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Is there substance in Boris Johnson’s full-fibre broadband vision?

The new prime minister made a bold promise to roll out full-fibre broadband across the country by 2025 – but it’s a challenging task that requires serious investment and planning

When Boris Johnson set out his vision at the beginning of the Conservative Party leadership contest, one of his clearest goals was to have a full-fibre UK by 2025. He reaffirmed this as a key priority in his first speech of his premiership.

We should applaud the enthusiasm shown by prime minister Johnson, but can we guarantee that there will be enough impetus, effort and immediate enabling action by government to deliver?

With no mention of spending specifically for 5G in the chancellor’s spending review announced last week, the tech industry eagerly awaits further details of the plans for full-fibre broadband roll-out, which, it has been suggested, will be present in the National Infrastructure Strategy to be released this autumn.

This is a huge logistical challenge. Fibre installation requires an engineer to visit every premise. Achieving the prime minister’s target would require 13,000 successful engineer visits every day for the next five years.

To put this into context, we are currently addressing 3,000 premises every day and that is mostly in the areas where the population density is highest. No country in Europe, even those with a far higher propensity for flats over houses, has got close to what would be required to hit this target.

In another critical infrastructure deployment – the roll-out of smart meters – it has taken more than six years to deliver them to less than half of the UK’s premises, and that does not require physical infrastructure or wires to be delivered to the premises.

What needs to be done?

We must recognise that world-leading connectivity requires 5G as well as fibre, and that government will need a laser focus on enabling the rapid deployment of both technologies if we are to meet this big, bold ambition.

Full fibre gives us the future-proofed pipe for our future. It is cheaper to run as a network and offers greater levels of reliability. 5G is an essential element of the UK’s digital fabric and underpins the fourth industrial revolution.

5G will not just be about mobile phone – it will drive smart manufacturing, enable free ports and, according to the government, ultimately unlock up to £173bn of incremental GDP growth over the next decade. Yet the availability of 5G is determined by the availability of fibre.

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The government’s official targets are for nationwide full-fibre coverage by 2033 and for the majority of the UK population to benefit from 5G coverage by 2027. We are clear – to meet these targets, government and the regulator need to take significant action. To accelerate progress, we need creative and bold policy decisions.

We were pleased to hear last month’s announcement that the government is backing the roll-out of rural 5G to support mobile connectivity in our countryside, but the government must commit to greater levels of investment if we are to get anywhere near Boris Johnson’s 2025 target.

As we are building these networks, it is essential, both in terms of UK plc benefit and generating returns on this investment, that we are making best use of these networks. That is why the government should be making more data available on the location and types of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) so the market can ensure they are best served and that they are made aware of the potential benefits of full fibre and 5G.  

How to deliver the target

To deliver on the government’s targets, there needs to be a proper long-term, well-funded roadmap for deployment and prioritisation across the planning system by mandating new premises be built with full fibre and ensuring local authorities address issues around street works.

This plan should be based on an outside-in approach, where rural places are prioritised to create a regulatory framework that will maximise private capital in the “final third”.

The government must also revisit the bizarre decision to tax full-fibre networks through business rates. This takes investment money out of the system and introduces uncertainty into investment plans.

Mobile connectivity along major transport corridors must also be a focus, including bringing political pressure to bear on bodies such as Network Rail to allow wireless infrastructure to be deployed on public-sector land.

We are also going to need a lot of workers in a short timeframe to deploy this fibre, people who are likely to be under the £30,000 threshold outlined in the immigration whitepaper, and while industry is ramping up its domestic supply chain, we need to be realistic about accessing the existing talent pool in the EU.

Industry has been spending capital at an increased rate for the past 12 months to meet government targets, but the government needs to uphold its end of the bargain.

The sector needs the above changes now if we are to accelerate the roll-out of 5G and full-fibre broadband. If the government plays its full part in this way, industry will be able to invest and, together, we will be able to bring the major benefits that this technology gives our society and the future digital economy.

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