Roundup- the FTIR: fit to deliver for 5G and full fibre four years on?
techUK hosted a panel on Wednesday 2 November 2022 to discuss our latest report The FTIR: Fit to deliver for 5G and full fibre four years on?
Following opening remarks by Matthew Evans, Director – Markets, techUK, the panel discussion examined the report in more detail. We were grateful to be joined by:
- Alex Blowers, Director of Regulatory Affairs, CityFibre
- Catherine Colloms. Director of Corporate Affairs and Brand, Openreach
- Ian Adkins, Principal, Analysys Mason
- Jonathan Freeman, Strategic Growth and Regulatory Director, Cellnex UK
- Alex Towers, Director of Policy and Public Affairs, BT Group
What progress has been made since the FTIR was released in 2018?
The panel began by discussing the progress made by the UK since the FTIR was published. It was recognised that the UK is on track with full fibre rollout, with the plan supporting secured investment and creating a feeling of consistency.
Since 2018, the UK has experienced numerous socio-economic shocks, including the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These shocks have underlined the importance of digital infrastructure to the UK economy, including the deployment of full fibre and 5G.
It was noted there has also been a change in tone since 2018, from a focus on maximising value during the rollout towards a mood that considers seeing fibre and 5G rollout as a task that needs to be completed.
There was a recognition on the mobile side that the market is changing due to the increasing potential of Open RAN and the separation of network infrastructure hardware and operator software.
It was agreed that despite the UK’s progress, the toughest parts of the rollout lie ahead.
What major challenges remain?
The panel agreed that there were still significant challenges, beyond the current economic climate of high inflation and energy costs. The two major obstacles identified were uptake rates and persistent barriers to rollouts.
Increased take up is needed to increase revenue and provide use cases for full fibre and 5G innovation. There was concern at a lack of plan for the immediate future of those products in the 5G Testbeds and Trial Programme that had not yet made it to market.
The barriers towards continued deployment to the remotest areas were discussed as well. The lack of transparency in network mapping was cited as the only part of the FTIR report that had failed to truly get off the ground. Blockages of mobile masts was also highlighted as a persistent barrier.
Aside from mapping, the continued difficulty in making business cases to reach the most remote areas was contrasted with the ‘over competition’ in urban areas.
How can these challenges be overcome?
The panel keenly emphasised the need for flexibility to overcome barriers to future rollouts. The ability for Project Gigabit to be flexible with broadband speeds, to ensure maximum coverage could be affordably rolled out, was mooted as an idea. Other ideas included the need for a combination of full fibre and mobile solutions for connecting remote areas, including possible use of satellite, to be explored on a case-by-case basis.
Government and the regulator were cited as having their own roles to play. It was thought that central government should continue with providing a stable environment for investment, especially as communications infrastructure will contribute to the high-growth, low-carbon economy of tomorrow, and accept subsidies may be needed to connect the most remote areas.
Ofcom meanwhile was recognised as having a responsibility to help direct resources to prevent under or over competition in certain areas. Like government, the panel agreed on the value of continuing to engage with industry via bodies such as techUK and its Telecoms Infrastructure and Deployment Working Group.
The panel wanted to also emphasise the need for consistent messaging from industry, particularly regarding the potential full fibre and 5G have to aid both government Net Zero goals and wider UK decarbonisation.
Increasing take-up will help ensure that projects have a faster return on investment. To increase uptake, the panel agreed that the public and local authorities needed a to show a better understanding of full fibre and 5G. Migrating the public sector over to fibre and 5G was highlighted as essential for showing these technologies are fundamentally utilitarian.
While significant progress has been made on the FTIR four years on, the largest challenges remain. However, there are ways to overcome these challenges, provided support and an open dialogue remains between government, Ofcom, and industry.