Can the UK meet its 2025 gigabit broadband targets?

Can the UK meet its 2025 gigabit broadband targets?

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It's no secret that when it comes to ultrafast broadband, the UK lags behind many of its European neighbours. However, efforts to change this are well underway, with the government committed to ensuring every home and business in the country has access to gigabit speeds by the end of 2025.

This has always been considered a highly ambitious target, but with just over five years left to achieve this goal, what are the odds that the UK will have 100 per cent coverage of ultrafast broadband by this date?

Is the 2025 deadline realistic?

Prime minister Boris Johnson's initial pledge, made while running for leadership of the Conservative party, was that every premise in the country should have access to full-fibre broadband by 2025. 

This has since been watered down slightly, with the government's 2019 election manifesto promising "gigabit-capable" broadband, which opens up the possibility for the use of other technologies such as 5G to fill in the gaps in particularly remote or challenging areas.

Meanwhile, £5 billion has been pledged by the Treasury to ensure the 20 per cent of the country considered the hardest to reach is not left out. However, some in the industry have argued that more detailed plans and investment are urgently required if the deadline is to be met.

Chief executive of Openreach Clive Selley, for instance, recently told the BBC that his company needs to hear a plan from the government now about how this funding will be allocated so that it can get started on large-scale builds.

"The danger if it drags on is that the [2025] date will move, and none of us wants that," Mr Selley said. "We want a world-class digital infrastructure, not just for the towns and cities of the UK but for everyone in the UK. That is the government's manifesto promise."

Meanwhile, some commentators have suggested that 100 per cent coverage is not a realistic goal due to the technical challenges involved.

Andrew Ferguson from broadband monitoring service Thinkbroadband, for example, noted that in order to reach his own home, six new poles would have to be installed, which is unlikely to be practical on a nationwide scale.

He suggested that a coverage level of between 70 and 80 per cent by 2025 is more realistic.  "A lot depends on what the government does with this £5 billion and how quickly that can be done, so we need to see that start ramping up and start building in the next year," he said.

The role of altnets

While much of the work to deliver gigabit-capable broadband will fall on the largest providers, with Openreach and Virgin Media expected to lead the way, the efforts of other companies should not be overlooked. Alternative network providers (altnets) both large and small will likely be the key to increasing competition in the market and filling in gaps where Openreach are not building, both in hard-to-reach rural areas and urban locations such as apartment blocks where there are different, but no less challenging issues such as a lack of access to lay new fibre.

These providers will likely be crucial in delivering gigabit-capable broadband throughout the UK, and many are making large investments to achieve this. Indeed, while Openreach has recruited 6,500 apprentices to work on its rollout efforts, CityFibre has unveiled a three-year plan that will see it add up to 10,000 people for its build.

However, smaller providers may still benefit from more government intervention to ensure they can deliver services where they're most needed. For example, founder and chief executive of Voneus Steve Leighton recently said in an interview with ISPReview.co.uk that he would like to see existing infrastructure opened up for the use of fibre delivery.

He said this has already proven effective in places such as Italy, where taking advantage of power network infrastructure has allowed for the rapid rollout of full fibre services, while also reducing costs.

Mr Leighton also urged a rethink on the ending of the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme, which is due to end in March 2021. He said that makes no sense given the government's ambitious targets, so should be extended until the end of 2025 at the earliest.

As it stands, he said the 2025 goal is unrealistic, even with recent changes in emphasis. To get close to the coverage target, current rates of deployment need to be increased across the board, with greater focus on support schemes so that altnet providers can build with confidence.

Mr Leighton added: "To achieve [the 2025 target] we need further investment, meaning it's important that incentives such as rates relief continue far into the future, enabling companies like ours to plan ahead with greater certainty."

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