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July 2020
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Full fibre broadband – balancing private and public investment

By Evan Wienberg, co-founder and CEO of Truespeed

A new year is a time for renewal and resolutions. The UK government’s plans to invest billions in infrastructure transformation in the budget on March 11 and shape up the UK’s digital economy by accelerating the delivery of full fibre broadband across the country are undoubtedly full of good intentions.  Specifically, the government has pledged £5bn to support the roll-out of gigabit-capable broadband to the hardest to reach 20% of the country. We all agree that giving consumers the fast connectivity they need is critical to ensure UK plc is flexing its digital muscles post-Brexit. But in order to give the gift of gigabit broadband, it’s essential that alongside healthy competition between industry providers there is also appropriate collaboration to reduce duplication, wasteful overbuilding and disruption for consumers.

Sizing up the current situation

After December’s election, the new UK government outlined plans to accelerate access to full-fibre broadband connections to 96% of the UK’s homes and businesses. The latest research from regulator Ofcom revealed that the figure currently stands at a woeful 10%. According to OfCom’s Connected Nations 2019 survey, three million homes and businesses in the UK are able to obtain connections that can deliver download speeds of up to one gigabit per second (1Gbps). Given that 12 months earlier only 1.6 million households had access to full fibre broadband, this is encouraging but still indicative of a greater-than-ever gulf between the digital haves and have-nots.  At other end of the scale, 155,000 UK properties are still unable to get a decent fixed broadband service.

Of course there are many different performance classes of broadband. It seems obvious, but to ensure the network is future-proof and satisfying bandwidth needs for decades to come, full fibre broadband needs to mean just that – full fibre all the way to the front door, with no hint of copper in between. A few private sector infrastructure firms such as Truespeed are starting to offer a full fibre service to businesses that has the potential to offer speeds of up to 10Gbps – 10 times faster than the UK government’s 1Gbps-capable broadband goal.

The digital health benefits of full fibre

No one disputes that better connectivity is an essential part of UK plc’s regime to ensure it competes in the digital economy.

At one end of the digital divide, for many cities and urban areas, the additional investment in full fibre broadband is good news, enabling businesses to keep pace with digitisation and the cutting edge technology tools needed to thrive and grow.

At the other, in more rural areas, businesses have been stifled by a lack of connectivity. A recent survey we conducted with Somerset Chamber of Commerce revealed that the growth and development of local businesses are severely hampered by poor connectivity – echoed by rural businesses up and down the country contending with regular drop-outs and slow speeds.

But it’s not just a matter of bringing rural areas up to speed. Many of our towns and cities – particularly historic places bulging with listed buildings and narrow streets – have been seen as costly and challenging from a network build perspective and have suffered from slow, unreliable broadband connectivity as a result.

Boosting fibre uptake: balancing private vs public investment

Ofcom’s much anticipated review of the wholesale telecom market sets out a 4-point plan to supercharge the roll out of fibre broadband across the UK.  In its Fixed Telecoms Market Review (FTMR), Ofcom puts pressure on national providers to encourage competition and add support for rural areas.

While the need for infrastructure investment and full fibre broadband for all – regardless of post code – is clear, Ofcom must ensure a fair and level playing field between private and part public-funded infrastructure providers.

A growing number of private providers such as Truespeed are already investing heavily and effectively in these broadband infrastructure builds and customers are benefiting from brilliant products and services in rural areas as well as in traditionally hard-to-connect historic cities.

Where these providers are already investing significant sums using private funds, it’s not only wasting taxpayers’ money but inappropriate and unfair that larger providers are using taxpayers’ money to fund overbuilding. A more efficient and effective use of funds would involve collaboration and working closely with national and smaller providers to lay the infrastructure in areas where no alternative provider is already ensconced.

Delivering on good intentions

The UK government’s full fibre investment plans are a positive boost for UK plc’s digital health and future. Consumers and businesses will reap the benefits if we strike a balance between healthy competition amongst incumbent infrastructure providers and innovative private players, and an intelligent approach to collaboration. By rejecting overbuild by infrastructure providers taking advantage of government subsidies in areas where there is already adequate full fibre provision, we can free up funds to invest in places bereft of broadband and deliver full fibre for all.

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