Government promise of "gigabit capable" full-fibre broadband to all the UK by 2025 is wishful thinking

via Flickr © Kenny Holston 21 (CC BY-ND 2.0)

via Flickr © Kenny Holston 21 (CC BY-ND 2.0)

  • A patchwork of limited availability and competition
  • Increasing availability in cities
  • Still very little in towns, villages and rural areas
  • Competition is increasing but overall pace of expansion is still slow

In the UK, for many years now, the deployment of full fibre broadband, be that to a basement, a building, a business, a home, a street cabinet or a node, has been a patchwork of efforts as varied as Britain's regional geographies themselves. The result of the piecemeal approach is that whilst some streets and areas in big cities have the choice of three fast fibre providers competing for custom, many other areas have just one or even none at all. In the past absence of any discernibly coherent national plan for the roll-out of full fibre, the quality of broadband that is available is very much a lottery with the winners and losers being determined by post codes and the cost/benefit economics of deploying fibre in remote and rural areas.

The UK government has been making much of its commitment that every home and business in Britain will have access to "gigabit-capable" broadband by the end of 2025. Sounds good, doesn't it? But take note of that word "capable". Being capable of providing something is not the same as actually delivering it. 

Earlier this year, the current Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, announced that the government would commit £5 billion to the build-out of broadband and went on to over-egg the pudding, as is his wont, to claim that entire country will have “gigabit broadband sprouting in every home” within five years. Things have changed since then (and how they have changed) and the pledge is being quietly revised almost unnoticed amidst the welter of U-turns and continually changing responses to the pandemic. As far as broadband is concerned, the latest approach is that the government will now make the best effort it can, which means, of course, that in four years and two months time "gigabit capable" broadband will not be ubiquitously available to everyone in the country.

Meanwhile, the national telecoms regulator, Ofcom, is relaxing the regulatory environment in different parts of the country to make it easier and quicker for competing companies to deploy full-fibre everywhere. Ofcom says that the provision of a choice of networks is vital to ensure competition, innovation, services and reasonable prices for customers and consumers. Thus it has produced its own five-year road map indicating how eased regulation will speed deployment between April 2021 and March 2026.

Ofcom points out that it has already helped accelerate the provision of broadband by making the national operator BT divest itself of Openreach (well, in reality to more or less divest itself of Openreach but not quite completely) the division that maintains the telephone cables, ducts, cabinets and exchanges that connect nearly all homes and businesses in the UK to the national broadband and telephone network. Ofcom claims that the move has made it cheaper, quicker and easier for rival fibre companies so that competition may thrive. But will it? The trouble is that many new networks will be overbuildings of existing networks (principally BT's). Rather than expanding into areas unserved by full-fibre broadband, competitive companies are duplicating existing services in hope and expectation of under-cutting prices charged by competitors and making both a quick return on investment and burgeoning profits.

As far as rural and remote parts of Britain are concerned, it is now accepted that they will be served by a single supplier because deploying multiple networks to such areas would be prohibitively expensive and permanently unprofitable. Here, Ofcom accepts that Openreach is the only operator with a nationwide rural-network, slow and limited though it might be in places. That's why public money will be needed to improve and extend rural fibre and the regulator will permit Openreach to claw back the cost of its fibre investments via increased wholesale prices across the range of its services. Furthermore, if BT makes a binding commitment to deploy fibre in rural and remote locations the costs can be "reclaimed" before a single sod is turned.

Three big beasts in the lead followed by a wide field of wannabe's and also-rans

According to Building Digital UK (BDUK), part of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, the agency that is responsible for actually overseeing the delivering the UK's broadband networks to the nation, there are more than 80 different companies engaged in deploying full-fibre broadband technology (or intending to deploy it) most of which are using Openreach infrastructure for at least part of their networks.

The biggest full fibre player is Virgin Media. The company, which now provides service to close to 60 per cent of the UK is upgrading its existing hybrid fibre coax (HFC) and full fibre network to the newest DOCSIS standard and is continuing to extend its network into untouched if not uncharted territories.  Openreach itself is continuing to build its fibre-to-the-premises infrastructure and says it will pass "up to" 20 million premises by the mid-to-late 2020s but the reality is that much of that will be much of that will be an overbuild of the Virgin network.

Down the pecking order there is a plethora of competing companies some of which are more successful than others and are attracting significant investment and rapidly increasing their reach. One such is London-headquartered CityFibre, the owner and developer of the UK’s third-largest fibre access network with the ambition to be an alternative provider of a national digital infrastructure platform. The company already has existing networks in more than 60 towns and cities across the UK and provides wholesale connectivity to multiple business and consumer service providers, local authorities and mobile operators. CityFibre expects to pass some eight million homes and businesses with open-access full fibre infrastructure within the next few years and is expanding its ambitious "Gigabit City Investment Programme," having just awarded construction contracts worth £1.5 billion to pass up to 3 million premises in 27 towns and cities with its fibre.

Further down the list are the likes of: Hyperoptic, which provides FTTP to homes and business developments in limited areas of the country such as Birmingham, Liverpool, London and Manchester; Gigaclear, which serves rural areas; G.Network, which is a full fibre ISP; and Community Fibre, which is digging up the capital's roads and boasting of broadband speeds up to 3 Gbit/s. If you are lucky enough to live or work in the very posh (with a capital "P") St, James's area of Westminster in central London, you can take your pick and have your gigabit full fibre broadband delivered by either G.Network, Hyperoptic or Openreach. However, such a range of choice is very rare even in the metropolis and non-existent in rural areas.

As might be expected, most competitive services and networks will be in and around city centres and densely-populated urban areas but there will be far fewer in small towns and villages. Interestingly, alternative suppliers, after many years of complaining that BT's de facto monopoly in the wholesale telecoms market, are now able  to take full advantage of the regulator-mandated opening-up of the Openreach network, there is evidence that some of them aren't at all keen on competition when it comes to another full-fibre rival muscling-into their patch.

So as the awful year of  2020 draws towards it's longed-for close and much anticipated consignment to the dustbin of history, the annual report on the state of the UK's full-fibre industry should perhaps read, "Slowly improving but basically still plodding along". Which is more or less exactly what "Johnny Blob" Williamson, my martinet and psychopathic chemistry master wrote in my school report when I was fifteen. No wonder I hated the subject - and him. But that's another story…

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