Boris Johnson has promised to accelerate full fibre rollout and move the deadline forward to 2025 from the 2033 currently targeted by the UK Government. This statement of intent, in an article for the Daily Telegraph published in June and entitled “Let’s reboot “left–behind” Britain with a turbo-charged broadband revolution” is to be welcomed.
But could this be achieved in just six years?
A 2018 report by Regeneris estimated that full fibre rollout could boost the UK economy by £120 billion over 15 years. It would also put the UK on equal footing with countries such as Spain, which already has 71% full fibre coverage, Portugal (89%), Japan (97%) and South Korea (99%). Even France, with 28%, is way ahead of the UK’s current 7% full-fibre coverage.
But if we want to get to full fibre for all by 2025 and enjoy the full range of social and economic benefits it brings, we will, as a country, need to make tough compromises. We will need to make this a national priority just as we did in the 19th Century during the development of the UK’s railway infrastructure.
The successful delivery of transformational infrastructure requires tough decisions and willingness to tolerate the temporary suspension of certain rights related to property, planning and access.
Delivering full fibre for all means building full fibre past four million properties per year every year from 2020 to 2025. That’s 16,000 properties being offered access to full fibre for the first time every working day.
As a society we will need to decide that this is worth doing, and to get the long term benefits of full fibre gigabit speed broadband, it is worth tolerating the short-term inconvenience and disruption of building this essential infrastructure into every home and business. The Government would need immediately, at the very latest, early in 2020 to make this happen.
As a country, we need to amend or suspend regulations and bylaws that are designed to provide checks and balances to new infrastructure build, and as a result slow down and increase the cost of that build. And in parallel, we must remove any barrier that delays or prevents consumers switching to full fibre broadband at pace.
Suspend planning law
- Full fibre build no longer requires public consultation or negotiation with planning authorities over the location or size of equipment.
Suspend highways law
- Modern construction techniques such as narrow trenching, on site recycling and liquid reinstatement must be permitted.
- Permits and notices are not charged and granted automatically. Fines are not applied. Section 58 and other notices that restrict access to work in the highways are disregarded. All works can commence following a 7 day notice. Road closure procedures accelerated to 7 day notice for closures of less than 24 hours. No limits, formal or informal, on the number of gangs operating in any specific location.
Suspend private property law
- Automatic right of access to all properties to deliver full fibre into the residential or business property. Automatic grant of wayleaves over private land for infrastructure with no lasting visual impact for a standard, national rate card payment to the landowner by land type.
Suspend immigration restrictions for full fibre labour
- Ensure easy access to full fibre construction workforce through simple work visa processes irrespective of worker’s nationality. Provide support to operator and contractor led training schemes to build in the UK full fibre skills and expertise.
Change broadband advertising rules and empower consumers
- Clear advertising and communication so that consumers can easily identify and switch to full fibre broadband services compared to other technological solutions. Remove all barriers that delay or prevent migration from copper-based broadband to full fibre broadband.
The national full fibre build programme by 2025 will demand over £20 billion investment, with the vast majority coming from private investors. To unlock private capital quickly, the Government should provide medium term regulatory certainty and support with access to low cost long-term debt financing early in the construction phase.
In addition, we must foster an environment of collaboration between full fibre builders and local authorities to resolve issues on the ground quickly. As well as between competing full fibre builders to limit inefficient overbuild of networks that risk some properties suffering disruption from multiple full fibre builds in the same streets at the cost of substantial delays to full fibre upgrades in other areas.
Changes to our regulations and bylaws, along with greater collaboration, will enable operators to deliver high quality fibre infrastructure rapidly and encourage consumers to switch to full fibre broadband services.
If these measures are implemented in early 2020, we can achieve national full fibre by 2025 and enjoy the economic prosperity and competitiveness that full connectivity will bring across the UK.
The communications industry would be delighted to make this happen if the country will allow it.