Progress needed for UK fibre roll-out to catch up to peers

With national ultra-fast, gigabit broadband more essential than ever to drive the UK economy from the fallout of Brexit and Covid-19, research from WIK-Consult has identified a number of key areas that need to be addressed before the UK government’s full fibre targets can be realised.

In the Queen’s Speech on 19 December 2019, Boris Johnson’s then newly elected government indicated that it would introduce laws to accelerate the delivery of gigabit-capable broadband across the UK by 2025, a legislative journey that began in January 2020.

The government promised to support the roll-out of gigabit-capable broadband across the UK with legislation to make it easier for telecoms companies to install digital infrastructure and to ensure all new homes are built with reliable and fast internet.

In addition to extensive development work being carried out by Openreach, the broadband provision division of BT, and national cable broadband provider Virgin Media, the UK’s altnet providers have stepped up aiming to reach 2.4 million premises with full-fibre at the end of 2020, and 15.7 million premises by the end of 2025.

Any lag in this development has real negative cash values attached to it. An April 2020 study from Assembly Research warned that a 12-month delay to achieving the 2025 goal of full coverage of gigabit-capable broadband would mean the UK missing out on £9.7bn of productivity benefits, while a two-year delay would see the UK miss out on £28.7bn. In addition to staying on target meaning a £51.4bn boost, the study projected that if everything remained on track over the next 10 years, the boost could total as much as £68.8bn by 2030.

The WIK-Consult report put the UK picture into context by exploring as a mean of contrast the experiences of France, Italy, Germany and Sweden when it comes to gigabit adoption, revealing what it believed were key lessons for the UK’s infrastructure development.

The survey showed that the UK has already achieved extensive coverage of superfast broadband, defined as speeds of 30Mbps or more, namely to 96.2% of the country. Yet even with the best efforts of the UK government in meeting its target and the launch of various initiatives to support deployment, WIK-Consult stated that the gigabit goals depend on widespread adoption of gigabit-capable broadband and ultimate switch-off of the copper network and that there may be challenges associated with encouraging migration.

Chief among these was that consumers may consider that superfast broadband meets their needs. In support of this point, WIK pointed to the fact that 30% of consumers were still using basic broadband.

Using Sweden as a comparison, the survey noted that in mid-2018, 70% of broadband connections in the Nordic nation offered over 100Mbps, compared with 17% in the UK. The study also emphasised that 64% of broadband connections in Sweden were based on FTTH and that there has been a significant transformation over the past four to five years.

WIK discovered a number of key points that were hindering broadband uptake. These included a lack of killer applications, limited willingness to pay, and lack of understanding or awareness of the benefits of gigabit-capable broadband in comparison with current services and affordability for some stakeholders. WIK also uncovered a lack of incentives deterring broadband service providers from migrating to gigabit platforms.

In a call to action, WIK proposed that to boost uptake the UK should consider not only developing an appropriate broadband labelling system, but also to provide funding for local authorities to support marketing of gigabit broadband deployed through government aid programmes.

It recommended looking at whether there was value in schemes to incentivise customers to upgrade to gigabit-capable connections in areas where these networks have already been rolled out, for all, or for those facing specific challenges.

WIK also flagged up the idea of refocusing initiatives around the digitisation of industry and public services to use lessons from the Covid-19 experience to support home working, and the delivery of healthcare and education.