- One hundred per cent has dropped a few points to 85 per cent
- The government doesn’t expect to really pony up until the end of the period
- What’re the chances we’ll be hearing of further changes running up to 2025?
To a chorus of “I told you so” from interested parties, the UK government appears to be walking back its solemn undertaking, pre-election, to ensure the country would be smothered in broadband by 2025, a target that very few in the industry thought it would be able to hit.
And sure enough, today the government announced it was making a few changes to the policy as part of its spending review. Originally it was to spend £5 billion to play its part alongside the UK’s fibre providers to ensure genuinely high-speed broadband reached everywhere by 2025. The new policy is that 85% of the country will be getting access to gigabit-capable broadband by 2025. That leaves a large tranche of citizens out of the loop, at least initially. Furthermore, the projected government spend to ensure rural coverage appears to have been back-loaded to the end of the period. According to the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA) chief executive, Malcolm Corbett, the fact the Chancellor was allocating just £1.2bn in the period 2021-25 “came as a surprise to all” in the industry, he understated.
The spending review states that “the government is working with industry to target a minimum of 85% gigabit capable coverage by 2025 but will seek to accelerate roll-out further to get as close to 100% as possible.” Observers worry that this wording, meant as reassurance, is offering the government an 'out' at the end of the period.
In fact, it appears that Boris Johnson and his team may be following the standard Boris playbook: you first make vague and sometimes contradictory promises capable of being clarified later into less expensive ones should the need arise.
The need often does.
Then, in this case, you must also start subtly changing your broadband vocabulary in advance to ensure deniability.
Right from the beginning fibre was mentioned, but it was so obvious that you can’t take fibre everywhere that it became ‘understood,’ even without being explicitly stated, that radio technologies and the hybrid fibre coax deployed by cable companies would also be included in the 100 per cent, so the standard phrase became ‘broadband’ rather than fibre. ‘Gigabit capable’ is also a good one because even a piece of damp string might be gigabit capable if the right technology was applied to both ends. (See Government promise of "gigabit capable" full-fibre broadband to all the UK by 2025 is wishful thinking.)
Jamie Jefferies, VP and GM of EMEA at network equipment vendor Ciena, is also worried.
“The fact that 15 per cent of homes in Britain won’t have high-speed broadband in another five years is concerning, and could leave the UK tailing behind other nations’ ambitious connectivity plans. This year, in particular, has demonstrated how important connectivity is for people to stay connected, shop and work remotely to keep our economy moving,” he wrote in a statement. Jamie also pointed out that high-speed broadband also plays a key role in providing the data transport infrastructure needed to support 5G.
INCA’s Malcolm Corbett summarised the position and reiterated industry’s expectations: “The importance of renewing the UK’s digital infrastructure is well known in government – indeed the National Infrastructure Strategy is peppered with references to gigabit broadband. Industry is stepping up to the task. INCA estimates that investment in the challenger firms will reach £7.7bn by 2025/6 taking the total private investment to around £25bn including BT/ Openreach and Virgin Media. This investment is based on the expectation that the government will play its part too.”
Stay up to date with the latest industry developments: sign up to receive TelecomTV's top news and videos plus exclusive subscriber-only content direct to your inbox – including our daily news briefing and weekly wrap.