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Boosting the UK’s digital infrastructure so it is fit for the future

Extending full-fibre broadband and mobile network coverage are critical issues for a healthy UK economy – and a new prime minister must continue progress

In 2007, the Welsh Tourist Board promoted the lack of mobile reception in Snowdonia as the very reason to visit the area. Twelve years later, it wouldn’t be so funny to be stuck on a mountain without the means to make emergency calls.

Broadband and mobile coverage are the significant infrastructures of our age – the gateway to economic growth, social inclusion and democratisation of the internet. Since I became secretary of state at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, I have looked at the best ways of delivering broader, more competitive and more secure mobile and fibre networks across the UK, to achieve this ambition.

On fibre, we have turned deployment on its head by announcing an “outside-in” strategy, ensuring some of the most remote parts of the UK will receive full-fibre broadband concurrently with the private sector’s roll-out in denser urban areas. 

With more than 96% of the country now able to access superfast speeds – which can often be part-copper – it was important to prioritise those areas in the remaining 3-4% for full-fibre connections. We are doing this through programmes that deliver a fibre spine to centres of the local community, such as schools, and then using full-fibre connection vouchers to stimulate demand in the surrounding area to deliver full-fibre to homes and businesses as well.

Full-fibre coverage has already increased by a million more properties since that strategy was announced, and rates continue to accelerate.

Infrastructure builders

This infrastructure is crucial, but must also be delivered securely. This week I announced world-leading and significant changes in this area. New requirements will ensure a greater onus on secure supply chains from our infrastructure builders, so they and we can have confidence in the security of our networks. Ofcom will be granted the necessary powers to enforce them. Stronger security demands on all those that supply or build digital networks is vital. 

But we must also solve the problem of poor mobile coverage in rural areas. 5G is too important a technology not to achieve this and the coverage deployed in major cities must be balanced with renewed efforts to improve mobile coverage in more rural areas.

Aggregate coverage across the geography of the UK from the four mobile network operators – Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three – stands at 92%. This is excellent progress, but leaves two problems to resolve. First, in much of that 92%, not all networks offer a service – so-called partial not-spots that don’t offer a full competition of providers. Second, clear diseconomies of scale exist in building to ever more remote areas to achieve greater coverage.

I have taken a long look at solutions to fix these twin problems. At present, Ofcom is considering coverage obligations in its next auction of spectrum. And in the past week, through a new statement of strategic priorities, I have also asked Ofcom to assess whether roaming between networks would be a viable solution. Both remain an option for us.

But given the scale of investment needed to deliver coverage to new areas, I have welcomed an alternative proposal put forward by the mobile operators for a new shared rural network. Under this proposal, the four networks will fund more site-sharing, increasing significantly the proportion of the country that can access four mobile networks, from 67% to 88%, extending coverage to many more premises and roads. 

And for areas with no signal at all – total not-spots – the government will consider the case for public funding to help deliver its 95% coverage goal. However, a decision on funding can only be made when the right conditions and commitments are in place.

Enhanced planning

The government would also look to support coverage with an enhanced planning regime, making it easier to build wider sites suitable for sharing, and seeking to establish whether more generous permitted development rights would support greater coverage. A consultation on this will be launched shortly.

This is an ambitious proposal – delivering infrastructure fit for the future costs billions of pounds, regardless of the timeframe over which it is achieved. But with the right conditions in place, it could deliver substantive improvements across the country.

Of course, there are outstanding issues to resolve, and we are open to discussing other ideas as well, but the final decisions will fall within the remit of a new prime minister and a new government. 

I urge them to recognise the economic value to government of a broader, more secure and more competitive mobile industry and to work constructively with all parties to prioritise a successful conclusion of this important policy issue.

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