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UK Labour Party pledges free full-fibre for all

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The UK’s opposition party, Labour has announced a pledge to deliver free full fibre-broadband for all.

The pledge – made by leader, Jeremy Corbyn – will be undertaken by bringing parts of BT into public ownership and creating a new British broadband public service.

This follows the promise from the Conservative Party’s Sajid, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sahid Javid pledged to invest £5bn to support the roll-out of full fibre.

Funding for the plan will be around the £20m mark, and roll-out will begin with areas of poorer connectivity, such as rural and remote communities and some inner-city areas. This will be followed by towns and smaller centres, and then by areas that are currently well-served by superfast or ultrafast broadband.

Funding will come from Labour’s Green Transformation fund and taxing multinational corporations such as Amazon, Facebook and Google. It is thought that this could save the average person £30.30 a month.

The party also announced plans for a new Charter of Digital Rights, which it says is the strongest protection of data and online rights ever enacted.

In his speech, Corbyn said: ‘A new public service delivering the fastest broadband free to everyone is at the heart of Labour’s plans to transform the future of our economy and society. The internet has become such a central part of our lives. It opens up opportunities for work, creativity, entertainment and friendship. What was once a luxury is now an essential utility. It’s time to make the very fastest full-fibre broadband free to everybody, in every home in every corner of our country. Making it free and available to all will open up opportunities for everybody, at the cutting edge of social and economic change.’

Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell added: ‘This is public ownership for the future. A plan that will challenge rip-off ‘out-of-contract’ pricing – and that will literally eliminate bills for millions of people across the UK. Every part of this plan has been legally vetted, checked with experts, and costed.

Rebecca Long-Bailey, shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said: ‘As Shadow Business Secretary, I know all too well the importance of strong digital infrastructure for businesses and industry across the UK. Imagine if all those currently shut out of the labour market, such as those with childcare or caring responsibilities, those unfairly disadvantaged due to disability or older people, could participate fully through free, fast internet access from wherever they are. If we are to be at the forefront of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and a global economic player, we must speed up the adoption of technologies across our economy. But this can only be done if the best possible digital infrastructure is in place.’

Industry responses

Reactions to the pledge have been mixed, with some consumers praising the move, but in the optical communications industry, the reality is being seriously considered. Fibre Systems has received some responses to the proposals.

Andrew Glover, chair of the Internet Services Providers' Association (ISPA) commented: ‘For the UK to become a world leader in full fibre and 5G, it needs to provide access for all, wherever people live or work and we are pleased to see the commitment Labour has shown to this through its latest pledge. It is crucial, however, that how broadband is funded, rolled out and provided is considered, along with the wider impact the plan could have. The UK’s broadband market is currently thriving as a result of infrastructure investors and local communities, alongside the public sector. £3.3bn was committed by investors in alternative network providers (altnets) last year alone, in addition to investments by BT and Virgin Media. This has led to the deployment of Gold Standard world-class networks in cities and town across the country, including in previously underserved rural areas, growing from a very low base of about 1% of premises to around 10% today. Accelerating the pace is important and all parts of the industry are working to do that.

‘While we welcome Labour’s focus and don’t disagree that nationalisation of some parts of the infrastructure may make sense in the mid-to-long term, we are concerned that it will deter a vibrant market for investment in new fibre networks in the short term, thus delaying fibre roll-out. Free broadband is an attractive consumer proposition but will be costly, could undermine innovation and consumer choice, plus having a detrimental effect on the service provider sector.’

Julian David, CEO at techUK said: ‘These proposals would be a disaster for the telecoms sector and the customers that it serves. Re-nationalisation would immediately halt the investment being driven not just by BT but the growing number of new and innovative companies that compete with BT. Full Fibre and 5G are the underpinning technologies of our future digital economy and society. The majority of the estimated £30bn cost for full-fibre is being borne by the private sector. Re-nationalisation would put this cost back onto the taxpayer, no doubt after years of legal wrangling, wasting precious time when we can least afford it.  These proposals would be a huge set-back for the UK's digital economy which is a huge driver for growth. Labour’s plans are fundamentally misguided and need to be dramatically altered if they are to deliver the infrastructure we all need.’

A number of comments across social media have expressed concern from the point of view of the independent providers. Trade association, the Independent Networks Co-operative Association (INCA)  welcomed the commitment, but warned that there could be potential negative implications. CEO Malcolm Corbett said: 'For the UK to become a world leader in full-fibre and 5G, it needs to provide access for all, wherever people live or work and we are pleased to see the commitment Labour has shown to this through its latest pledge.

'It is crucial, however, that how broadband is funded, rolled out and provided is considered, along with the wider impact the plan could have. The UK’s broadband market is currently thriving as a result of infrastructure investors and local communities, alongside the public sector. £3.3bn was committed by investors in alternative network providers (altnets) last year alone, in addition to investments by BT and Virgin Media. While we welcome Labour’s focus, we are concerned that some parts of the policy, for example, nationalisation, will dampen the vibrant market for investment in new fibre networks in the short term, thus delaying fibre roll-out. Free broadband is an attractive consumer proposition but will be costly, could undermine innovation and consumer choice, as well as having a detrimental effect on the service provider sector.'

A spokesperson for BT stated: 'It should be a top political priority to super-charge the roll-out of full fibre broadband and 5G right across the UK so we can build the digital economy of the future. Whatever the result of the election, we’d encourage the next Government to work with all parts of the industry to achieve that. It’s a national mission that’s bigger than any one company.'

Lloyd Felton, chief executive of County Broadband commented: ‘[The] announcement highlights the importance of full fibre access for all. However, it also shows an alarming lack of understanding about the complex nature of full fibre rollouts and the fact that, unlike by comparison the rail industry that operates rail franchises, the industry has already invested billions of pounds in building its own infrastructure over which the service is delivered, in direct competition to BT. This proposal would almost certainly lead to delays, or at worst, derailment of existing full fibre investment and new network rollouts. It is a broad-brush, and makes no mention of how customers would be served and supported and provides no recognition for what has been achieved by the many Alternative Network providers who are currently active in providing a competitive full fibre solution.

‘The competitive nature of the current market in the UK has meant consumers already benefit from one of the lowest cost broadband services in Europe. Broadband is an essential utility and whilst we share the ambition to bring future-ready full fibre connectivity to every home and business, we believe a mix of public and private investment is the only realistic strategy to deliver the service efficiently, without the need to bring significant cost to the public purse.’

Evan Wienburg, CEO at Truespeed stated: ‘This country’s robust and competitive telecoms industry is already working hard to deliver full fibre for all, using a mix of public and private money. Rather than upset the apple cart, we urge whoever is in government to be careful about how they use public money to effect this change and to support the myriad of infrastructure providers that are working tirelessly up and down the country to deliver this game-changing infrastructure to every post code.’

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