Originally Reported in The Daily Telegraph
The new Conservative Government’s commitment in the Queen’s speech to legislation that will “accelerate the delivery of gigabit-capable broadband” clearly marks an important step forward in terms of infrastructure policy.
But for this to be achieved, it is crucial that regulations on broadband roll-out are put in place urgently.
The Government should also carefully consider whether basing our national coverage on gigabit-capable broadband will be sufficient for our society and economy’s future needs – compared with the longer-term sustainability Full Fibre would provide.
The impact of national broadband coverage cannot be underestimated. A 2018 report by Regeneris estimated that Full Fibre roll-out could boost the UK economy by £120bn over 15 years. From a communications infrastructure point of view, it would put the UK on equal footing with countries such as Spain, which already has 71pc Full Fibre coverage, Portugal (89pc), Japan (97pc) and South Korea (99pc). Even France, with 28pc, is way ahead of the UK’s 10pc Full Fibre coverage.
To achieve full fibre across the UK by 2025 and benefit from the myriad social and economic benefits it brings, tough compromises will be necessary.
We should invest as a nation in technology that is future-proof and sustainable, as a crucial element of the UK’s economic prosperity. With that in mind, the Government’s stated ambition to achieve “gigabit-capable broadband” needs close examination. It refers to any technology that could potentially deliver gigabit speeds. So a fixed wireless connection can be gigabit-capable, as can a high-quality (but short) copper cable – and even mobile phones. But none has the long-term capacity and speed of Full Fibre, which delivers 10-gigabit services in the UK today. By 2030, full fibre will deliver 100 gigabits to every property served. You may ask, “Why on earth would I need 10 gigabits, let alone 100 gigabits for in my home or business?” The answer is, you don’t know, because the applications and services that you will be using in 10 years don’t yet exist.
When the commercial internet began in 1996, a typical dial-up connection used only 33Kbps – 0.00003 gigabits. By 2000, the first broadband offered 2Mbps (0.002 gigabits). In 2010 the first gigabit connections were available and last year the first 10-gigabit connections. At every step, new apps have taken advantage of the increased capacity – such as Facebook, Spotify, iPlayer, Netflix, Nest and Stadia.
So the easy choice is to set our ambition at gigabit-capable networks because more of the existing non-full fibre networks can be used. The challenge to policy is that such networks will in time run out of steam and will need to be replaced with Full Fibre. Now that’s fine for investors in businesses. But should the Government use public funding to subsidise the building of any new infrastructure that is already heading for obsolescence? To get the long-term benefits of great broadband, we need to tolerate the short-term inconvenience and disruption of building it into every home and business. The successful delivery of transformational infrastructure requires a willingness to tolerate the temporary suspension of certain rights related to property, planning and access. It is in these areas that the new legislation envisaged in the Queen’s Speech will be required.
Whether the final ambition is for Full Fibre or gigabit-capable, ministers should, as a matter of urgency:
• Suspend planning laws on deploying communications equipment
• Suspend highways law to allow immediate introduction of new construction techniques and much more flexible operation and management of new network build
• Suspend private property law giving automatic wayleaves for telecommunications service delivery
• Suspend immigration restrictions and provide support for skills training
• Change advertising rules: empower consumers to switch to Full Fibre
To achieve brilliant broadband coverage nationally by 2025, substantial investment – as much as £20bn – will be required, with the vast majority coming from private investors. To unlock private capital quickly, the Government should provide medium-term regulatory certainty and access to low-cost, long-term debt financing early in the construction phase.
Its strong statement of intent is to be welcomed. The next step is to ensure that these measures are implemented in early 2020 so that we can usher in a new era of full connectivity.