Memo to UK broadband sector – don’t screw up!

Image by Daniel Dino-Slofer from Pixabay.

Image by Daniel Dino-Slofer from Pixabay.

  • UK's fibre broadband sector is, at last, vibrant
  • Multiple new entrants are helping to build the last mile of the UK's digital highway
  • Investments, a sense of urgency and centralized support spell good news for users and the economy
  • But it's vital the sector doesn't undo all the good work with retrograde consolidation 

After years of frustration and inaction, the UK’s fibre-based broadband access sector is at last humming with ambition, funding, activity and the broader realisation from industry and (I think) politicians that enabling a nationwide, robust and competitive broadband market is absolutely critical for the economic well-being of the nation. 

You only have to look at the recent report from Point Topic and INCA (the Independent Networks Cooperative Association) to see what an important role competitive fibre access network builders are playing in the sector in terms of taking fibre connectivity to more premises and being a catalyst for broader activity. (See The rise of the UK fibre broadband altnet.)

Things are looking up at last, and the details (albeit with some disappointing caveats) from the UK government about the upcoming Project Gigabit state-funded rural rollout contracts will provide additional impetus and, hopefully, underpin the plans of some of the regional broadband altnets in the UK. 

But… haven’t we seen this all before? 

The deregulation of the cable network sector in the 1980s led to a host of new independent companies springing up all over the UK and while the comparison isn’t an exact fit, it’s close enough to see what the danger is for the UK fibre broadband sector: The cable industry ended up with a swift and somewhat messy consolidation period that lined the pockets of bankers and ultimately left the UK with one cable player, Virgin Media, which has now merged with mobile operator O2. 

Is the fibre broadband sector destined for the same fate? A few years of startup investment, new fibres dug into the ground in some but not all areas, followed by an M&A frenzy that leaves a small number of dominant players lacking impetus and vitality? Some consolidation is inevitable, but it’s vital that the competitive tension of multiple infrastructure-based broadband companies is maintained to give the UK a real chance of becoming a digital society and competing in the cloud-oriented, connectivity-driven global market: Cityfibre is not to everyone’s liking, but its bullish wholesale network plans, which have attracted multiple partners, have had a positive impact on the UK broadband market and the resulting gains, including the significant and important acceleration of Openreach's fibre access network rollout and Virgin Media O2's recent commitment to an all-fibre future, must not be thrown away to satisfy some greedy investors and banking advisors. (See BT to increase and accelerate FTTP build to 25m premises by the end of 2026.)

The UK authorities, regulators and the sector itself must do what it can to avoid a repeat of what happened in cable – for the sake of the UK’s digital future, don’t screw this up! 

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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