The barriers holding back full fibre in the UK

The barriers holding back full fibre in the UK

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Full fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband is set to be the future of wired connectivity in the UK. Eventually, the government wants coverage to reach every home and business in the country, which will enable legacy copper-based communications networks to be finally retired. 

But the UK has a long way to go to reach this goal, and is building from a very small base. At the moment, Ofcom figures suggest only around one in 20 premises has access to this infrastructure, with take-up rates standing at around three per cent. 

This is particularly poor when compared to many of the UK's European neighbours, which have already started to see the benefits of sustained investment in FTTP. So if the UK economy is to effectively compete with competitors and the goal of ensuring 100 per cent full fibre coverage by the end of 2033 is to be met, major changes will have to be made.

But it is not simply a matter of pumping more money into the technology. In fact, financial investments into full fibre are very strong, with Openreach and a whole host of alternative full fibre providers all attracting significant support.

So what else is holding back the UK's path to a full fibre environment?

Are technical challenges overstated?

In the past, it has been the most remote areas that have missed out on upgrades to wired connectivity. While government targets to connect 95 per cent of homes and businesses with superfast broadband have been met, this still leaves many of the final five per cent of locations struggling to establish decent connections, and many of these are in more rural areas.

The technical difficulties of running fibre optic cables to these remote locations cost-effectively have long been an issue, and balancing the need to reach rural locations with the practical and financial realities has been tough. However, it has been argued that in this regard, these issues are not insurmountable when it comes to full fibre.

Indeed, it has been suggested that evidence from elsewhere illustrates that more could be done. Dan Howdle, consumer telecoms analyst at Cable.co.uk, said there are "few excuses" for the country's poor performance so far in the deployment of full fibre.

"There is nothing especially challenging about UK geography when compared to that of our EU counterparts," he said. "The UK is simply arriving later to FTTP than many of those doing better in the global league."

The need for a regulatory overhaul

Instead, one of the big barriers to full fibre deployment is said to be an onerous regulatory environment that prevents firms from deploying as quickly or cost-effectively as they would like. Indeed, a survey of industry professionals last year found 50 per cent named government policy and or regulation as the biggest barrier to large-scale investment into full fibre, ahead of access to funding and economy challenges (both 23 per cent)

Openreach chief executive Clive Selley, for instance, noted recently there are a number of 'government-enabled blockers' that are holding back work. He identified regulatory changes that could be made to improve this, such as the scrapping of the 'cumulo tax', which places a levy on hardware including poles, ducts and exchange assets, similar to business rates.

"I find it bizarre that, a time when all of us are rallying to the cause of delivering full fibre to the UK, we are subject to a tax that explicitly penalises people who do this work at scale," he stated.

Elsewhere, changes to planning laws and street works would also be of great benefit to broadband deployers. From ensuring firms have easier access to private land and multi-unit dwellings like blocks of flats, to logistical issues such as streamlining processes that will enable street works to be carried out faster, there are a range of steps that could be taken to make fibre deployments easier, especially in urban areas.

Encouraging collaboration

Finally, delivering an effective full fibre network throughout the country will need collaboration between competing parties to avoid unnecessary overlap and ensure investments are being spent wisely to cover as wide an area as possible.

As well as when it comes to planning deployments themselves, the industry also needs to establish clearly how to best migrate large number of customers to this technology. Openreach, for example, has proposed that all customers should be migrated over to the new network as quickly as possible after it has been built in a given area, then retiring the old copper network. But whatever approach is to be pursued, it will need agreement from all parties within the broadband industry.

Richard Watts, business development director of VX Fibre, observed recently: "Deploying the infrastructure takes time – it requires updated planning policies, regulation and collaboration between local authorities, councils and the companies deploying the fibre."

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