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If 2016 was the year in which broadband soared up the national agenda (but not, obviously, to the top of it), 2017 was the year of fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP), or more accurately, the year the powers that be finally swung in line behind ultrafast broadband service delivery technology.
This was also the year in which Ofcom moved on the longed-for separation of BT from its network delivery arm Openreach – longed-for by BT’s retail competitors, that is. If it all goes according to plan, the legal split of the two organisations, which began in earnest over the summer, will deliver a step-change in market competition, and prompt further and deeper roll-out of ultrafast services.
Perhaps 2018 will be the year this happens, or perhaps not, but while we wait to find out, join us as we look back at 2017, and another important year for the UK’s national network infrastructure.
In January, the government reaffirmed previously announced commitments to invest in the funding of rural broadband roll-out and 5G mobile networks as a means to keep the UK economy moving in its newly published post-Brexit strategy plan.
The government’s greenpaper, Building our industrial strategy, touched on a number of areas that will impact the ICT sector, including research and development and Stem education, as well as digital infrastructure, which it included alongside plans for road and rail.
In March, BT formally agreed to telecoms regulator Ofcom’s requirements for the legal separation of its network unit Openreach, meaning the organisation could start the process of becoming a distinct company with its own staff, management and strategy.
Striking an agreement means Ofcom will now not need to resort to enforcing the full separation of BT and Openreach through changes to regulation.
The often-controversial Digital Economy Bill became law at the last possible moment before the dissolution of parliament ahead of the June 2017 General Election, but a House of Lords amendment demanding a minimum legal broadband speed requirement of 30Mbps did not make the final cut due to concerns that not enough people have taken up a superfast service on the open market to warrant it.
The amendment was initially moved by Labour’s Lord Mendelsohn in February 2017, increasing a proposed 10Mbps universal service obligation (USO) to 30Mbps, but was dropped at the eleventh hour due to concerns over whether or not it was deliverable.
Ultrafast altnets had another good year in 2017. In May, Gigaclear, a builder of rural fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband networks to serve villages that were left behind in the rush to so-called superfast broadband, has secured an additional £111m in equity funding to accelerate its network build rate and support its investment in a number of second- and third-phase Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) contracts.
The Oxfordshire-based service provider has won a number of government BDUK contracts across the south of England as the scheme – which courted controversy when all the first-phase contracts were awarded to BT – moves into its latter stages. A significant chunk of Gigaclear’s massive investment is now being used to help fund these BDUK projects.
Openreach began to present a different face to the market in May, when it announced it planned to meet with its communications services provider (CSP) customers to help build the business case for large-scale investment in ultrafast FTTP networks as pressure mounts on the BT-backed organisation to deliver future-proofed infrastructure.
The consultation sought input on two major policy issues, building an investment case for FTTP and addressing the needs of the digitally excluded who can only receive connections of under 10Mbps. Openreach counts just under 580 CSPs running consumer and business services over its national network, so is counting on such organisations to have a say.
More significant news from Openreach came in July, when the organisation revealed it had started the process of scrubbing all references to its parent business from its branding as it prepared to be legally separated from the BT Group.
Openreach said the change served to underline the more important elements of the legal separation process, such as its revised governance rules, its new, independent board, and other commitments made to treat CSP customers equally.
The ever-increasing use of streaming and online catch-up services to watch TV programmes appears to be contributing to a small but marked decrease in general satisfaction with residential broadband services in the UK, according to Ofcom’s annual Communications market report (CMR), which came out in August 2017.
Ofcom’s report found that although people were still watching plenty of live broadcast television in the traditional way, 79% of UK adults were using services such as the BBC iPlayer and Netflix to “binge-watch” multiple episodes of TV shows, with this trend more pronounced among teenagers and young adults. The average data use per residential broadband connection grew by 36% to 132GB by June 2016.
Clawback clauses in the government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) contracts with BT have now recovered £645m of money to be reinvested in extending the national roll-out of so-called superfast broadband services to remote rural areas of the UK, it was revealed in September.
The gain share clauses stipulated that BT – which controversially won every Phase 1 BDUK contract – would pay money back into the pot if take-up of broadband services delivered through BDUK reached over 20%. This mechanism was first activated in July 2015 with the return of £129m.
In November, it emerged that the government is increasingly concerned that BT is not moving quickly enough to implement the structural split between the wider group and its network infrastructure arm, Openreach, and will consider taking action if things don’t change soon.
In a speech at the annual conference of the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG), the TechUK-backed broadband sector trade association, digital minister Matt Hancock threatened to get the regulator involved again.
Finally, broadband is not always all about FTTP, as we found out in November, when Nominet revealed it was using TV white space spectrum to deliver services to some of the many isolated communities along the shores of Loch Ness in Scotland.
TVWS broadband uses the vacant gaps – or white space – in the radio spectrum that was formerly used to provide a “buffer” in between analogue television channels. Since the UK completed the switchover to digital television, this buffer is no longer needed, so the spectrum is being “recycled”. Sadly, Nominet was not able to reveal if Loch Ness’ most famous local was interested in taking up the service.