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UK government commits £200 million to rural fibre broadband

UK chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, confirmed in the 2018 budget report that £200 million will be allocated to fund full fibre broadband connections in harder-to-reach and rural areas across the UK. This will allow for testing of new approaches to fibre rollout in rural areas, with the Borderlands, Cornwall, and Welsh valleys said to be amongst the first areas to benefit.

Earlier this year the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR), which was published by the  government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, outlined plans to ensure that the country’s broadband infrastructure is fit for the future (see UK government outlines plans for full fibre in 15 years). This was backed by the chancellor in his budget speech, with ambitious targets set for nationwide full fibre coverage by 2033.

The plans will see mostly competitive commercial investment made across the UK however the FTIR identified that around 10% of the country would need additional funding, from whatever source, of around £3 billion. To ensure that the hardest to reach areas are not left behind, the budget report cited an ‘outside-in’ approach as needed to connect these areas at the same pace as the rest of the country. The programme is due to start with primary schools that might otherwise not have access to high-quality broadband.

The budget speech also confirmed that the provision of full fibre broadband for all new builds will be compulsory. The government plans to ensure delivery of gigabit-capable connections to all new build homes, reversing the trend of new build homes being associated with poor connections. Amending building regulations will mean all new build sites will be built with the necessary infrastructure to support gigabit-capable networks. This policy will also enable wider deployment of fibre technology across the UK.

DCMS secretary of state Jeremy Wright commented: ‘By changing our approach and investing in the hardest to reach places first, we will ensure that the whole country can reap the benefits of full fibre broadband. The Rural Gigabit Connectivity Programme is the first step in this process, with funding coming from the National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF). The £200 million will trial models for local hubs in rural areas, starting with primary schools, alongside a voucher scheme for funding full fibre connectivity to nearby premises, providing full fibre connectivity to homes and businesses.’

Minister for digital Margot James added: ‘Too many new build homes are built with slow, or no, connections. This needs to change. Making full fibre mandatory for new builds will help us meet our ambitious broadband goals, connect people and places and strengthen our digital society.’

The industry responds

Following the announcement of these measures in the budget, a number of industry spokespeople have responded. Phil Sorsky, vice president of service providers international at CommScope said: ‘It’s promising to see such additional investment in fibre infrastructure. According to the Cable.co.uk broadband speed league, the UK sits in 35th place in terms of global internet speeds. This simply isn’t sustainable, particularly in the run up-to Brexit. Access to fibre is a key component for businesses across the UK, with companies even more under pressure to deliver on a global scale, and this is yet another reminder of why we need more investment in this area.’

Kevin O’Donnell, head of EMEA regional and channel marketing at Viavi Solutions agreed, citing the company’s own study: ‘Our research has shown that the UK is ranked #22 in the world for Gigabit internet – so it lags behind much of the developed world. The Chancellor’s additional investment is much needed, especially for public-owned entities such as schools and libraries etc. to help children unlock a world of opportunities that ultra-fast connectivity provides.’

Jeremy Chelot, CEO of Community Fibre, warned that this commitment needs to be sustained: ‘The chancellor has thankfully recognised that basic internet access is simply no longer enough. However, as the majority of the connections in the UK are still copper-based, it is evident that the UK is not yet fully prepared for the digital future. Recent OFCOM research has found that the average household is doubling its data consumption every two years, be it watching online video or accessing government services, and so adequate fibre broadband is swiftly becoming vital. To keep up with these demands, quality true full-fibre broadband must continue to be a key priority for the government. The chancellor’s announcement is therefore welcome, however it must represent the beginning of a sustained campaign, and not be forgotten about in a few months’ time.’

The Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA) has welcomed the announced funding. CEO Malcolm Corbett said: ‘While the UK is already making significant progress in connecting the UK’s unconnected, with alternative network providers (altnets) taking on a significant role, this funding provides a boost to underserved communities and gives reassurance that these areas will not be left behind. I have every confidence that the UK’s altnet community will see this as a good opportunity and will work quickly and effectively to ensure the money pledged by the government is put to good use. We are pleased to see such a commitment from the government to provide full fibre connectivity at previously underserved locations – there is no reason why most of the UK cannot be served by full fibre and our members are fully supportive of making this happen.’

Adrian Baschnonga, EY’s telecoms lead analyst, commented: ‘New measures announced in today’s Budget to accelerate the roll out of full fibre in rural areas are welcome. However, mobile networks, including soon-to-be-launched 5G technology, will also play an important role in boosting connectivity in under-served areas. Going forward, a holistic approach to digital infrastructure upgrades will be vital.’

 

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