INOs react to UK’s U-turn on gigabit internet

26 November 2020 | Melanie Mingas

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Community Fibre, Voneus and CommScope are just some of the network operators to have voiced concern about changes to the UK’s National Infrastructure Strategy.

The government said the strategy “sets out plans to transform UK infrastructure in order to level up the country, strengthen the union and achieve net zero emissions by 2050.”

However, revisions were announced yesterday by chancellor Rishi Sunak as part of the country’s spending review and, while the sustainability, transport and flood defence updates were all welcomed, concerns have been raised across the TMT space about the delay that gigabit fibre roll outs will now face.

The new plan revised down the 2025 target deadline from 100% coverage to “85% minimum” coverage. As much as £5 billion remains on the table for the project, however, only £1.2 billion will be available ahead of the 2025 deadline.

The Independent Networks Co-operative Association (INCA) said it will continue to press the government to hit the original target.  

Chief executive Malcolm Corbett said: “The whole point of the outside-in funding programme is to ensure that hard to reach areas don’t get left behind in this massive upgrade to the UK’s digital infrastructure. Build plans by Openreach, Virgin Media and altnet challengers have been ramping up, but we agree that reaching 100% by the end of 2025 was always going to be difficult.

“The government has recognised that completing a full commercial build and tackling the subsidised harder to reach areas at the same time is very challenging,” he added.

Offering clarity on the funding element, Corbett said INCA has spoken with officials and understands that the £5bn of funding committed in the strategy is ring-fenced and “if more of that funding can be brought forward into the spending review period, that will happen.”

INCA estimates that investment in challenger firms will reach £7.7 billion by 2025/6 taking total private investment in fibre infrastructure to around £25 billion, including BT/ Openreach Virgin Media, and “the expectation that government will play its part too”, Corbett said.

For some, the change in approach ignored the difficult lessons that have been learned this year when it comes to providing high-speed services in difficult to reach areas.

Calling the news a “major blow to rural communities”, Steve Leighton, CEO of rural broadband provider, Voneus, said: “It’s a safe assumption that the 15% of the population who are no longer included in the Government’s pledge will be living in the most difficult to reach – or in other words, expensive to connect – locations.

“The problems associated with being on the wrong side of the digital divide have been all too clear to remote communities this year. With repeated lockdowns, it is people living in villages and rural areas – where there isn’t always access to decent broadband infrastructures – who have found it hardest to work from home, participate in online lessons and even stream a movie. They might have thought there was light at the end of the tunnel, but this news suggests they were wrong.

“Instead of obsessing with gigabit-capable speeds for everyone – or now 85% of everyone – the Government should look first at the areas that can’t even access speeds to support the basics, like banking online. Focusing on these homes would go a long way to closing the broadband gap and must be the Government’s top telecoms priority instead of this procession of headline-grabbing pledges,” Leighton added.

Acknowledging the challenge rural locations pose, Phil Sorsky, SVP, service providers for EMEA at CommScope, said such areas still should not be left behind.

“We believe all homes and businesses should be on a level playing field in terms of connectivity – regardless of location,” Sorsky commented.

“While changes won’t happen overnight, injecting funds into the digital transformation of our country will have long term and far reaching benefits for us all – both economically and socially. Building the infrastructure to supply fast, reliable connectivity to businesses will ultimately underpin out efforts to build back from the pandemic and so this is certainly a positive move from our perspective,” he added.

Additional challenges

Graeme Oxby, CEO of London based full-fibre internet provider, Community Fibre, said that private investment is already in place – the missing piece is commitment from landlords to ensure properties are fibre-enabled.

Community Fibre, which earlier this month started to offer symmetric 3Gbps direct connections to customers’ homes across most of its network, is building networks in 16 of London’s 33 boroughs.

Oxby said: “Today's announcement indicates to us that the Government will be relying more heavily on private investment into the country's full fibre infrastructure over the next few years. Community Fibre remains focused on enabling as many properties in London with full fibre as soon as possible.

“Irrespective of the Government's plans the private sector investment is already in place for London's properties to be 100% full fibre enabled by 2025. However, the target is only achievable if London's landlords grant the necessary permissions needed to bring full fibre to their properties. Community Fibre already has the permissions it needs from seven of London's top ten landlords and is happy to guide other landlords through the simple process of having their properties upgraded with 100% full fibre-optic broadband.”

Ahead of the budget in March, which covered the extension of 4G coverage, as well as 5G roll outs, the chancellor’s office tweeted: “Britain has a proud history of innovation, it's 3 days until the Budget that invests in the scientific achievements of the future.”