A speedy rollout of full fibre across the country should be a priority — but funding alone will not be enough
The prime minister has said the UK should be aiming to achieve full fibre broadband coverage by 2025. This is certainly a commendable ambition. The government’s current objective of full coverage by 2033 is, as Boris Johnson says, seemingly unambitious. Other European countries such as Spain plan to be at this point in just a couple of years’ time and numerous developed economies in Asia are already at 100% coverage.
Broadband coverage in rural Britain has been a persistent problem – and these areas must not be left behind in the deployment of full fibre
But delivering on Johnson’s target will be no easy task. The UK’s full fibre coverage is slowly rising but sits at a mere 7%, meaning the UK is starting from one of the lowest bases of any European country and action to improve rollout is urgently needed to ensure the UK remains a competitive place to do business. While the rollout of superfast broadband has improved connectivity and is mostly sufficient for current needs, full fibre is the only way of future-proofing the UK’s telecoms infrastructure.
It is, of course, important the whole country benefits. Broadband coverage in rural Britain has been a persistent problem – and these areas must not be left behind in the deployment of full fibre.
Due to commercial non-viability, rural areas will not be served by network competition and additional funding will be required – around £3bn–5bn, according to Ofcom’s calculations.
However, we must remember that many urban areas are also massively behind the curve on full fibre. This includes London, which has roughly 10% coverage. That is higher than the national average, but it is extraordinarily low for a city that is ranked as the top spot for business in PWC’s Cities of Opportunities index. The risk that slow rollout of full fibre would pose to London’s global competitiveness is obvious.
But why is this happening given there is certainly no shortage of network competition for full fibre in London? Numerous operators are competing to rollout this infrastructure across the capital.
One of the key problems is to do with the planning system. In particular, London’s fragmented borough system poses unique challenges.
While operators in cities such as York that have prioritised full fibre rollout only deal with one council, operators in the capital have to co-ordinate with 32 boroughs, many of whom have different approaches to applying rules relating to street works and parking charges.
The good news is that actions are being taken to break down barriers to full fibre. The DCMS’s Barrier Busting Taskforce is offering assistance to councils and operators; the City of London’s standardised wayleave and the Greater London Authority’s promotion of standardised wayleaves will help to speed up access to properties; and there are a number of London councils implementing successful digital strategies that are seeing good results.
However, if we are to turbo-charge full fibre rollout across the capital, this won’t be enough. We need to free the market to deliver full fibre by further reducing inconsistencies and bureaucracy across London’s 32 boroughs. Local councils are subject to a number of pressures and competing demands, but it is important that this becomes a priority.
A speedy rollout of full fibre across the country should be one of the government’s central objectives in infrastructure policy. Our country’s future competitiveness depends on it. And if the UK is to achieve this by 2033 – or be even more ambitious and deliver it by 2025 – more money alone will not be enough. Our planning system must enable operators to get on with putting in the infrastructure across London and elsewhere in a way that works for communities.
Daniel Mahoney, programme director for economy and Infrastructure at London First