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Media attention swung firmly behind the UK’s controversial broadband rollout during 2016, with national newspapers and broadcasters alike taking an increasing interest in what is fast coming to be seen as a utility on par with water, gas or electricity in terms of importance to daily life.
This was also the year in which welcome improvements to broadband delivery technology, most notably around G.fast, meant that ultrafast broadband – meaning services capable of delivering speeds of 100Mbps and above – started to come within reach of mainstream consumers.
Meanwhile, following the ousting of David Cameron after the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU), Theresa May’s new cabinet started to steer government broadband policy towards fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) as the preferred delivery solution. Few in power would ever openly admit it, but the increasing economic viability of FTTP rollout may have played a part in this volte-face.
And, of course, there was the continuing fall-out from Ofcom’s communications market review to contend with.
Join us as we look back at a transformational year in the broadband delivery sector.
The year kicked off with telecoms regulator Ofcom revealing big changes ahead for the future of BT and its arm’s length infrastructure business, Openreach. After much deliberation, Ofcom finally handed down its verdict on the future of Openreach on 25 February. The regulator went against the arguments of many of BT's rivals, who wanted to see the two businesses structurally separated, saying that subject to reforms and new commitments, Openreach was to remain part of BT. We assessed the likely consequences of this decision.
A big complaint among occupants of the many new-build housing developments springing up around the UK’s towns and cities has been the inexcusable lack of adequate broadband connectivity. In 2016, builders began to sit up and take notice of new incentives brought in by the government and BT Openreach. We reported on the residents of a new development in Essex, where developers Countryside and L&Q made a feature of full FTTP in every home.
In April, we reported from York, where internet service provider (ISP) TalkTalk and a number of partners have been conducting trials of an ultrafast FTTP network called UFO (Ultra Fibre Optic). Part of the aim of the pilot was to test the feasibility of delivering full FTTP services on a wide scale, and after being vindicated in this, TalkTalk moved ahead on a wider rollout later in the year.
A stable, fast broadband connection is seen as a necessity for modern life, so when it all goes wrong, users are quick to complain. There were many such outages, affecting many providers, during the course of 2016. In June, builders working in South London managed to sever a vital link in Virgin Media’s network using a pile driver, knocking out access for thousands of users across a swathe of the capital, as well as Wandsworth Council.
With the controversy over the awarding of every phase one Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) contract to BT Openreach now fading into the past, it was perhaps easy to forget that the rural broadband delivery programme continued to push ahead during 2016, even though it was only really delivering much cheaper, and slower, fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) technology. At an event in June 2016, BDUK CEO Chris Townsend revealed that the organisation had found local authorities had underspent by £150m during phase one of BDUK, and said the money would be recovered and reinvested to take the rural rollout further still.
The biggest political story (in the UK, at least) this year was the 23 June vote to leave the EU, which caught commentators, pollsters, and the media by surprise. In the last days of the campaign, Computer Weekly took the temperature of broadband suppliers and experts to find out what they thought the impact of Brexit on the national broadband rollout might be.
Over the summer, Ofcom and BT delivered their proposals for how to move forward on the question of the future relationship between BT and Openreach. In response, a consortium of ISPs including Sky, TalkTalk and Vodafone launched the Fix Britain’s Internet campaign, which urged consumers to contribute to the subsequent Ofcom consultation on its proposals. In a sign of the strength of feeling over broadband, well over half the responses that Ofcom received came from campaigners.
Broadband World Forum in London is always a keynote event for broadband stakeholders, and the 2016 trade fair was no exception, as BT showed off improved G.fast FTTC technology, with which it hopes to bring ultrafast FTTP-like services to millions of homes and businesses in the near future, and talked about its plans to deliver more actual FTTP as well. In a speech at the same event, digital and culture secretary Matt Hancock also positioned the government firmly behind FTTP, or what it calls “full fibre”.
After dropping no end of hints that its policy towards broadband was moving towards FTTP, the government threw its weight firmly behind ultrafast fibre delivery technology in November’s Autumn Statement, which saw chancellor Philip Hammond pledge £400m to fund FTTP rollout in rural areas through small providers, also known as altnets, and more importantly, announce that new FTTP network builds will receive 100% business rate tax relief for five years, beginning in April 2017.
Ofcom closed out the year in much the same way as it began at the end of November, announcing that it would move ahead with plans to legally, but not structurally, separate BT and Openreach. The regulator said it had not been satisfied with commitments BT had made over the future independence of its broadband network delivery arm. The consequences of this decision will only begin to become clear in 2017.