Overcoming the barriers to a Gigabit Britain - what lessons can be learned?

Overcoming the barriers to a Gigabit Britain - what lessons can be learned?

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One thing that's become clear over the past few months is just how dependent the UK now is on strong connectivity services. With more people at home relying on their internet connections more heavily - either for work or simply turning to online streaming services like Netflix to alleviate the boredom of lockdown - a good connection has never been more important.

Indeed, recent figures from Ofcom reveal adults in the UK now spend more than a quarter of their waking day online, with the typical person spending more than four hours using the internet every day - up from three hours and 11 minutes in September 2018.

Yih-Choung Teh, the regulator's director of strategy and research, said the lockdown is likely to leave a "lasting digital legacy". He noted: "The coronavirus has radically changed the way we live, work and communicate online, with millions of people using online video services for the first time. 

"As the way we communicate evolves and people broaden their online horizons, our role is to help ensure that people have a positive experience, and that they’re safe and protected."

Learning lessons from our neighbours

This rise in demand comes at a time when the UK is forging ahead with plans to upgrade as much of the country as possible to ultrafast, gigabit-capable broadband. However, despite the clear need for faster, more reliable services, the UK is still lagging behind many other countries.

A new report from the Broadband Stakeholders Group (BSG) has therefore sought to identify what barriers remain to the take-up of gigabit broadband, and asks what lessons can be learned from our European neighbours such as France, Italy, Germany and Sweden to address these issues.

Chief executive of the BSG Clare MacNamara said: "As the UK seeks to leverage its position as an evolved digital nation, and deployment of new digital infrastructure accelerates, we need to aim for a similar level of fibre adoption to international competitors so that consumers and businesses benefit from the investments being made."

The challenges facing the UK's gigabit rollout

The BSG's report highlighted a number of issues that are delaying takeup of gigabit connectivity. While the UK still has relatively low levels of availability for gigabit services, it noted this is not the only barrier.

One issue particular to the UK is that, while coverage of fibre-to-the-premise services is very low, the country actually has strong availability of fibre-to-the-cabinet and VDSL technology. This can affect consumers' thinking towards faster speeds - for instance, if they think current FTTC offers are adequate, they may be unwilling to pay extra for full fibre services. 

However, this continued focus on upgrading legacy technologies also limits incentives for operators to promote full fibre offers to their retail and wholesale customers.

The report said: "It is notable that in the countries with the highest levels of FTTH/B take-up, incumbents have generally focused solely or predominantly on FTTH/B deployment, without passing through FTTC/VDSL as an intermediate step."

Other issues identified by the BSG from a consumer perspective include a lack of 'killer applications' for the technology, and a widespread uncertainty over the benefits of full fibre.

The need to incentivise takeup

To overcome these issues and encourage customers to make the upgrade to FTTP services, more incentives are needed, especially when it comes to affordability. While the BSG report highlighted the government's Gigabit Voucher Scheme, which it noted has proved to be
extremely popular, this has now ended. Yet the report suggests similar schemes could go a long way to boosting interest in gigabit services.

It highlighted voucher offerings in France and Germany that have helped promote upgrades. While a common theme is to provide assistance with the initial connection cost for newly-built networks, in the future, schemes that offer subsidies for existing connections could also be useful - perhaps by covering a portion of the monthly rental cost for the first two years, for example. Specific schemes aimed at locations such as schools and hospitals could also be considered, the BSG stated.

Facilitating the switch-off of legacy systems

Another key aspect of the move to full fibre will be how the UK manages the sunsetting of its legacy copper networks. While no country has yet achieved this completely, BSG noted that experiences from those that are nearer to achieving this goal show that it will require a common direction among operators.

"A nationwide switch-off of the copper network will only be possible if all broadband service providers 'buy in' to the new technology, once it is available, and play their part in facilitating the migration process," the report said.

Initially, this will mean encouraging customers to switch, or taking steps to automatically switch them, while later, a collaborative approach to obliging customers to migrate to the new technology will be needed, as this may require users to switch to a competitor's network.

Steps such as these will be vital in ensuring that gigabit broadband networks are not only made available to users up and down the UK, but that customers are happy to move to them. Ultimately, it will be takeup, rather than availability, that dictates the success of these services, so the industry needs to plan for the long-term to ensure the UK has the right digital tools for the years to come.

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