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Boris Johnson has 12 months to reform broadband policy, says industry

Broadband sector advocates warn prime minister that the clock is ticking if he wants to be serious about achieving 100% full-fibre broadband coverage in six years

Prime minister Boris Johnson must prioritise action on fibre tax reform, wayleaves, new-build homes and digital and engineering skills if he is to have any hope of fulfilling his pledge to achieve nationwide full-fibre broadband connectivity by 2025, as promised during his leadership campaign, according to three of the UK’s most prominent sector advocates.

In an open letter to Johnson, Andrew Glover, chairman of the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA), Itret Latif, deputy chairman and interim CEO of the Federation of Communications Services (FCS), and Malcolm Corbet, CEO of the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA), said the industry was ready and willing to take on the challenge of bringing forward the current target of achieving 100% full-fibre coverage by 2033 by eight years.

But to have a fighting chance of doing this, they said the regulatory barriers facing the industry needed to be broken down in short order. They warned that ambition alone would not be enough to overcome the considerable challenges that the industry faces.

“Nationwide full-fibre coverage is not a can that can be kicked down the road,” they wrote. “These issues need to be resolved by your government within the next 12 months to ensure that industry can continue to accelerate roll-out. That work needs to start now, and 100% fibre coverage requires a 100% commitment from government.”

The group set out four key policy areas that need attention, many of which were identified in the 2018 Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review. These are: to reform tax legislation so that fibre cables are no longer taxed as if they are business buildings, which the industry believes will unlock more ambitious roll-out plans; to reform the law covering wayleaves, guaranteeing network builders access to buildings and land; to bring forward legislation to mandate full-fibre connections in all new-build homes; and to invest in the appropriate skills to fill the many thousands of engineering jobs that will be needed to dig and install full-fibre services, which is expected to be a major stumbling block if the UK quits the European Union with no transitional deal in place.

A Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) spokesperson responded: “We are pleased industry shares our ambition to turbo-charge the economy by delivering world-class, gigabit-capable broadband across the country as soon as possible. The government is committed to creating the right opportunities for investment and speeding up the roll-out of the required digital infrastructure.”

As of 30 July 2019, responsibility for most broadband policy at DCMS has passed to former technology journalist Matt Warman, who will oversee online harms and security; digital infrastructure, including full-fibre roll-out and BDUK; digital skills; digital and tech policy.

Warman will sit alongside new digital minister Nigel Adams, himself a telecoms industry veteran of some years’ standing, while Nicky Morgan was appointed culture secretary.

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Last week, BT chief executive Philip Jansen voiced similar concerns during the organisation’s quarterly earnings call. Jansen said BT was ready to begin work, but told Johnson he needed to act decisively.

It is likely that, despite advancing builds from the likes of CityFibre and Vodafone, and Virgin Media’s recent pledge to blanket swathes of the UK with ultrafast broadband without using full-fibre at all, the bulk of the national network build will fall to BT’s quasi-independent Openreach unit.

Caroline Normand, advocacy director at Which?, said: “Our lives are becoming increasingly more connected and, in turn, more reliant on a decent broadband connection, but yet the UK lags behind many other countries with only a tiny percentage of us having access to a full fibre connection.

“If the UK wants to be a leader, it will need to address the problems that consumers are facing with a service that doesn’t meet expectations on speed and reliability.

“Plans for full-fibre are encouraging, but government and industry need to learn from the successes and failures of what worked for consumers following the roll-out of superfast broadband across communities.”

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