UK government needs to rapidly fulfil full-fibre ambitions

Review of progress of the government’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review identifies 5G and full-fibre roll-out as key factors to achieve nationwide economic growth

Despite the fact the advancement of gigabit broadband across the country has been one of the UK government’s few unchallenged successes over the past few years, it must prioritise delivering on the ambitions for the roll-out and, crucially, the adoption of full-fibre networks and 5G mobile infrastructures if it is to kickstart its Growth Plan, according to a survey of telecoms members of technology trade association TechUK, examining the impact of the Future telecoms infrastructure review (FTIR), first published four years ago.

In the assessment, TechUK surveyed members of its Telecoms Infrastructure and Deployment Working Group in summer 2022 to reflect on the original FTIR commitments (more than 30 in total), and in the report, it summarises member views on what has worked, what hasn’t, what the UK government is yet to deliver and the consequences for the market.

However, it stressed that 2022 is a marked contrast from 2018, in which the FTIR was launched, with significant changes in the economy among other issues. It also said it was very conscious that the new ministers appointed in September 2022 will have a significant focus on measures to ease the cost-of-living crisis.  

The review set in place a policy framework that was intended to be highly effective in unleashing private investment for the UK’s now buoyant fibre sector, with a £33.2bn investment helping to drive coverage from 6% to 41% of premises passed today. However, it concluded that if the UK government wants to focus on economic growth and innovation, reducing the friction for the remaining fibre roll-out should be a major priority.

For 5G, the FTIR’s impact was found to be mixed. Positively, it says the UK mobile sector has made significant progress on rolling out 5G. But to fully realise the benefits of this advanced communications technology and learn the lessons of publicly funded programmes such as 5G Testbeds and Trials, TechUK insists the UK government must do more. The association offers suggestions that the forthcoming Wireless Infrastructure Strategy should take to unlock investment and facilitate the roll-out of non-standalone 5G.

Taking the FTIR into consideration in the round, TechUK said that while it acknowledged the deployment of 5G and fibre technologies was continuing at pace, it had a number of key recommendations to ensure ongoing delivery. First, it advised that the UK Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), responsible for the roll-out of the infrastructures and criticised by parliamentary committees for delays in achieving objectives, and the Home Office should introduce a specific visa targeted at telecoms workers to help support infrastructure businesses investing in growth. TechUK believes the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill will be critical to accelerating the roll-out of fibre and 5G, and that it must pass as soon as Parliamentary time allows.

It added that the DCMS and the Department for Transport should redouble efforts to introduce the flexi permits regime so that it can be activated at the earliest opportunity, along with a government planning regime that genuinely underpins the emerging mobile infrastructure requirements of the future, including network densification and accelerated deployment models.

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TechUK also stressed that the UK government must also identify further public sector use cases for 5G and fibre services to boost the transition to a digital-first government, unlock smarter procurement and encourage take-up across the private sector.

“It’s great to see the progress made by the UK’s telecoms sector since the FTIR was published in 2018 – there has been positive progress in the face of significant challenges, and broadly it was the right framework,” said TechUK director for markets Matthew Evans. “But in analysing the FTIR’s recommendations, our members have found that more is to be done. Barriers persist, and TechUK looks forward to working with both government and Ofcom on smoothing the friction that remains for rolling out fibre and full 5G.”

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