County Broadband breaks new ground in Suffolk

County Broadband this week announced it has begun construction of a new full fibre network in Suffolk, thereby extending its East of England footprint.

The news itself is hardly earth-shattering. Unless, perhaps, you happen to live in one of the nine villages covered by the new rollout and will therefore be able to choose fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP), rather than the fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) offer that is already in place.

But the announcement is interesting in the broader context of the UK market, where the big guns continue to trumpet new coverage milestones and some mull building scale through M&A. There are clearly still small fibre builders out there willing to dig in fibre on a village-by-village basis and – crucially – investors willing to back them.

County Broadband secured £100 million in funding from Aviva Investors, the asset management arm of insurance company Aviva, a year ago, to add to the £46 million it brought in from the same source in 2018. The investment will fund its ongoing FTTP rollout, through which it aims to connect 500,000 homes and businesses in rural areas across the East of England by the end of 2027. As of the end of last year it had hooked up more than 200 villages in Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire – this week’s Suffolk announcement is not its first foray into that market – but did not specify how many premises that includes. Similarly, the company has had nothing to say about its take-up rate.

However, it insists the demand is there…sort of.

“We’re pleased to be kicking off construction of our new full fibre networks across these nine Suffolk villages. It’s clear from the homes and businesses we speak to that the existing copper-based infrastructure simply can’t keep up with modern demands from remote working, streaming to accessing online services,” said James Salmon, Director of Sales and New Territories at County Broadband.

“Building these networks is a complex process which takes time, it doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why it’s essential we start future-proofing communities today to ensure they aren’t left behind over the coming years as the way we live and work continues to evolve,” Salmon said.

It doesn’t sound like customers are flocking to County Broadband in their droves, but the company is clearly optimistic that it will be ready to serve the need for faster broadband when the time comes.

There is still an opportunity for rural fibre rollout in the underserved rural UK, but the bigger players are catching up with the myriad altnets that have sprung up to target specific niche markets.

Openreach this week announced that its FTTP network now covers 10 million UK premises, including 3 million in hard to reach rural areas. That is part of the incumbent’s £15 billion FTTP project that should see it connect 25 million homes and businesses by the end of 2026.

Meanwhile, Openreach’s biggest rivals Virgin Media O2 and CityFibre could be coming together. VMO2 could pay up to £3 billion for CityFibre, according to reports in the UK press, although it’s not wholly clear how likely such an outcome would be. But with both companies putting serious time, effort and cash into FTTP rollout, the rationale for a deal is pretty obvious.

And it’s against that backdrop that small fibre builders are operating.

Some sort of a shakedown is probably on the cards. We have evidence already in Germany, where a couple of high-profile investors – Liberty Global and KKR-owned John Laing group – have backed out of the market, unable to make the financials stack up, while bigger players Vodafone and Altice secured investment for their fibre JV. It would be unwise to bet against a similar situation emerging in the UK, or indeed a raft of M&A taking hold as fibre builders look for some scale.

But in the meantime, the likes of County Broadband will carry on with their rollouts, village-by-village, steadily extending the UK’s full fibre coverage map.


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