Altnets claim vital role in bringing competition to UK digital transformation

Study by trade association for UK’s independent broadband suppliers shows further rapid progress in rolling out full-fibre networks, prompting calls to UK comms regulator to change national service pricing structures

The latest annual review from the representative trade body of the UK’s alternative broadband providers (altnets), the Independent Networks Co-operative Association (INCA), has “starkly highlighted” THE benefits of competition in the UK’s broadband sector.

The annual Metrics For The UK independent network sector, produced in partnership between the INCA and broadband market intelligence specialists Point Topic, drew on input from both trade association  members and non-members. It aimed to an overview of the UK’s independent network operator sector as of end-2022 and early 2023 in terms of scale, coverage, ambitions, and concerns. As in the previous three years, it includes both fixed and fixed wireless network operators.

Among the key findings of the report was that private investment continued to flow into the independent network sector over the past year despite the challenging economic conditions and increasing interest rates.

Planned investment to 2030 was found to have increased to over £24.2bn. This stressed INCA represented more investment than Openreach owner BT Group at £15bn and Nexfibre’s – a joint venture between Liberty Global, Telefónica and InfraVia Capital Partners) £4.5bn combined – whose own investments and deployments, it added, have been spurred on by competition from the altnets.

Taken altogether, INCA said planned full-fibre investment until 2030 is only beaten by HS2 as the UK’s biggest infrastructure investment programme. Investment and expenditure in the independent network sector continued throughout 2022 with an estimated additional £6bn having been committed to network expansions and operations during the year.

The study also showed that by the end of 2022 there were 1.5 million live connections, 48% year-on-year (YoY) growth, to independent fixed networks provided by full-fibre gigabit capable connections. In all, altnet operators had passed 8.2 million premises with fibre, approximately 25% of UK premises. 2.3 million of these premises were in the so-called Area 3 locations, meaning that altnets have delivered full-fibre connectivity to a quarter of UK premises in hard-to-reach areas.

This latter landmark something was, said INCA, assumed by UK communications regulator Ofcom as not possible in its last market review. INCA believes that the rollout stats provided evidence should convince the regulator to include an impact analysis of the UK’s harder to reach areas, described by Ofcom as Area 3, in its final decision on the controversial Openreach’s Equinox 2 pricing proposal.

“Recent comments by the BT Group CEO indicate that the incumbent operator is feeling the challenge from independent providers,” said INCA chair Tim Stranack. “It’s vital that the regulator provides an environment in which infrastructure competition can flourish in order to make full fibre available to more UK consumers and also deliver upon the strategic priorities set by government to Ofcom.”

“As this year’s survey results clearly show, Ofcom must assess the potential impact of Equinox 2 on Area 3”, added INCA CEO Malcolm Corbett.

“Equinox 2 is a live and pressing concern. It has the potential to unfairly foreclose the wholesale market, including in areas where Ofcom mistakenly thought only Openreach might get to, but where it is abundantly clear that Altnets are investing significantly and where they are already making full-fibre broadband services available to millions of people. Ofcom must not put this investment at risk and jeopardise the digital transformation of small towns and rural areas in the UK.”

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