Digital infrastructure flourishes in 2020

Study from co-operative trade association for next-generation broadband services notes increased industry investment and roll-out growth, marking a significant year for network infrastructure

Despite Covid-19 and the economic downturn, private investment in the UK’s digital infrastructure sector has continued apace, which is doubly impressive given uncertainty over government funding for hard-to-reach areas, recent changes to the overall policy target and the continuing debate about Ofcom’s regulation of the market, says an end-of-year statement by the Independent Networks Co-operative Association (INCA).

INCA noted that growth in the independent network sector in 2020, represented by strong investment and a growing number of predicted and achieved fibre roll-outs in the UK, have acted as signals of the sector’s contribution towards a “Gigabit Britain” and bridging the digital divide.

The association pointed to Point Topic research, which it commissioned, showing that investment announcements in the challenger networks have reached £7.7bn in the period to 2025, with a further £1.2bn of investment announced since the report was published. This was in addition to investment announced by BT/Openreach and Virgin Media, which both made significant advances in developing gigabit infrastructures in the UK during 2020.

INCA members have been at the forefront of recent investment announcements. G.Network recently announced a £1bn investment plan for fibre roll-out in London. Over the next five years, G.Network plans to dig about 4,500km of streets, reaching around 1.4 million London premises, including many in under-served areas. Meanwhile, Cardiff-based Spectrum plans to reach over 150,000 Welsh homes and businesses as part of an initial phase of work backed by a landmark investment.

Looking forward, INCA predicted that private investment in digital infrastructure will lead the UK to rise up the European league table for fibre coverage with one of the highest growth rates, as much as 548%, according to recent figures from FTTH Council Europe for the number of homes passed by fibre-to-the-home/fibre-to-the-building (FTTH/B) in a 2020-26 forecast.

“The billions of pounds that have been pumped into the roll-out plans of challenger networks to revitalise rural and urban communities with full fibre and wireless broadband – during a year of immense difficulty – is quite remarkable and a clear statement of the sector’s strength and ambition to play a substantial role in the UK’s digital landscape,” said INCA CEO Malcolm Corbett.

“The figures from FTTH Council Europe are incredibly promising for the country. The pandemic has emphasised the importance of a future-proofed digital infrastructure and the contribution of the challenger networks should not be underestimated. They are making palpable improvements to broadband landscapes and fostering a competitive broadband industry. Recent announcements from INCA members take the total investment in the non-incumbent sector to almost £9bn.”

Over the course of 2020, INCA had welcomed UK government plans to increase investment in workplace training and apprenticeships to address the growing skills shortage in the network infrastructure sector. But it warned that the future of UK broadband depends on getting the right training in place to develop skilled engineers.

The association also noted the possible negative effects to the industry of what it called the surprising downgrading of the UK government’s target to roll out gigabit networks to 85% of the population by 2025.

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