By Steve Leighton, CEO, Voneus
Recognising that a resilient, future-proofed economy can’t be built on an aging telecoms infrastructure, the UK Government has, over recent years, launched a stream of initiatives designed to upgrade the nation’s digital capabilities. These initiatives have been wide reaching. Among others, they have included £645 million to ensure superfast broadband services are readily available to 98 percent of the UK population (still a work in progress) as well as 100 percent business rate tax relief for operators installing new fibre in their infrastructures. Recently, the Government upped the ante, when it started to tout the idea of a ‘full-fibre’ nation. In his November 2017 speech to the Broadband Stakeholders Group Conference, the then Minister for Digital – and now Secretary for State for Digital, Media, Culture & Sport – Matt Hancock MP, was vocal in his vision for a full-fibre Britain, admitting that ‘while the existing copper network is important today, a copper-to-the-premise solution is not fit for the future.’ Today, with only 3 percent of the UK able to access full-fibre networks, much work needs to be done to make this idea a reality. To his credit, Hancock did put his money where his mouth was, using his speech to announce £200m funding for locally-led projects to improve coverage. In March 2018, the Government announced a further £67m of full-fibre investment, this time in the form of vouchers, which consumers and small businesses can apply for to subsidise the cost of network upgrades. The rise of the altnet A number of alternative broadband network operators have sprung up over recent years to help boost fibre network coverage. These operators have injected much needed competition into a market that was dominated by BT and its infrastructure division, BT Openreach, which – for reasons that are hotly debated – has been slow to facilitate new fibre rollouts. Research from Point Topic suggests that these new participants are beginning to make a difference. At the end of 2017, the altnet-built fibre optic networks passed almost one million homes and businesses across the UK. While not all residents or firms have signed up to these newly available fibre-to-the-premises services, Point Topic suggests that just over 200,000 have signed up, and expects this figure to rise to more than 550,000 by the end of 2019. When will the UK become full-fibre? With substantial Government support and a growing band of altnets spearheading local rollouts, it’s easy to understand why some people feel optimistic about the future of the UK’s telecoms infrastructure. Yet, this is no simple technology upgrade. Many factors are at play that will dictate when – or indeed if – the nation really can credibly call itself full-fibre. First of all, the UK is starting from a low point. A large proportion of investment to date has been channelled towards upgrading local telephone exchanges or towards delivering fibre-to-the-cabinet. Legacy copper networks are still used to deliver broadband services to the doorsteps of homes and businesses, even though the signal degrades over fairly short distances. The availability of fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) services in the UK is so poor that the UK doesn’t even qualify to be considered for the FTTH Council Europe’s league table of the best performing nations. Turning a non-league nation into a digital premier league heavyweight isn’t going to happen overnight. Indeed, the rollout of fibre networks is slow, expensive and cumbersome. Raising finance, engaging with local authorities and property developers, digging up roads and laying cables, takes years and – with many variables in the process – is prone to delays. Regional differences It’s not feasible to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure in one fell swoop. The Government’s approach of funding locally-led projects helps keep costs manageable and allows providers to build a customer base as they grow. So far, rollouts have begun in 13 areas, most of them in urban locations. How long other communities will have to wait is still very much to be determined. Indeed, it’s likely that some will be waiting indefinitely. The cost of building out fibre in rural locations – especially in remote communities with disparate farms and homes – could be too much for some providers to bear, even with financial sweeteners from the Government. There’s an environmental cost too, with digs causing major disruption to roads and the surrounding countryside. We estimate that some 300,000 UK homes will never be served by fibre networks simply because they are too hard and costly to connect. While full-fibre may be a neat catchphrase, it’s unlikely to become every region’s reality. The alternatives to full-fibre Those communities facing a long or perhaps never-ending wait for fibre-to-the-premise shouldn’t, however, think that means they are forever stuck with copper. There are of course alternatives to fibre, all with their own merits. 5G mobile networks offer one such option. With increased speeds and reduced latency compared to current 4G (or, in some places, still 3G), 5G will definitely enhance the experience of mobile users but there are disadvantages. Rollouts aren’t expected until 2020, pricing is still to be determined and – just like with fibre networks – economic decisions will dictate network coverage. Satellite broadband is another alternative. Relatively easy to deploy, and with none of the financial or environmental costs of digging up roads to lay fibre, satellite can reach the places other providers are reluctant to address. The downside is bandwidth cost and satellite’s reliability – it is susceptible to unscheduled outages which can be frustrating to customers. Perhaps the most established alternative is fixed wireless access (FWA). Instead of relying on copper, homes and business are able to connect to the nearest fibre infrastructure via high-speed wireless networks. Quicker, cheaper and less disruptive to deploy than fibre, it can be configured to reach even the remotest of communities, delivering the speeds required to run a small business or to meet the multiple device access requirements of busy households. Point Topic’s research highlights FWA’s important role in complementing fibre networks, estimating that some two million premises are currently within reach of these networks, with just over 100,000 live connections. The Government’s ambitious plan to upgrade the nation’s digital capabilities is laudable. However, to close the digital divide and ensure that all locations – even those in the remotest corners of the country – can gain access to superfast broadband, the UK needs to consider more than just fibre. It’s time to take off the blinkers.