The government is proposing a major package of regulatory changes, public funding and new legislation to bring full fibre connectivity to the entire of the UK by 2023.
At present, just four per cent of the UK is connected to fibre to the premise (FTTP) technology which can deliver gigabit speeds. This pales in comparison to other nations across Europe, notably Spain’s 71 per cent figure and Portugal’s coverage rate of 89 percent.
Unless the situation improves, the government argues, the UK risks falling behind its rivals in terms of connectivity, especially with the imminent arrival of 5G mobile networks. It says that without any changes, full fibre networks would only reach three quarters of the UK “at best” and take more than 20 years to roll out.
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“We want everyone in the UK to benefit from world-class connectivity no matter where they live, work or travel,” said newly-appointed culture secretary Jeremy Wright. “This radical new blueprint for the future of telecommunications in this country will increase competition and investment in full fibre broadband, create more commercial opportunities and make it easier and cheaper to roll out infrastructure for 5G.”
The Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR) is pitched as a long-term strategy for the sector and includes several recommendations.
It wants guarantees that all new-build homes will have access to FTTP, while operators will get a “right of entry” to rented properties such as flats and office blocks so residents and businesses can choose their own supplier. Meanwhile, telecoms providers will get more access to utility infrastructure such as sewers, government-owned buildings and Openreach’s ducts and poles.
The FTIR promises a pro-investment regulatory environment, more spectrum for 5G and a framework that will reduce the cost and disruption caused by roadworks.
“We welcome the Government’s review, and share its ambition for full-fibre and 5G networks to be rolled out right across the UK, The Government and Ofcom are working together, and with industry, to help ensure people and businesses get the broadband and mobile they need for the 21st century.
But perhaps the most eye-catching policies are the pledge to transition away from copper and the promise of additional investment for rural areas. Although the government believes its recommendations will stimulate competition in urban areas, it recognises that the commercial viability of FTTP will not extent to remote locations. It claims to have already earmarked £200 million from existing superfast broadband rollout programmes.
Several providers, including BT Openreach, Virgin Media, TalkTalk, CityFibre, Gigaclear and Hyperoptic are already building FTTP networks. Generally, the industry has welcomed the proposals.
“Today marks the day the Government decided once and for all to leave copper behind and commit the UK to a full fibre future, making clear that a new generation of infrastructure builders is the vehicle for delivering its bold ambition for all homes and businesses to be connected to full fibre by 2033, not just Openreach,” said Mark Collins, director of strategy at CityFibre.
“The Government’s plans to deliver nationwide full fibre include a welcome commitment to creating a level-playing field, ensuring greater transparency from the incumbent and delivering a stable regulatory environment for investment.”
“We’re encouraged by the Government’s plan to promote competition, tackle red tape and bust the barriers to investment,” added an Openreach spokesperson.
Only last week, a report from the Broadband Stakeholders Group identified a number of regulatory issues that could prevent the UK from being a leader in 5G networks. These included access to fibre, which will play an integral role in providing backhaul for sites and microinfrastructure like small cells.
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Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.