UK ministers meet telcos over full-fibre investment

14 December 2017 | James Pearce


British government ministers have grilled the chiefs of the UK’s largest telecoms firms over a lack of investment in full-fibre infrastructure, according to reports.

The Financial Times claims Culture Secretary Karen Bradley met with top officials from Openreach, BT, TalkTalk, Sky UK, Virgin Media, as well as executives from Vodafone and O2 to discuss fibre investment.

Ofcom chief Sharon White was also in attendance, while a number of rural and fibre specialists also appeared at the meeting which reportedly covered the slow rollout of full fibre – currently only available to around 3% of UK homes.

Citing three people familiar with the meeting, the FT said the tone was “positive” with fibre deployments a key priority for the government and for Ofcom. The former announced additional investments into fibre and 5G in the recent budget announcement.

The UK has been ranked the third-worst country in Europe for fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) coverage, according to a comprehensive study of speeds from 28 countries across the continent carried out by IHS Markit. At the end of June 2016 FTTP coverage in the UK was 1.8% the report, released in September, claimed.

Technologies such as fibre, which covers 23.7% of households overall (up from 20.3% in 2015) are very low in rural areas – just 8.8% across Europe.  Portugal was ranked highest for fibre-to-the-x coverage, at 85% of households, while the UK, Belarus and Greece were all below 5%, according to an EC report.

The figures highlight the challenges the UK faces in competing with the rest of Europe on fibre deployments, which may explain the reason for the reported meeting between the telco heads and government ministers.

White spoke earlier this month about keeping pace with rivals, saying their needs to be more investment in next generation networks in both the fixed and mobile spaces.

“We cannot afford to stand still,” she said: “History tells us that, soon, superfast broadband will not be enough. Technological developments – from robotics and automation, to cybersecurity and connected devices, to those we cannot even conceive of today – will all demand faster, more secure, more reliable networks.”

“The UK is already playing catch-up and without more investment, we risk falling even further behind.”

Openreach has already unveiled plans to connect 10 million homes by the middle of the next decade, dependent on regulations around charging which have caused a heated debate across the sector.

Some rivals are not waiting for the BT-owned infrastructure firm’s plans, however, with the likes of Vodafone already agreeing to a £500 million deal with CityFibre to deploy a Gigabit fibre network that will connect up to five million homes and businesses by 2025. Virgin Media is also deploying fibre as part of its £3 billion Project Lightning.

During the CityFibre announcement, Vodafone UK CEO Nick Jeffery said: ““The point is, relying on a copper network deployed in the last century in the belief that you can stretch that network to the limits of psychics and beyond in order to give this country the infrastructure its needs is frankly not credible. What this country needs is full fibre to the premise at scale.”