Broadband chiefs fire back at PM's full-fibre internet pledge

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Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The new prime minister has lamented that the UK falls far behind Spain in terms of the number of homes with access to full-fibre internet

The UK's telecoms industry has issued the prime minister a challenge of its own after Boris Johnson said he wanted full-fibre broadband "for all" by 2025.

An open letter says the target is possible, but only if the government tackles four problems causing delays.

It adds that all of the issues must be resolved "within the next 12 months" to achieve the high-speed internet goal.

But one expert said at least one of the measures was unachievable in that time frame.

Mr Johnson originally declared his desire to deliver the 100% rollout of fibre-optic broadband to properties across the UK "in five years at the outside" in an article for the Telegraph published before he won the leadership vote.

In it, he described the government's former target of 2033 as being "laughably unambitious".

The letter sent to 10 Downing Street lists four policies that the industry says require urgent attention:

  • Planning reform - at present telecom providers need to get a type of permission known as a "wayleave agreement" to get access to land and buildings to install cables. But in many cases property owners are unresponsive. The industry wants ministers to force landlords to provide access if a tenant has requested a full-fibre or other connection be installed
  • Fibre tax - the so-called tax refers to the fact that fibre infrastructure currently has business rates applied to it, just like other commercial property. The industry claims this discourages investment and should be rethought
  • New builds - the government has carried out a consultation into whether new-build home developments must incorporate gigabit-capable internet connections, but has yet to publish its response. In the meantime, the industry says too many new homes are still being developed without provision for fibre broadband
  • Skills - a large number of engineers will be required to carry out all the work involved. BT and Virgin Media have previously warned that Brexit could result in labour shortages. The industry says more money must be committed to training, and it must also be allowed to continue to "compete for global talent"

"Nationwide full fibre coverage is not a can that can be kicked down the road," the letter concludes.

"Work needs to start now, and 100% fibre coverage requires a 100% commitment from government."

The letter has been signed by the chair of the Internet Services Providers Association , the interim chief executive of the Federation of Communication Services and the chief executive of the Independent Networks Co-operative Association .

Their members include BT, Openreach, Sky, Gigaclear, CityFibre, Hyperoptic, Virgin Media, Google and Vodafone among many others.

Openreach, which maintains the UK's digital network infrastructure, said it welcomed the government's ambition but warned: "Upgrading the entire UK network is a major civil engineering challenge."

It urged the government to "boost the build" by "creating an environment that encourages greater investment".

Number 10 referred the BBC to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for comment.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Installing fibre connections to every home involves disruption, cost and a lot of work

"We are pleased industry shares our ambition to turbo-charge the economy by delivering world-class, gigabit-capable broadband across the country as soon as possible," a DCMS spokesman said.

"The government is committed to creating the right opportunities for investment and speeding up the rollout of the required digital infrastructure."

He declined to comment specifically on the four demands, but indicated that a more detailed response would be given later.

One industry-watcher noted that the Scottish government had already pledged 100% tax relief to companies that install fibre broadband in Scotland, and suggested a similar reform would address the fibre tax request.

But she added that it would be almost impossible for ministers to resolve the access issue by the next summer.

"That is going to require a very carefully worded piece of legislation that takes into account business owners, property owners, landowners, as well as the telecommunications and service providers," explained Fiona Vanier from the consultancy CCS Insight.

"It's going to be a difficult piece of legislation to draw up.

"And there's just recently been a change in Prime Minister, the majority is very slim, and they have things to be getting on with the [Brexit] deadline at the end of October."

What is a full-fibre connection?

Full-fibre broadband, fibre to the premises - the terms may leave you scratching your head especially if you already thought you had a fast connection and you were pretty sure that it went all the way into your house.

But the reality is that only about 7% of UK properties have full-fibre optic cables running all the way from the green cabinet on the street to their front doors.

There are actually three main types of broadband connections.

ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) involves a situation where both the link between the telephone exchange and the street cabinet, and the onward connection to the property are achieved via copper phone cables.

Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) achieves higher speeds by giving the roadside cabinet its own fibre link.

And Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) addresses the final part of the connection - which is often referred to as the "last mile". Under this system, properties can be directly connected to the exchange without passing through a street cabinet, But intermediary boxes - often hidden from view - where fibre links are "split" to serve individual buildings may still be used.

Fibre transmits more bits of data per second by sending pulses of light along optical cables made of glass or plastic. While FTTC offers users average speeds of around 66 megabits per second, FTTP can offer average speeds of one gigabit per second today and potentially terabits per second in the future.

So, we would benefit from a full-fibre diet, but making it happen as quickly as the prime minister has in mind could be hard to achieve.

The UK ranks far behind some other European nations including Latvia, Lithuania and Spain where roughly half of all homes have access to FTTP connections, according to an industry study .

But while the technology offers a degree of future-proofing, some internet chiefs have suggested it would be more cost-effective to fall back on other solutions in the medium-term.

Image copyright Virgin Media
Image caption Virgin says that copper-based connections can be used to deliver fast enough speeds for the coming years

Last month, Virgin Media said that it would soon be able to provide gigabit download speeds over copper-based coaxial cables, meaning households could benefit from faster, more reliable connections without having to dig up streets and paths to lay new fibre.

O2's chief executive also recently told the BBC that the Prime Minister would be wiser to fall back on 5G for sparsely populated parts of the UK.

"At what level does it become uneconomic to [provide fibre] versus mobile?" Mark Evans asked.

"I would suggest that isn't at 100% fibre connectivity because, for example, the Scottish farmer that lives remotely - we can reach that person, give them the bandwidth, give them a 5G experience - it's much cheaper than digging the fibre connectivity to that home. That's just nonsensical.

"So I applaud him on his desire to improve fibre connectivity in the UK - but I do think there's a level that he needs to weigh up as to which type of technology meets the need."