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UK government to investigate water and energy networks to deliver nationwide gigabit broadband

Existing utility pipelines to be examined as way to accelerate national fibre infrastructure roll-out, but critics voice concern about broadband strategy fixating on fibre

The UK government is considering whether to give broadband firms access to more than a million kilometres of underground utility ducts to boost the roll-out of next-generation broadband, as it pursues plans to establish gigabit broadband across the country.

Digital infrastructure minister Matt Warman has revealed he is seeking views on changing regulations to make infrastructure-sharing easier for broadband companies. The aim would be to open up access for broadband network operators to house their equipment on “passive” infrastructure owned and used by other telecoms companies. Passive infrastructure includes utility ducts, poles, masts, pipes, inspection chambers, manholes, cabinets and antenna installations.

The news comes as two of the UK’s network providers have ramped up their plans to expand their full-fibre networks. The country’s gigabit-capable broadband plan was first announced in the Queen’s Speech on 19 December 2019, and was buttressed by the 2020 Budget statement confirming the government’s commitment to invest a total of £5bn to roll out full-fibre broadband across the country.

Since then, the subject has been a hot political issue in the UK for the past six months, and before the coronavirus brought expansion to a halt – mainly due to the lack of engineers being able to enter customers’ homes – network deployment was being carried out apace.

Giving impetus to its roll-out plans, CityFibre is embarking on a recruitment drive that will include the identification and training of thousands of unemployed UK residents, as well as new job opportunities for qualified and experienced construction and telecoms workers. Jobs will be created within CityFibre’s growing pool of network construction partners in order to make good on the promise of delivering the up to £4bn roll-out of full fibre infrastructure to more than 100 towns and cities.

As this was happening, broadband provider Openreach revealed that as part of its role of being at the spearhead of the national programme to roll out gigabit broadband across the country by 20205, it has enabled Salisbury to become the first entire UK city to gain access to its fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband technology.

The stakes are high in the UK full-fibre roll-out. As well as levelling up broadband provision for UK citizens, most of whom are currently working from home, a nationwide fibre-to-the-home network has the potential to provide a huge economic boost to the country. Research released by Huawei in April 2020 calculated that delivering “gigabit Britain” could add more than £50bn gross value to the economy in five years, growing to £68.8bn in 2030.

A study from Assembly Research in April 2020, commissioned by Huawei, warned that a 12-month delay to achieving the 2025 goal of full coverage of gigabit-capable broadband would see the UK miss out on £9.7bn of productivity benefits, while a two-year delay would see it miss out on £28.7bn. Staying on target would mean a £51.4bn boost, said the study, and if everything remained on track over the next 10 years, this could a total boost of as much as £68.8bn by 2030.

The government calculates that civil works, in particular installing new ducts and poles, can make up as much as 80% of the costs to industry of building new gigabit-capable broadband networks. It noted that its new measures could significantly reduce the time and cost of rolling out gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business in the UK, giving people future-proof internet connections capable of reaching download speeds of up to 1 gigabit (1,000 megabits) per second. 

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Research from the National Infrastructure Commission suggests infrastructure re-use could lead to an £8bn cost saving for companies deploying gigabit-capable broadband.

The government also said it was exploring ways to make it easier for firms to run high-speed broadband cables through the electricity, gas, water and sewer networks that span the UK, and this could also mean strengthening broadband companies’ access to run cables along new and existing infrastructure lining the country’s road and rail networks.

The review will assess whether changes could be made to regulations to further boost investment in infrastructure, and encourage the use of infrastructure-sharing to increase the availability of gigabit-capable broadband.

But although there was general positivity towards the government’s move to explore new ways to expand connectivity, Steve Beeching, managing director at satellite communications firm Viasat UK, warned that the announcement could make it seem that the UK was stuck in a mindset of taking 19th century approaches to a 21st century issue.

“We need broadband services in every inch of the country to prevent a stark digital divide, and even with the best will in the world, pipes and cables cannot reach everybody,” he said. “By fixating on fibre broadband, we are at risk of missing the fact that any true national broadband programme needs to use multiple technologies – from fibre to 5G to satellite – to give everyone, from consumers to emergency services, the connectivity they need, when they need it.”

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