The government should put a national broadband plan in place by the end of 2018 to support and encourage the roll-out of fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) or full-fibre broadband – or risk the UK being left further behind in years to come, according to the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC).
The NIC – established in 2015 – has just published its first National Infrastructure Asssessment (NIA) report, setting out a 10 to 30-year action plan for the UK’s infrastructure, from roads to utilities to digital networks.
The report expressed support for the government’s aim of completing a full-fibre broadband roll-out covering the entire country 15 years from now, in 2033, but argued that Westminster needs to do more sooner, and act now to deliver full-fibre.
“In the commission’s social research, 86% of people agreed that all parts of the UK should have equal access to broadband,” wrote the report’s authors.
“Full-fibre broadband is the likely next step in digital connectivity. It is more reliable and cheaper to maintain than today’s part-copper, part-fibre broadband connections.
“But it will take at least a decade to build nationally. Government needs to make a decision on full-fibre now. Full-fibre will deliver benefits compared to current broadband even if the expected demand growth does not materialise.”
Along with the proposed national broadband plan, the NIC said Ofcom could do more to provide commercial investors – such as Openreach – with more certainty, and said that by doing so, the vast majority of the UK’s towns and cities could be covered by full-fibre through open market competition alone, leaving fewer people in need of subsidised assistance through a future Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK)-type scheme.
However, if a BDUK successor was to be considered for full-fibre, the NIC proposed that it should focus first on those areas least likely to receive a service, rather than easier-to-reach suburban areas or large villages. This is on the basis that it might then force market-driven network builds to go further than just in built-up areas, and the two could meet in the middle.
It also suggested that such a scheme could include provisions whereby if communities were willing to provide volunteer resources after the B4RN model, they could be eligible to receive a service sooner.
The NIC also said that the time to start talking about switching off the old copper network was fast approaching, and that this should be considered as part of the national plan. Although the copper switch-off will ultimately be in Openreach’s gift to carry out, some government intervention will be needed to allow it to make the decision.
Such a transition plan would need to include protections for potentially vulnerable customers, and would also need to account for people who do not want full-fibre. The NIC warned that Openreach must not be allowed to charge customers who had no need for a full-fibre upgrade, or were perfectly happy with a slower fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) service for the upgrade.
The NIC went on to make a number of recommendations for the government’s Barrier Busting Taskforce, an initiative set up by former DCMS minister Matt Hancock, which is trying to help industry overcome some of the barriers to full-fibre investment.
The report identified four key objectives for the taskforce: to give network builders and operators the same rights as utilities around wayleaves and provision as standard in new-build properties; to prioritise local digital connectivity with councils adopting so-called digital champions to engage with telecoms providers on issues such as streamlining the process around permissions to dig up the roads and improving accessibility to public assets; to do much more to open up access to Openreach’s duct and pole networks, and mandating that all new fibre builds be open to all; and to ensure broadband network planning is also suitable for 5G deployment.
Malcolm Dowden, legal director at law practice Womble Bond Dickinson, said the UK’s problems with broadband roll-out were mainly economic ones.
“Government proposals to extend broadband connections to all homes and businesses face a central economic challenge,” he said.
“The NIA recognises that connectivity is now a key utility for business and home life. It provides a valuable focus for government action on improved connection.
“However, it is part of a long-standing debate that can be rendered into a key question: who pays when the cost of rural connection so significantly outstrips easier urban connections?”
Dowden said that although the focus on fixed broadband services for homes and businesses was entirely understandable, the report did not address other connectivity issues, such as mobile network not-spots, or future demands for bandwidth and backhaul to support, for example, the internet of things or, post-Brexit, the tracking of goods for customs, tax and regulatory purposes.