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Digging into the details of the UK’s gigabit broadband pilots

Local authorities in six different regions of the UK will set up pilot schemes designed to stimulate commercial roll-out of gigabit broadband networks, it was announced on Sunday.

The pilots are the first stage of a four-year, £200 million government programme to develop ‘local full fibre networks’, as outlined in the Spring Budget. The six projects will get around £10 million between them to test innovative approaches to connecting offices and public sector buildings with fibre infrastructure.

Pilot projects will now go ahead in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, West Sussex, Coventry and Warwickshire, Bristol and Bath & North East Somerset, West Yorkshire, and Greater Manchester.

Though public sector bodies and businesses appear to be the main beneficiaries, the new infrastructure could also be used to lower the cost of bringing new fibre connections to residential customers. By making it more attractive for the private sector to build fibre networks to offices and public buildings, the government hopes to incentivise substantial commercial investment to install fibre to homes at the same time.

Minister of State for Digital, Matt Hancock MP, said: “We want to see more commercial investment in the gold standard connectivity that full fibre provides, and these innovative pilots will help create the right environment for this to happen.”

The announcement was light on detail, however, with many wondering how the pilots will work in practice and what can be learned from them. Public sector demand tends to be focused on public sector buildings, such as government offices, schools and hospitals, many of which are in urban or suburban areas already served by fibre from a range of business providers.

Matthew Hare, CEO of rural broadband provider Gigaclear, said: “It’s good to see the government encouraging the industry to move faster towards full fibre, but we need more detail behind the proposed trial i.e. how this will be executed and when.”

He added: “We believe we are beyond needing a trial to prove how imperative full fibre is for our economy.”


What do we know?

The decision to proceed with the six pilots follows a consultation on extending local full fibre networks, the results of which were also published on Sunday. The consultation identified four possible approaches:

  • Strategic procurement of new infrastructure using public sector bodies as anchor tenants;
  • providing subsidies to public sector bodies in locations where the business case is weak, providing that the fibre footprint can be extended to surrounding premises;
  • a national broadband voucher schemes to help businesses or clusters of businesses buy gigabit-capable connectivity;
  • and making public sector assets available to help build new networks more cheaply.

The concept of copper-switchover was raised as a possible pilot. It’s not said whether this will be tested by any of the initial projects, though it seems unlikely because most operators don’t own existing copper infrastructure and there are regulatory issues to resolve first.

The government maintains that locally-led projects are best placed to identify the current needs of their area and sew up any breaches in broadband coverage. It plans to work with local bodies to develop the right combination of approaches for their local area.

Over the summer the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) sent a communication to all public sector chief executives inviting expressions of interest from bodies interested in bidding for ‘projects that would stimulate private sector investment in full fibre networks’. Those with the best proposals will get the first slice of government funding, while the rest will be able to bid for a Challenge Fund that is expected to open later this year.

The competitive bid process is still being developed by DCMS, and will likely depend on the outcome of the pilot projects. The remaining £190 million is to be spent by 2021.

The pilot projects follow the £400 million Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund announced in the summer (see UK Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund aims to unlock £1B for FTTP ). Both investments are part of the government’s £23 billion National Productivity Investment Fund, which has earmarked £740 million specifically for improving Britain’s digital infrastructure (see Policy shift sees the UK start on a full fibre diet).

DCMS did not immediately respond to requests for more information.


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