Government sets out ultrafast broadband plans

Government publishes Digital Communications Infrastructure Strategy to coincide with the Budget, setting out its future broadband ambitions

The government has published its Digital Communications Infrastructure Strategy to coincide with the Budget, setting out its future ambitions around ultrafast broadband, rural connectivity, 4G and more.

“We remain committed to ensuring that the benefits of better broadband are felt across the UK,” wrote culture secretary Sajid Javid in the report’s preamble. “Freeing up further spectrum for 4G, piloting superfast satellite connections and looking to increase the Universal Service Obligation will ensure that rural communities are not left behind.”

Welcoming Ofcom’s recently announced strategic review of the UK’s digital communications market – the first such review in 10 years – the government said it would continue to engage with suppliers, investors and stakeholders to ensure the UK had the connectivity it needed to remain a digital leader.

In his Budget speech, Chancellor George Osborne said ultrafast broadband of 100Mbps should be made available to “nearly all” UK premises.

Although Osborne stopped short of saying where or when the ultrafast rollout would take place, the government’s report said it would commit to acting to ensure that its UK Guarantees Scheme – put in place to help infrastructure projects raise debt finance – could be used to accelerate private sector investment in ultrafast.

As an example of this, the government has already prequalified the expansion of Virgin Media’s ultrafast broadband network to support the operator’s planned £3bn investment. Note that Virgin Media already has a 100Mbps product on the market.

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The plans to extend ultrafast 100Mbps broadband, although welcomed, were also condemned as not good enough following the Budget announcements.

“We welcome the government’s ambition for ultrafast broadband, encouraging investment in faster connectivity to homes and businesses nationwide,” said Greg Mesch, CEO of CityFibre. “However, the target of at least 100Mbps is too low. As the British economy becomes more digitally based, it is vital that even faster Gigabit speeds are achieved.”

Similarly, those hoping that Osborne’s announcement of 100Mbps broadband might herald a commitment to fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) infrastructure were left disappointed. Although the government conceded there was a case for FTTP for businesses, it said there was “little consensus” about the wider consumer need because “many benefits can be realised through alternative solutions”.

Barriers to connectivity

The report also set out plans to highlight and attempt to remove barriers to private investment in ultrafast broadband; potential reform of the Electronic Communications Code, which governs the relationship between network operators and site providers; a consultation on implementing the European Broadband Directive to reduce the cost of rollout and force new buildings and renovations to account for network infrastructure; more cuts to red tape around planning issues; and a push to ensure local authorities and local enterprise partnerships are better supported to deliver improved connectivity.

On the issue of rural broadband, Osborne also announced plans to raise the Universal Service Obligation for broadband, currently set at 2Mbps, to 5Mbps, and the launch of a scheme – in conjunction with local councils – to subsidise the cost of installing superfast-capable satellite broadband, which the government claimed would meet the needs of about one-fifth of those premises categorised as the final 5%.

There was also good news for the government’s broadband connection voucher scheme, which was extended last year with an additional £40m of public cash and has now helped more than 12,000 businesses with grants of up to £3,000 to improve their broadband connections.

The government now plans to expand the voucher scheme to 28 more cities from 1 April 2015, taking the total number of urban areas covered by the Superconnected Cities scheme to 50.

The enhancement of 4G mobile network connectivity was also a key feature of the report. Having already committed last year to make the 700MHz spectrum band available for mobile data use, Osborne confirmed that £600m would be made available to bring this spectrum into use.

“The funds will support the infrastructure costs of clearing the spectrum frequency, including support to consumers where appropriate, and retuning broadcast transmitters to enable broadcasters to move into a lower frequency,” said the report. “This will free up the 700MHz spectrum for 4G mobile communications through an auction in the next Parliament.”

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