BT: UK government’s national fibre target could be missed by eight years

Government is in danger of not realising its full-fibre coverage broadband ambitions, says telco, which had identified seven key policy, legislative and fiscal enablers to get the plan back on track

One of the highlights of 2020 has been the momentum achieved by the UK’s broadband industry as it bids to meet the government’s target to achieve national full-fibre coverage by 2025, but incumbent telco BT has warned that without policy interventions, the target may not be delivered until 2033.

In an update statement, BT calculates that for the 2025 target to be met, the number of premises passed by UK fibre builders would need to increase to 4.3 million every year – more than twice the current figure. BT believes such growth will not happen if government regulators such as Ofcom simply wait and see what the market delivers.

The warning came after BT asked analyst Analysys Mason to take a closer look at what the role of local and central government should be. The researcher analysed all 1.7 million postcodes across the UK, and found that, on the current trajectory, full-fibre coverage could reach only 70% of UK homes and businesses by 2025. It also noted that without policy interventions, the government’s target may not be delivered until 2033.

The UK’s ramp-up of broadband began in December 2019 when, in the Queen’s Speech after the Conservatives’ election victory, Boris Johnson’s newly elected government indicated that it would introduce laws to accelerate the delivery of gigabit-capable broadband across the UK by 2025 – a legislative journey that began in January 2020.

The 2020 Budget statement confirmed the government’s commitment to invest a total of £5bn to roll out full-fibre broadband.

But to date, rolling out gigabit-capable broadband to all parts of the country has been challenging, and a programme to accelerate the extension of the fibre infrastructure to hard-to-reach locations was initiated by BT broadband provision division Openreach in January 2020. Also, the Covid-19 outbreak has curtailed home installations since March.

However, research from Ofcom has confirmed that the availability of full-fibre broadband in the UK continues to improve rapidly, with more than 14% of homes now able to access faster, more reliable full-fibre services – an increase of 670,000 (two percentage points) since January.

BT said that, fundamentally, it believes the government’s ambition is the right one and that gigabit-capable broadband can fuel the long-term, post-Covid economic recovery; maintain the UK’s competitive position post-Brexit; and ensure the nation is better prepared for any future lockdowns and pandemics. And despite its misgivings, BT is confident that through a concerted action plan, the government can get things back on track.

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The telco has identified seven key policy, legislative and fiscal enablers that, delivered together, could allow industry to bring full-fibre coverage up to 96% of all UK homes and businesses by 2025 and 100% by 2027. These measures, it says, would reduce the overall cost of the build-out by £9bn and would reduce the amount of public subsidy required – so that government funding would be needed only for the final 15%.

BT said that two of these seven enablers – giving fibre builders access to blocks of flats and making sure all new-build houses have full fibre pre-installed – are already work in progress, with a government commitment to action.

The other five enablers are: fair and equal access to infrastructure that is already in the ground; a subsidy scheme for fibre builders to recruit and on-board the thousands of new staff this effort will need, at pace; local authorities allowing, as standard use, the latest digging technology; changes to the rules for getting planning consent and agreements to access land; and end the situation in which BT and cableco Virgin Media are, said BT, “actively penalised” for investing in fibre.

BT describes these as simple, sensible and reasonable changes through which the government can empower industry to meet its full-fibre ambitions.

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