On 24 July 2019, as jubilant Conservative party members emerged from Boris Johnson’s victory speech in Westminster, one supporter was heard to remark Johnson had promised to “insert high-speed broadband into every orifice of every home”.
Earlier in his leadership campaign the tousle-headed presumptive PM had rubbished the government’s target of national full-fibre broadband coverage by 2033, saying Britain needed to ditch its “mañana approach” to broadband and “unleash full-fibre for all” by 2025.
But let’s be honest here. Knowing everything that has happened up to now, every concern over competition, every niggle with BDUK, every broken promise, every bit of spin over fibre-to-the-cabinet, is this new ambition in any way achievable? Will it be met? Can it be met? I don’t think so for one second.
Here’s one horrible, albeit entirely speculative and made up, version of what might happen to stop it…
Despite initial optimism among Remainers that Parliament would somehow be able to remove the new government or force it to revoke Article 50 at the last minute, a combination of in-fighting in the pro-EU ranks and the defection of 15 more Labour MPs to the Lib Dems (forcing a badly-timed leadership election which Jeremy Corbyn still won) helped Johnson steer the UK to a no-deal Brexit on 31 October 2019.
A snap election in January 2020 quickly followed, and while the Conservatives were wiped out in Remain leaning areas such as London, Scotland, and parts of Southeast England, a divided and weakened Labour party and Johnson’s last minute pact with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party saw the Conservatives recover their overall majority to a narrow but workable 11.
Johnson had in fact heeded the advice of the broadband industry, which in August 2019 warned him that he would need to act urgently if he was to have any hope of hitting his 2025 target, and the Broadband Act 2020 was fast-tracked into law in May. Passed with little opposition, it introduced deeper tax cuts on new fibre and forced action on wayleaves and new-build homes
But to start to understand why the full-fibre roll-out still stalled, we must go back to the spring of 2019, when Openreach’s chairman Mike McTighe had told Computer Weekly that he was unconcerned by the possibility he might lose the ability to recruit skilled engineers from outside the UK.
Despite Openreach’s optimism this proved not to be the case. Indeed, it was CityFibre’s Alex Blowers who proved to have made the right call when he said, “We are not going to get full national coverage by 2025 and, arguably, we are going to struggle to hit it by 2033 if the workforce we need to build those networks is no longer available to us because, post-Brexit, we slammed the door shut on the workers we need to build it.”
What transpired was a combination of lack of skills and lack of equipment. As the recession bit over the winter and into the spring of 2020, the jobs market slowed to a standstill. What’s more, many foreign-born engineers already in the UK were choosing to return home, while European operators were eyeing Openreach’s well-trained workforce for themselves, and with tasty benefits and supermarkets that still had food in them waiting across the Channel, the temptation proved too much for some.
Those that Openreach did manage to keep were faced with another problem; no work. With crucial equipment held up for weeks at Dover, and foreign suppliers and banks unwilling to extend credit to a country that had just dropped out of virtually all its trade agreements, Openreach was forced to radically revise its roll-out targets back down. It took brickbats from the media for this, and Johnson’s chancellor Sajid Javid railed against its “lack of ambition” in a speech to the CBI, even while giant reels of fibre-optic cable sat in limbo.
Overstretched and on the verge of collapse, in March 2021 Openreach turned to its parent BT for support, which left a black hole in BT’s accounts the size of an articulated lorry. Forced to act to save a flagship UK employer, Javid tried desperately to tempt new investors, and behind the scenes the government frantically lobbied friendly operators to try to get them to take a stake, but to no avail. Javid was forced to harvest the magic money tree, and as a condition of BT’s bailout, swingeing cuts had to be made. Openreach’s engineers were on the chopping block.
But the problems of Brexit were not limited to Openreach alone, and although CityFibre had been proved right, it too was hurting. Its flagship full-fibre roll-out with Vodafone was stalling as its larger partner itself retrenched, preferring to concentrate on its money-making European operations and its 5G investment (which was going slow not only thanks to lack of skills and equipment, but to Johnson’s December 2019 decision to force Huawei out of the UK’s national networks altogether).
As for the altnets – those that had survived the shock of the first Brexit winter were just as badly hit by the headwinds, although community-centric builders such as B4RN were attracting interest as people seized on the ‘Blitz’ spirit that had taken hold among Johnson’s supporters. Yes, DIY broadband was the order of the day, and the nationals rushed to write the story up.
Ultimately, it turned out that the only real winner was Virgin Media, which could already provide ultrafast broadband speeds through its cable network, and had shown in 2019 how it could simply and cheaply extend this benefit.
Indeed, in the two-years to March 2021 Virgin grew its customer base to within spitting distance of BT’s. With Openreach foundering and Virgin’s press office reaping the benefits, things took an interesting turn when the CEO of its parent Liberty Global was spotted hanging around both DCMS’ Whitehall offices and BT’s new Aldgate HQ.
Six months later, at an as-glitzy-as-affordable event in central London, Liberty painted the town and the BT Tower red, and in the presence of Richard Branson the BVT brand was unveiled. BT and Openreach would receive an immediate injection and support from Liberty’s deep cash reserves, as a condition of which the international media giant took full ownership of both the network builder, now to be called, erm, VirginReach, and BT’s consumer business.
So the full-fibre roll-out was back on, but with conditions. VirginReach would receive funding for a roll-out of full-fibre with an unspecified target, but it could not overbuild in areas where Virgin’s cable network already existed, and moreover, other ISPs were not to have access to the original Virgin network.
Now, it’s December 30 2025, and I’m writing these words from the overcrowded departures lounge of Heathrow Terminal 5 – with the airport at capacity and no new runway coming, Johnson has been talking about reviving that scheme for a Thames estuary airport that he dreamed up as London mayor – but back to broadband.
So where are we today? Well, the full-fibre roll-out has not hit 100%. It’s not even hit 50%. It’s barely, if Ofcom’s most recent report is accurate, hit 35%. And remember, that’s just in terms of premises past. Uptake is a fraction of that, since it turns out that with the premium the remaining ISPs are forced to put on gigabit services, full-fibre has become a cost-too far for most. People who want ultrafast are content to take Virgin’s cable service. Oh, and of course, not a day goes by without someone complaining that Virgin Media effectively has a monopoly on ultrafast. The regulator claims its next market review will do more to boost competition, but I can’t see that happening. It sometimes feels nothing has changed in 10 years, except the names.
I’d like to say we have had better luck with 5G, but we haven’t, and as other countries start to look ahead to the proposed 5G Advance standard, millions of Britons outside of the major towns and cities are still relying on 4G connections.
Sometimes, I can’t help but think that former chancellor and new Lib Dem leader Philip Hammond had it more or less right when he suggested 2033 might be a better target.