A full fibre diet for all by 2025 was one of Boris Johnson’s clearest goals as a leadership candidate. Since becoming PM he has continued to reference it as a key domestic priority.
So, can it be done?
Not without a Herculean effort and immediate enabling action by Government.
Why? Because it is a huge logistical challenge. Fibre installation requires an engineer to visit every premise. Achieving the Prime Minister’s target would require 13,000 successful (i.e. someone is in and the install goes to plan) engineer visits every day for the next five years. To put this into context, we’re currently addressing 3,000 premises every day and that’s mostly in the areas where the population density is highest. No country in Europe, even those with a far higher propensity for flats over houses, has got close to what would be required to hit this target. In another critical infrastructure deployment, the deployment of smart meters, it has taken over six years to deliver meters to under half of the UK’s premises; and that doesn’t require physical infrastructure or wires being delivered to the premise.
So, what should be done? The ambition to have world-leading connectivity to every part of the UK is absolutely right, but we need to recognise that world leading connectivity requires 5G as well as fibre and that Government will need a laser like focus on enabling the rapid deployment of both technologies if we are to meet this big and bold ambition.
Full fibre gives us the future-proofed pipe for our future. It is cheaper to run as a network and offers us greater levels of reliability. 5G is an essential element of the UK’s digital fabric and the underpinning for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 5G will not just be about mobile phones; it will drive smart manufacturing, enable free ports, and – according to the Government - ultimately unlock up to £173 billion of incremental GDP growth over the next decade. Yet the availability of 5G is determined by the availability of fibre.
The current Government’s targets are for nationwide full fibre coverage by 2033 and the majority of the UK population to benefit from 5G coverage by 2027. We are clear; in order to meet these targets, Government and the regulator need to take significant action. In order to accelerate them then we need creative and bold policy decisions.
What to do to deliver the current targets:
- Prioritising the deployment of full fibre and 5G infrastructure across the planning system by mandating new premises are built with full fibre infrastructure and ensuring local authorities address issues around street works. We have managed to enshrine Hedgehog Highways in planning law but not our digital connection
- Extending the current business rates holiday for full fibre, due to run until 2022, for at least the next 15 years in order to allow providers to make long term investment decisions now.
- Significantly reforming Wayleaves by adopting the National Infrastructure Commission’s recommendation for a notification-based system. Currently around 40 per cent of requests from operators to access tenanted premises go unanswered.
- Prioritising mobile connectivity along major transport corridors, including bringing political pressure to bear on bodies such Network Rail to allow wireless infrastructure to be deployed on public sector land.
- Creating a long term, properly funded roadmap for deployment of full fibre and 5G that recognises that some areas will remain commercially unavailable. This plan should be based on an ‘outside-in’ approach, where rural and less commercially are prioritised, and create a regulatory framework that will maximise private capital in the ‘final third’.
- Address significant concerns about labour supply under the proposed £30,000 threshold outlined in the Immigration White Paper. We’re going to need a lot of workers in a short timeframe to deploy this fibre and whilst industry is ramping up its domestic supply chain, we need to be realistic about accessing the existing talent pool in the EU.
- Make an evidence-based decision on vendors that the Telecoms Supply Chain Review left unanswered – excluding vendors will mean that our 5G targets in particular are unachievable.
These will all require political and, in some cases, public capital – although the vast majority of this strategic build will be met by the private sector. Deliver them and the targets should be delivered within time. Significant acceleration for full fibre to the late 2020s requires a massive mobilisation from the public sector in conjunction with the industry:
- Use regulation to incentivise the upgrade from copper/superfast to full fibre. Running the old copper and new fibre networks concurrently is inefficient for UK Plc and shifts investment away from the full fibre goal.
- Getting serious about incentivising demand. We need to see fast adoption of 5G and full fibre services; industry will do its bit in bringing forward new products and propositions but Government needs to shake-up advertising rules and deliver a Digital Business Links scheme to ensure we benefit from the deployment of these networks.
- Facilitate efficient private sector investment – allow industry to collaborate in the initial rollout so that we get maximum geographic coverage in the short-term followed by greater head-to-head infrastructure competition in the medium-long term.
- A campaign to allow employees to be at home for engineering visits in-line with those for smart meters.
- And likely additional creative policy and regulatory intervention!
Industry has been spending capital at an increased rate for the past 12 months to meet Government targets but has seen very little evidence of the Government upholding its end of the bargain. The sector needs the above changes now if we are to accelerate the rollout of 5G and full fibre. Just as a railway station was essential for a Victorian town, we need these digital foundations to be a leading tech-driven global economy.