2025 full fibre target unlikely to be met, report says

9 October 2020   By Dr Lucy Brown, Editor

Report from Social Market Foundation (SMF) concluded the Government's pledge for nationwide full fibre by 2025 is unlikely to fulfilled.

SMF's report says the UK risks being left behind if action isn't taken to reform the telecoms industry.

They make eight recommendations to improve the likelihood of the UK meeting the 2025 target set by Boris Johnson during the Conservative Party leadership election.

The report was sponsored by TalkTalk, although SMF's research took place independently.

fibre broadband on technology background

Unlikely target

SMF raised several concerns about the rollout of full fibre broadband, including the costs passed on to households and businesses as part of the rollout.

They specifically mentioned the inefficiency of street works and how the planning system could better be used to add telecommunications infrastructure to buildings.

They also suggested customers are not properly safeguarded in Ofcom's regulatory framework, pointing to the high proportion of current broadband customers who don't switch providers and highlighting how Ofcom's decision to ease wholesale price controls for Openreach's network could backfire.

So, while easing the controls has been justified because it will encourage more investment, there is the danger that poor switching behaviour means competition won't develop in the full fibre market and BT could maintain an unfair advantage.

In addition, SMF queried the risks to customers when the copper broadband network is fully retired, especially for those customers uninterested in fibre broadband speeds.

SMF recommendations

In total, SMF made eight recommendations:

  1. Ofcom should have a more dynamic approach to regulation to monitor broadband competition in different areas.
  2. An equalities impact assessment should be published by Ofcom to examine how the new regime will affect households with different incomes.
  3. The Government should appoint local authority digital champions to help speed up activities like street works.
  4. The Government should require new-builds to have easy access for telecommunications installations and pursue intention to make sure new builds have gigabit-capable broadband infrastructure attached.
  5. Both Government and regulators should acknowledge the case for other technologies such as coaxial cables and 5G where they are more cost effective than fibre.
  6. Both central and local government should commit to purchasing full fibre services themselves to help provide certainty for providers as well as encouraging households and businesses to sign up.
  7. The Government should consider an expanded role in managing the risks of the rollout, following the lead of Local Fibre Companies in New Zealand.
  8. Consumer safeguards should be strengthened to protect customers in the event of copper broadband being retired.

Underpinning the recommendations is the idea that the Government and Ofcom need to take a more proactive approach to keep the full fibre rollout on track.

Full fibre rollout

The SMF report, sponsored by TalkTalk, specifically refers to the pledge for nationwide gigabit-capable broadband made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he was campaigning to become Conservative Party leader in the summer of 2019.

Since then, the policy has been under scrutiny, most recently through a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCSM) investigation looking at what measures will be needed to enable the rollout.

According to the most recent official figures, only 14% of the UK can currently access full fibre broadband speeds, amounting to some 4.2 million homes.

So, there is plenty of work still to be done on rolling out full fibre, and there are important debates to be had about how to reach more unprofitable rural locations which won't be a priority in Virgin's Gig1 rollout, for example.

This report from SMF explicitly lays out these concerns clearly, and it could be an important step on the way to effectively rolling out full fibre nationwide.

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