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UK set to join Europe’s big guns on full fibre rollout

The UK is one of a number of major economies forecast to rise up the European rankings for full fibre rollout thanks to a prediction of significant growth over the next five years.

The country is currently in tenth place in Europe based on homes passed with fibre at 6 million, but that figure is set to rocket to 27.5 million by 2026, putting it in fourth behind only Russia, Germany and France, according to new forecasts from the FTTH Council Europe and IDATE.

The firms’ 2020 forecast shows 1.4 million FTTH/B subscribers in the UK this year but on the back of the projected biggest growth rate in the top 15 countries this will rise to 24 million in the next five years. To put it another way, the UK will have the fourth largest number of full fibre subscribers in Europe by 2026, if the figures prove to be accurate. That will equate to a penetration rate of 81.6%, a huge step up compared with 2.8% in September last year – when the FTTH Council Europe published the last full version of its market panorama – and 4.9% this year.

The UK is not the only European nation poised for a fibre breakthrough.

The figures show a similar growth pattern for Germany and, to a lesser extent, Italy; the former is on course for 59% fibre penetration by 2026 and the latter just over 43%.

All three countries were in the bottom six of the 2019 FTTH/B penetration ranking with figures in the single digits.

The new forecasts will come as no surprise to industry watchers though. News outlets in the UK have been awash with stories of fibre rollout for the past year or so, with multiple new fibre builders springing up and putting a certain amount of pressure on the incumbent; Openreach had built out full fibre to 2.6 million premises by March and aims to hit 20 million by the mid-to-late 2020s. Meanwhile, major cableco Virgin Media is helping to heat up competition for high-speed broadband with the expansion of its own Gigabit broadband services and big names like Sky are availing themselves of Openreach’s wholesale offer.

It’s much the same in Germany, where altnets like Deutsche Glasfaser are spending big on fibre network rollout, while Telefonica is reportedly lining up investment for its own fibre infrastructure as well as inking a headline-hitting wholesale FTTH deal with Deutsche Telekom, which had to date been reticent to share its fibre infrastructure. And in Italy, the market has been turned on its head by the competitive pressure applied to incumbent TIM by state-owned Open Fiber, as well as efforts from rival telcos, and the government’s single network plan now looks to be coming close to fruition.

All these initiatives are making a huge difference. Indeed, the FTTH Council Europe lists an increase in FTTH network-sharing deals, a growing appetite for single-build FTTH deployments, and strong commitments from governments and local authorities as key drivers of fibre growth across the region.

The 39 European markets covered by the forecast will together have 86 million FTTH/B subscribers this year, up from 70 million in September 2019. This figure is predicted to rise to around 208 million by 2026, giving a penetration rate of 73.3%, versus 23.4% back in 2012.

Covid-19 and the demands it is placing on broadband networks across the region is partly driving growth, but the FTTH Council notes that it is merely accelerating an existing trend.

Other drivers include 5G and the associated requirement for fibre, and copper switch-off plans across the region.

On that last point, the Council has published the results of a new copper switch-off study carried out by WIK that shows significant inconsistencies between European markets. Estonia comes out top of the 10 markets analysed, having switched off 80% of exchanges to date, followed by Sweden at 54%. France and the Netherlands have set out formal plans for copper shutdown, while discussions are ongoing in the UK. The study identifies Spain and Portugal as making slow progress and notes that there remain some markets, like Germany and Poland, where no plans have been published. Variations in regulation and appetite – or the lack thereof – for fibre migration on the part of incumbents are some the reasons for the differences.

“These regulatory and market factors holding back the migration to fibre can be tackled, and we would encourage Member States and regulators to intensify support to copper and PSTN switch-off and consumer migration to FTTH,” said Vincent Garnier, Director General of the FTTH Council

Europe, in a statement.

“Some of the key steps towards success are: fostering the roll-out of fibre networks in areas where the footprint is still limited, consider ways in which copper pricing can be used as a mechanism to create 100% FTTH coverage and take up, and set up labelling or rules on advertising standards to signal benefits of FTTH vs other technologies when consumers are confused or unconvinced of the benefits,” he said.

A rough translation: make copper fiendishly expensive or remove it altogether and Europeans will have to sign up for fibre. Sorted.

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