UK needs more ambition for fibre broadband strategy

With less than 1% of UK households served with fibre-to-the-home broadband, the FTTH Council calls on the government to be more ambitious with its schemes

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The FTTH (fibre-to-the-home) Council of Europe has blamed the tradition of one large incumbent provider and the lack of ambition from the government for the UK lagging behind when it comes to fibre broadband.

This week sees the council launch its rankings of those investing the most into FTTH, which brings fibre broadband connectivity straight into homes and businesses, rather than sharing cabinets or copper connections with neighbours, providing much faster speeds for users.

In the global rankings – which list countries with a minimum of 1% of its households with FTTH connections – the Asia-Pacific region scored the highest, with South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong claiming the most subscribers.

However, even when compared to the rest of Europe, the UK didn’t even rank, as less than 1% of its households have such connections.

Nadia Babaali, communications director for FTTH Council Europe said it was not just the UK at fault, as other large economies, such as Germany, were similarly holding back. However, she told Computer Weekly, attitudes needed to change to prepare the UK for the future.

“In these countries, you have strong incumbent operators that have already made strong investments. a long time ago. into copper networks and they would like to keep these networks for as long as possible as they are making money on them,” she said.

“The copper infrastructure is obsolete and the operators know it. In countries where you have a lot of competition – for example from cable operators or from alternative operators – then the incumbents have to switch technologies, but we do not see this situation too much yet in the UK, so there is no drive from the competition.”

Babaali claimed the projects that were going ahead were local ones which, although on a small scale, showed the desire for FTTH broadband in the UK.

“It shows there is demand and in places where local communities have a say on what technologies they get, then they will go for FTTH,” she added. “In most cases, people don’t have a say, they just buy whatever the operator is offering.”

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Another element to blame is the regulatory nature of the industry in the UK. Babaali said a large incumbent operator – in the UK’s case BT – will be reluctant to invest millions into FTTH if the regulations are just going to open this up to other companies to take advantage of the money it has poured in.

“If the regulatory environment is not stable and is not clear and the incumbent operator does not know what will happen to the infrastructure that they have deployed, then this also slows [deployment] down because no company would want to make an investment and not be sure whether they would keep the competitive advantage,” she said.

“In countries where the regulatory environment is clear, you can see the incumbent is more willing because they know they have time to make a business case and to make it work.”

The president of FTTH Council Europe, Karin Ahl, sought to reassure Computer Weekly that there was progress being made and that the UK was on the right path.

“The development we see in the UK right now is the same that we saw in the Scandinavian countries 10 years ago,” she said. “It starts the same way and that is positive. It is something we should highlight and talk about much more than the negative side.”

“The framework of other countries was the same, and the history and beginning of other countries was the same, so I think the development we see now is the start of something good. It is also clear that the market is there because there are consumers that take this into their own hands and there is a really big risk and investment, so that clearly shows there is business to be done.”

We should be talking gigabits, not adding two or three megabits to download speeds

Nadia Babaali, communications director, FTTH Council Europe

But Babaali concluded for all of this to come together, there needed to be more will and pressure from central government to accelerate the deployments and technologies used across the UK for better connections.

“You cannot ignore [that] the ambition of the government is also quite important and we see a big gap between the so-called 'ambition' of the UK government to be the leading internet infrastructure in Europe and the actual targets of the plan,” she added.

“We should be talking gigabits, not adding two or three megabits to download speeds. We are talking about a revolution, but not just about speed. We are talking about enabling services, like ehealth. These are all long-term goals that the European Commission (EC) has really understood.”

Babaali concluded that the investment needed to be made now, not 10 years down the line – which according to current trends and predictions will be when the UK finally starts ranking in the FTTH league tables.

“All this infrastructure needs to be deployed and ready now because it takes time for people to connect and also for the applications and services to be developed and these businesses to grow,” she said. “Let’s be ambitious because this is our future.”

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