Accelerating UK full-fibre sees altnet association register record membership growth

Independent Networks Cooperative Association enjoys membership boom as altnets build momentum in UK and take on comms big guns in dash for fibre to the home and premises

The 18 months since the outbreak of the pandemic have seen the UK communications industry respond with unprecedented gigabit network development, and momentum has been most marked in the independent provider sector, with the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA) noting a record high in memberships during 2021.

INCA said that according to its research, independent operators are expected to reach more than 6.6 million premises with fibre by the end of 2021, with an estimated 1.1 million live connections made. Its June 2021 study also calculated that 2.5 million homes and businesses in the UK can now connect to a fibre broadband network delivered by an independent supplier.

The study, carried out by Point Topic, found that the UK’s independent sector is four times larger than it was a decade ago and continues to attract significant private investment. It also found that interest and commitment were growing strongly in the independent network sector, with £5.6bn of investment and expenditure already spent or committed to be spent in early 2021.

From survey inputs and research, the report estimated that intended capital expenditure by the sector from now until the end of 2025 is over £10.8bn, with operational expenditure of at least £1bn.

With the hunger for gigabit broadband apparent in the UK, INCA said acceleration will help ensure that rural areas won’t be left behind as a quality broadband connection has become an essential utility. It said the independent sector is already playing a critical role in delivering the UK government’s Gigabit Britain target to take connectivity at gigabit speed to 85% of the UK population by 2025.

It added that the growth in INCA membership – gaining 32 members in 2021 so far – is a clear reflection of the strength of the altnet sector, and that these companies collectively represent an increasingly vital element of the UK’s digital infrastructure fabric.

New INCA members include the return of CityFibre – which in the space of the last 18 months has grown from being a pure-play altnet to now claiming to be the UK’s third-largest broadband infrastructure provider with full-fibre roll-outs across  the country – along with signing-ups by new entrant operators, major suppliers and local authorities. New operators joining INCA include Freedom Fibre, Borderlink Broadband, Giganet, Spring Fibre, Save9, Toob and F&W Networks.

The association said one of the most direct consequences of the influx of new members seeking to join its community was an increased ability to influence policy through the government and Ofcom. “As we welcome INCA’s new members, our unified presence in the industry reflects the overall strength of the independent sector,” said INCA CEO Malcolm Corbett. “With the impressive funding achieved, the altnets are well positioned to meet the Gigabit Britain challenge.

“INCA is dedicated to representing the interests of the thriving independent sector and the new members affirm the confidence that the industry holds in our experience and insight. Virgin Media O2 and Openreach have been the dominant forces in UK broadband, but it’s clear that together, the altnets also wield substantial and growing influence. The influx of new members we have seen and the amount of funding the sector is receiving are good indicators of our collective strength.”

INCA also guaranteed that as it expands its membership, the concerns and ambitions of the independent sector are presented with a unified voice to government and regulator alike, to press home the importance of ensuring that the playing field remains both open and fair to all.

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