers currently have the option of full fibre?
Quite simply, many consumers (not least while household budgets are feeling squeezed) feel little compulsion to upgrade to a more expensive service until their current broadband fails to keep up with their expectations. It’s not as if fibre is going to become scarce so should be brought in advance of need.
Additionally, while fibre isn’t expensive, rolling it out is (at least, in the UK). Unlike some other countries with greater availability of full fibre, the UK isn’t particularly densely populated, and consumers have far less tolerance for living in Multi-Dwelling Units (MDUs, essentially blocks of flats), where hundreds of consumers could be given access to full fibre in one shot.
Lack of coordination between the public bodies which control when and how roads can be dug up, or where masts can be put, also adds time and cost to the civil works which constitute 75-80 per cent of the cost of deploying communications infrastructure. In London, there are 33 planning authorities, plus Transport for London operating the Strategic Road Network, all working independently.
So how to break the impasse and incentivise Openreach to invest in replacing copper with fibre before the new services are launched which will generate demand for that fibre? How to reduce the size of that risk by reducing the time and cost of getting it out there?
Openreach’s announcement to hire 3000 engineers and invest in rolling out full fibre to three million premises by the end of 2020, is an important part of the UK’s transition from copper-based broadband to tomorrow’s full fibre broadband. This initiative builds upon the consultation Openreach undertook with its customers last year, and understandably only works if Openreach’s customers, Government and Ofcom are supportive.
When combined with the full fibre being deployed by Virgin Media, CityFibre as a result of their agreement with Vodafone, and a growing number of other providers such as Hyperoptic, Gigaclear, B4RN and KCOM, Openreach’s proposal will usher in a step change in provision, helping to lift the UK from good connectivity to great connectivity – something techUK has strongly recommended. Great connectivity, which alongside far more fibre provision, must include improved mobile coverage on major transport corridors, will be essential if the UK is to remain a great place to do business. techUK will also continue to work with DCMS on their local connectivity initiative, addressing obstacles to deployment.
Commenting on Openreach’s announcement, techUK CEO Julian David said:
“Fast, reliable, affordable connectivity is essential, for businesses of all sizes and consumers alike. In an increasingly competitive world, where the UK needs to be a leader in in applying technologies like IoT, AI, Open Banking and others, we need to raise our game on digital communications infrastructure, to attract inward investment and to retain investment already here.
“techUK welcomes today’s announcement from Openreach and we hope that it is supported by the broadband suppliers who are Openreach’s customers as well as Ofcom. We will continue to work with DCMS, Ofcom, local authorities and industry to reduce the time and cost of digging up the streets and obtaining planning permission, which inflate the cost of the civil works which currently makes up three quarters of the cost of deploying fibre.”
Find out more about techUK's Communications Infrastructure Programme.