The UK government’s 2020 Budget statement has confirmed its commitment to invest a total of £5bn to roll out full-fibre broadband across the country.
In one of the first public statements he made after becoming prime minister in July 2019, Boris Johnson pledged that he would work towards “delivering full-fibre [broadband] to every home in the land” by 2025, and at the Conservative Party conference in October 2019, then chancellor Sajid Javid committed £5bn of public funding to “support the roll-out of full-fibre, 5G and other gigabit-capable networks to the hardest-to-reach 20% of the country”.
Now, in his first Budget statement, chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced that the government will fulfil its promise to make funding available to develop gigabit broadband roll-out across the UK, especially in the so-called hardest-to-reach parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In the Red Book breaking down the exact amount of taxation and expenditure for the coming year, the government revealed that as part of more than £1bn that it has already committed to next-generation digital infrastructure, the next seven areas that have successfully bid for funding from the third wave of the Local Full Fibre Networks Challenge Fund will be: North of Tyne (to receive £12m), South Wales (£12m), Tay Cities (£6.7m), Pembrokeshire (£4m), Plymouth (£3m), Essex and Hertfordshire (£2.1m) and East Riding of Yorkshire (£1m).
In the Queen’s Speech on 19 December 2019, Johnson’s newly elected government indicated that it would introduce laws to accelerate the delivery of gigabit-capable broadband across the UK, making it easier for telecoms companies to install digital infrastructure and to ensure all new homes are built with reliable and fast internet. It also said the government would amend the Building Act 1984 so that building regulations require all new-build developments to have the infrastructure to support gigabit-capable connections.
Today’s Budget statement also revealed that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will soon publish a consultation response that will confirm the government’s intention to legislate to ensure that new-build homes come with gigabit-capable broadband.
It also noted that the government’s existing superfast broadband programme has shifted its focus to delivering gigabit-capable broadband and has already delivered full fibre to more than 370,000 premises. Also, more than 100 schools in rural areas are due to receive full-fibre broadband in the next 12 months under the Rural Gigabit Connectivity programme.
UK ISP Truespeed, which specialises in bringing fibre broadband to rural areas and so-called hard-to-reach locations, said that although it welcomed the government sticking to its pledge, there was no time to waste in allocating this new funding because the latest statistics showed that just 14% of UK homes and businesses currently have access to full-fibre infrastructure, and especially if the government is to meet its previously stated ambition of nationwide full-fibre accessibility by 2025.
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“The new investment is set to benefit five million homes and businesses in harder-to-reach areas, which is laudable but will still leave many postcodes unaccounted for,” said Evan Wienburg, CEO of Truespeed. “The government must take note of the numerous providers up and down the country who are already doing the legwork in equipping these harder-to-reach cities and communities with gigabit-capable, future-proofed infrastructure.
“It is crucial that the government avoids wasting taxpayers’ money on overbuilding projects in communities that are already catered for.”
Wienburg urged the government and UK communications regulator Ofcom to work closely with smaller providers which, he said, have delivered large areas of full-fibre gigabit connectivity, to ensure government intervention continues to encourage private investment across the nation.
By the government ensuring a fair and level playing field for providers and encouraging healthy competition within the market, Wienburg said he was confident that everyone in the UK would be included in the “levelling up” of the country’s digital economy.
City Fibre, which has spent 2020 rapidly building up its fibre infrastructure across the UK, expressed its ‘full support” for the plan to develop a full fibre network by 2025. But called for more proactive regulator action to make it happen. “Britain is a service-based economy that runs off the internet, and the internet works best on full fibre. This technology is creating a digital infrastructure that will enable more 5G network services, smart cities, and will establish a platform the country needs to thrive in the future,” said CEO Greg Mesch. “However, in order to fully achieve this, we need competition to ensure the full fibre rollout in cities and towns across the country continues at speed and no place is left behind.”
Although he saw the digital infrastructure announcements as positive steps for the country, Adrian Baschnonga, global lead telecommunications analyst, EY, noted that challenges still remain. “Funding commitments for gigabit broadband and the shared rural mobile network are significant developments which will support the government’s levelling up ambitions,” he told Computer Weekly. “However, practical challenges still need to addressed, such as extending business rates relief for fibre rollout beyond the current five-year period ending in 2022 and improving the delivery of gigabit speeds to new build homes. Meanwhile, 5G’s role in helping to bring better digital connectivity to rural areas could be explored further.”
The commitment to full fibre comes just days after the government and the UK’s leading mobile operators confirmed a £1bn scheme to end poor mobile telephone coverage in the country’s rural and non-metropolitan areas. It will see the operators roll out 4G coverage to 95% of the UK landmass by end of 2025.