A recent Cambridge Wireless event held in London on 25 November 2019 discussed the topic of ‘Full fibre to every home by 2025’. The discussion was very timely being in the midst of an election campaign where both leading political parties have set out ambitious plans for the future deployment of Gigabit per second broadband. The event included presentations from Martin Duckworth from Frontier Economics and Steve Unger from Flint Global, followed by an open discussion.
In this article we highlight some of the interesting points arising during the presentations/discussion – including both areas where there was general consensus (e.g on whether 2025 was a reasonable target date for connecting all homes) and where there were differing views (e.g. on how to go about connecting those that currently do not have access to superfast broadband).
Is 2025 a realistic target?
All in the room generally agreed that 2025 was an unrealistic target for universal deployment of fibre, noting the amount of people required to lay fibre to all homes in order to meet such a timescale was unviable. A target of connecting 3 million premises per annum was felt to be more reasonable, leading to a realistic target date of around 10 years from now i.e. 2030.
Why is the UK so far behind other major European countries and does it matter?
Steve Unger highlighted why the UK was behind certain other European countries (e.g. Spain) in fibre deployment and why this was not necessarily a problem. As Figure 1 below shows, whilst the UK is well behind on fibre deployment, it is ahead of other countries in terms of superfast broadband deployment – essentially through the provision of broadband services through existing copper and co-axial cable lines. In many other countries where the focus has been on fibre deployment, those homes that were not connected by fibre did not have access to superfast broadband services i.e. there was a typically binary situation of either having Gigabit broadband or very basic (i.e. not superfast) broadband.
Figure 1: Comparison of fibre deployment and superfast broadband availability in different European markets – reproduced from slide presented by Steve Unger, data from ‘Broadband coverage in Europe 2017’, Report to the European Commission by IHS Markit and Point Topic
Is government intervention needed to improve broadband connectivity?
Individuals and businesses who have access to superfast broadband typically have not been complaining about their broadband services. It could therefore be argued that the market is working well for these users – as the demand for data rates increase, fibre deployment will become necessary to support these and market forces will lead to such deployments by telecoms operators. If the process following market forces naturally takes 10-15 years to occur (i.e. to be completed by 2030-2035) rather than by 2025, then this should not be viewed as a problem. If users are generally happy with their broadband speeds, which are received through the existing copper infrastructure, then there should not be much of a case for government intervention.
A strong case for government intervention is for those users that do not have access to a superfast or reliable broadband connection at present. However, the appropriate model for government intervention in such cases is far from clear – Martin Duckworth outlined case studies of many countries where government interventions had not worked particularly well. The positive cases he highlighted were that of Singapore (which the audience generally felt was not an appropriate proxy for the UK) and of New Zealand. Martin further explained that New Zealand has high levels of rural fibre connectivity primarily due to government investment and structural separation. The infrastructure provider, Chorus, is a completely separate legal organisation from the incumbent telecoms provider Spark (formerly Telecom New Zealand). In respect of translation to the UK situation, Martin argued that government investment alone would not be sufficient – structural separation would also be required.
What solutions exist for premises outside of superfast broadband coverage?
A further topic of discussion focused on possible technical solutions regarding the implementation for homes, and business premises, that are currently outside superfast broadband coverage. The audience generally agreed that these users should be the priority for government intervention but there were mixed views on what the technological solution should be. One viewpoint was there should be widespread deployment of fibre in order to future-proof the government investment that would be required. A second perspective was that transitional solutions could be considered (e.g. 5G or Fixed Wireless Access) since it was better for the country to gain more experience in deploying fibre by leaving it to market forces resulting in a reduction of costs alongside a development of skills and experience. This would then be the time for government to make the investment of fibre deployment, albeit not to every home/business premises as some remote premises may still make sense to be served using other technologies such as wireless.
In summary, there was general agreement that fibre for all by 2025 is an unrealistic target resulting from insufficient skilled individuals available to do the street by street deployments. Therefore, government intervention and targets should primarily be focused on improving service for those homes and businesses that currently lack access to superfast broadband. There were differing views on how far that government intervention should go (e.g. whether structural separation of BT is necessary) and whether now was the right time to provide fibre to these premises or whether an interim solution (e.g. 5G) should be used with fibre deployment following once the UK as a whole had moved over to fibre.