After months of what looked like empty rhetoric, the UK government is finally getting its act together and will announce a £1.1 billion investment lottery for fibre and 5G.
There has been a tonne of noise recently coming from the government and top dudes in the industry lamenting the UK’s allegedly ‘crap’ broadband. That talk came to a head over at Broadband World Forum in October when Openreach told Ofcom to pull its finger out, the government minister for Culture, Media and Sport tried to convince everyone they’re all taking broadband very seriously over at Whitehall, and then Virgin Media CEO Tom Mockridge called bullsh*t on the whole thing.
Well, it now looks like the government is trying to prove it’s not just full of hot air, by getting ready to announce that broadband is right at the top of its list of things-to-do-today.
£400 million is going to be allocated to the development of next generation fibre infrastructure across the country. Specifically, it wants fibre everywhere, and not just in the 2% of UK premises served by FTTH. The government also wants to see its own investment matched by the private sector, like BT, Virgin, or the Altnets over at INCA (Independent Networks Co-operative Association).
It looks like this plan will largely target the smaller, independent network operators – like Hyperoptic and CityFibre. INCA said it welcomes the support from the government, as it continues to target pure-fibre rollouts across the country independent from Openreach. BT, to be fair, doesn’t look to be in the crosshairs with this government-led initiative, and the investment seems principally targeted at the smaller dudes, a point that a BT spokesman made to Telecoms.com.
“As the government says, the UK is a broadband leader with around nine in ten premises being able to access superfast services today,” a BT spokesperson told us, while not being able to resist bigging itself up a little. “It is important however that ultrafast broadband is also deployed to as many areas as possible. Openreach has ambitious plans to make ultrafast services available to twelve million homes and businesses by the end of 2020 and we support others who wish to roll out their own networks. Such activity is very capital intensive and this Fund may be helpful in ensuring smaller players can build sustainable businesses.”
Despite this not really looking like a government attempt to have a pop at BT, Vodafone still took the chance to try and needlessly stick the boot in. The mobile operator-come-ISP sent a lengthy statement trying to make the point that G.fast sucks. In all honesty, it didn’t make its point very clearly – so it took a bit of an effort to decipher.
“Up to 100% of BT’s G.fast build will duplicate areas already covered by Virgin Media,” it says.
Despite Vodafone not learning lessons from the ASA-issued bollocking that “up to” is a misleading statement; it also hints that there’s no point in ensuring multiple operators cover the same area, which is the very essence of anti-competition and makes this a bit of a pointless statement from the big red operator. The point it is trying to make though is that G.fast can only building on existing fibre infrastructure, so it can only serve the people who need it least. That’s a valid point being made.
Elsewhere in the forthcoming Autumn Statement, the UK government is expected to announce a £750 million investment into the development of 5G infrastructure and services in the UK. Back at BBWF last month the government said it wants full 5G roll-out by 2026, which seemed like an odd statement at the time, so it looks to have expedited that objective somewhat.
There are a few questions which need answering with both initiatives around who gets what. Where does the allocation of funds go? There’s over a billion pounds’ worth of finance here, probably more when the private sector inevitably matches the pledge – so it’s important to know how the cash will get distributed.
Will a lump of investment get thrown at specific operators with the strap-line “this is your problem now”, or will it be allocated based on applications from some of the smaller regional fibre players, OR will it actually be a random lottery where anyone could win? That sounds a lot more fun. In any case, how will it be determined who gets how much?
Here’s a wrap up of industry reaction, featuring Vodafone’s comrades in the Fix Britain’s Internet campaign: Sky and TalkTalk. Spoiler alert – people ‘welcome’ it.
Andrew Griffith, Group COO, Sky
“We welcome the Government’s announcement on broadband investment, which chimes with our view that the future is full fibre. Government has played its part through this package of measures, which should help kick start the investment needed to push the UK up the league table. But we won’t achieve the necessary step change in driving full fibre investment across the country unless Ofcom also takes bold and decisive action on the future of BT Openreach.”
Dido Harding, Chief Executive, TalkTalk
“At TalkTalk, we’ve long been convinced that fully fibre internet connectivity is vital for the UK’s digital future. We’re delighted that the Government is supporting this cutting-edge infrastructure, and encouraging competition between alternative providers to ensure that people up and down the country can enjoy full-fibre broadband as quickly as possible.”
Dan Howdle, Director of Communications, Cable.co.uk – #SpectacularRantAlert btw
“There still remains millions of households in the UK for whom adequate broadband is a daily struggle. While it is commendable that the Treasury considers broadband provision in the UK worthy of additional government funding, it is utterly absurd that this funding should provide to a minority speeds for which there is no known or useful purpose while so many others struggle for anything approaching basic adequacy.
“It may be that some of those areas targeted for ‘ultrafast’ are indeed those with inadequate basic provision, but realistically it is far more likely it will be brought to areas where there is an economic incentive for those providing the service. Rural locations especially do not fit this criteria because the uptake among residents, even for existing superfast speeds of 24Mbps or more, tends to be very low.
“And let us not forget, there is currently no known or useful purpose for ultrafast broadband. Touting that you ‘Can download a series of Game of Thrones in seconds’ is fatuous nonsense. You can already watch it in seconds by streaming it in HD with just an 8Mbps connection. And even if you wanted to download a whole box set, those who provide such services throttle the maximum speed at which you can do so.
“Claiming you can watch 4K ultra-high-definition content’ (which only requires 25Mbps) is equally misleading. 1000Mbps broadband could do this twenty times over, so only offer maximum utility if your household had twenty 4K UHD TVs, along with 20 household members all concurrently watching different 4K video streams.
“The government should be spending this money where it matters most, along with putting in place firm restrictions as to exactly where this new network provision can be applied – prioritising those who need it most.”
Greg Mersch, Chief Executive, CityFibre
“As a pure fibre infrastructure pioneer and the company behind the UK’s growing ranks of Gigabit Cities, CityFibre welcomes the Chancellor’s support to accelerate the deployment of fibre and 5G to homes and businesses. Britain’s industrial strategy needs a digital backbone, and it is essential that we move quickly to plug the UK’s ‘fibre gap’ and empower our service-based economy. This new funding, stimulating competitive fibre rollout at scale by new communications infrastructure builders, is a catalyst for the delivery of the UK’s fibre future.”
Li-Ke Huang, Research & Technology Director, Cobham Wireless
“The government’s promise to enable local authorities to bid to trial superfast 5G mobile networks is a positive step forward that could help accelerate the commercialisation of next generation mobile technology in the UK. 5G promises consumers and businesses higher data rates and multilayer functionality that could power future IoT systems, new mobile services and machine-to-machine technology like smart cars.”