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Telcos hail progress improvements in meeting UK full-fibre broadband deployment targets

Senior management from Openreach, TalkTalk and Three use Connected Britain keynote to share insights on how full-fibre broadband deployment is progressing across the country

The UK’s telco community has opened up about the taxation, access, government and recruitment challenges that continue to blight the roll-out of full-fibre broadband across the nation, but claim the picture is improving compared with a year ago. 

In a succession of keynote speeches during the morning session of the Connected Britain conference at the London Business Design Centre, senior representatives from several major UK telcos explained how their efforts to increase the availability of full-fibre broadband are progressing, as well as some of the barriers standing in their way.

To set the scene for the discussion, Erzsebet Fitori, director general of the Fibre to the Home Council Europe, gave some comparison data to highlight how far behind the UK is compared with the rest of Europe in terms of the number of fibre lines deployed.

But there has been a marked ramp-up in progress over the past 12 months, she added. “The UK is not at the forefront of the number of fibre lines that have been deployed, but compared to the same time a year ago, the country has achieved a quite considerable increase in the availability of full fibre in this market, and is in the top five countries in terms of growth, year on year,” said Fitori.

And the same is true in terms of how quickly adoption of full-fibre broadband is increasing across the UK, she said.

“One-year growth in the UK has been quite phenomenal,” said Fitori. “Since a year ago, the number of subscriptions has grown by more than 80%. What we can observe with regard to the UK market, in a European comparison, is that it has started from a very low base, but things have started to move upwards in the last few years.”

Openreach CEO Clive Selley gave details of how his organisation’s efforts to provide 15 million homes with access to full-fibre connectivity by 2025 are working out.

“By the end of next week, we’ll have increased our platform size to about one and a half million footprint in the UK,” he said. “We are putting in place the foundations for a constant quarter-on-quarter increase in the rate of delivering fibre to the premises [FTTP].”

However, Selley called out a number of government-enabled blockers to this work that he said must be lifted to help accelerate full-fibre deployment across the UK.

“What I would ask is that the government leans in to deliver a bunch of barrier-breaking initiatives, perhaps through legislation,” he said.

Chief among these would be the abolition of the “cumulo tax”, which is effectively a commercial property-related business rate applied to Openreach’s duct, pole assets and exchange assets, said Selley.

“I would like it made easier to get the right to do street works, to put out traffic management facilities in the UK,” he said. “I would like easier access to multi-dwelling units and I would love the government to do away with the cumulo tax on fibre infrastructure.

“I find it bizarre that, a time when all of us are rallying to the cause of delivering full fibre to the UK, we are subject to a tax that explicitly penalises people who do this work at scale.”

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Selley also described some of the mitigatory work Openreach is embarking on to ensure its full-fibre deployment plans are not derailed by Brexit and the potential barriers this could introduce to sourcing engineering talent from overseas.

“I’m a little bit concerned about the implications of Brexit and slightly worried about access to the wider labour pool,” he said. “This is one of the reasons why we are hiring into Openreach rather than building a strategy that is completely reliant on third parties that often use European labour.”

This is also one of the reasons why Openreach has invested heavily in education and recruitment, including opening 10 fibre training facilities in the UK, he added.

“Over this year and last year, we will have hired 6,000 field engineers, most of whom will be applied to the job of rolling out full-fibre networks in every part of the UK,” said Selley.

It is important to overcome these kinds of barriers, said TalkTalk CEO Tristia Harrison during her time on stage, if the UK is to stand any chance of ensuring that the rapid growth the nation’s tech industry has enjoyed to date continues in the long term.

At present, the technology industry is outperforming the overall economy in growth terms, said Harrison, and the UK remains an attractive place for tech-focused venture capitalists to invest, and for startups to set up shop.

This is despite the fact that the UK’s full-fibre coverage has, historically, lagged behind that of other countries, as is confirmed by the Fibre to the Home Council Europe’s figures, but the picture is improving, she said.

On the subject of government support for full-fibre deployments, Harrison said improvements have been made, considering how “on the fence” Whitehall was several years ago about whether or not cross-nation super-fast connectivity was even needed.

“Change is coming and there is cause for optimism, and that’s because the market has pivoted over the last few years and it is now much better-placed to deliver the sustained investment we need for the long term,” she said.

“If we cast our mind back three years, the market wasn’t set up for this sort of investment. We had an infrastructure monopoly that meant the country’s full-fibre aspirations were artificially and unduly dependent on Openreach, and a government that was on the fence about whether Britain needed a full-fibre future.”

Flurry of investment

Since then, Ofcom and the government have both taken steps to open up competition within the full-fibre broadband market, paving the way for a flurry of investment announcements from across the wider telco community.

“We are seeing a range of companies announcing their plans to invest properly,” said Harrison. “The government has come off the fence and is now backing a full-fibre future for Britain. And a range of new funds and investors are recognising the real potential for full-fibre, and are looking at how they can play a much more active role in that path.

“We are still at the foot of the mountain, but the market has pivoted quite dramatically in the last three years, even in the last 12 months, and we should feel very optimistic that the UK is now much better-placed to start delivering the investment we desperately need.”

As a counterpoint to this, Three CEO Dave Dyson said there is a risk that the UK government’s focus on full-fibre broadband as the way to meet growing consumer demand for online services and data risks playing down the important role 5G and wireless backhaul connectivity has to play, too.

“In my opinion, government and Ofcom have been focusing too much on full-fibre as the only solution,” he said. “It is encouraging that they want to improve the quality of connectivity in the UK, but I would like to see them take a step back and focus on what users actually need and how much they can afford to pay, and from there form a view on what technologies are best to deliver.

“Fibre will always be a big part of the answer, but it is not the only answer. Wireless backhaul has a significant and underestimated role to play.”

Expanding on this point during a post-keynote panel session, Dyson cautioned the government and wider telco sector not to get too hung up on roll-out targets and deadlines, pointing out that large swathes of the population living in rural and urban areas will be priced out of using full-fibre for some time to come.

“I’m not sure the customers need it there yet,” he said. “I think there is a small part of the population… who genuinely want and can afford to pay for gigabit per second speeds. The vast majority of the population doesn’t need that speed and cannot afford it.

“We need to be careful in terms of how we set these targets and what we’re trying to achieve, because the harder we make the targets, the faster we accelerate things, the more inefficient we will be, and I don’t think that is good for UK consumers.”

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