The coronavirus pandemic accelerated societal change in almost all areas of life, but one of the clearest lessons from the past 18 months has been the central importance of fast and reliable broadband, wherever you are in the UK. Delivering gigabit-capable digital infrastructure to meet that need and replace the legacy copper network remains critical to the National Infrastructure Strategy and the levelling up agenda.
Significant strides have been taken in recent years, and there is a clear Government target for the next stage: for at least 85 per cent of UK premises to have gigabit-capable broadband available by the end of 2025.
What is gigabit-capable broadband?
Gigabit-capable broadband reflects a step-change from the superfast coverage (download speed of at least 30 megabits per second, Mbps) currently available in the majority of the country. Gigabit capability means download speeds of at least 1 gigabit per second (1 Gbps, or 1,000 Mbps), which would allow a high-definition movie to be downloaded in under a minute. It is a technology agnostic metric that can be achieved by full fibre connections, high speed cable (DOCSIS 3.1) and even 5G networks.
While the 85 per cent target is a reduction against the original (in my view overly optimistic) objective of full nationwide coverage by 2025, it is widely regarded to be more achievable, if still ambitious. Progress against the target, and against the Government’s soft forecast of 60 per cent by the end of 2021, is positive.
Where are we now?
As at September 2021, 50 per cent of UK premises had a gigabit-capable connection available (with 27 per cent able to access full fibre broadband). Nationwide statistics mask variances at the local authority level, however. There are now over 20 local authorities with gigabit coverage exceeding 90 per cent, and 38 local authorities with full fibre coverage of over 50 per cent. Against this backdrop, the Government said in August 2021 that it is “increasingly confident” that the 85 per cent national target could be exceeded.
That confidence is based on two assumptions:
- the private sector rollout will deliver 80 per cent coverage through commercially viable connections; and
- the £1.2 billion of public funding allocated for the period to 2025 (out of a total of £5bn earmarked for Project Gigabit) will extend the network to a further 5 per cent of the remaining ‘hard to reach’ premises.
It is fair to say certain stakeholders have raised doubts on the second assumption. The House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee as well as trade body techUK have suggested that additional funding will be needed in the period to 2025, alongside policy and regulatory reforms. There are also myriad challenges in maintaining the current rate of network build. These include barriers in making use of existing infrastructure, negotiating access to private land, coordinating street works, new build connectivity and shortages of materials and skilled labour.
The path ahead
But there are a number of promising initiatives in train that, with continued collaboration between public and private sectors, could well lead to real progress (or at least help build a case for further government investment). To give a flavour of the activity in this area:
- Cross-government ‘Barrier Busting Task Force’ is promoting coordination between stakeholders and pursuing legislative reform to simplify broadband rollout.
For instance, the task force offers guidance on the Digital Connectivity Portal, encourages local authorities to appoint Digital Champions and has launched the Street Manager service to simplify and standardise approaches to street works (which account for approximately 70 per cent of the cost of broadband rollout). It is also pursuing important legislative and regulatory change, including consulting on permitted development rights and processes for accessing private land under the Electronic Communications Code, and bringing forward implementing regulations under the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Act 2021 to address delays to infrastructure deployment caused by unresponsive landlords.
- £5bn Project Gigabit focuses on the 20 per cent ‘hard to reach’ premises.
This fund is to help connect the ‘hard to reach’ areas considered commercially unviable for private sector rollout. It is due to launch the first in a series of procurement process for regional contracts imminently, with Phase 1a starting in Cumbria. It has already launched a dynamic purchasing system for local contracts, which will open for bidding once intervention areas are defined (using the ‘Outside In’ philosophy), and complements these supply-side interventions with demand-led measures (voucher schemes and hub projects delivering improved connections to public sector sites). The current estimate is that less than 0.3 per cent of UK premises (fewer than 100,000) will fall outside the value for money metrics of the Project Gigabit funding. DCMS is in the process of analysing feedback to a Call for Evidence in relation to those ‘very hard to reach’ areas, which closed on 25 June 2021.
- Using existing infrastructure to facilitate efficient rollout.
Ofcom’s confirmation that its approach to regulating access to Openreach’s network of ducts and poles will continue until 2026 brings welcome medium-term stability. A review of the Communications (Access to Infrastructure) Regulations 2016 is underway to encourage greater sharing of utilities infrastructure, and enable broadband operators to make better use of existing gas, electricity and water networks. In August 2021, the Government launched the Fibre in Water competition, offering £4m of research and development funding to trial installation of fibre cables in water mains pipes, with the objective of connecting very rural premises at lower cost, while also helping detect leaks in water pipes. There is also guidance from the Church of England and Historic England regarding hosting telecoms infrastructure in church buildings.
- The Digital Connectivity Infrastructure Accelerator allocates £4 million to help rollout of wireless communications networks using publicly owned assets.
The DCIA Pilot competition, launched in September 2021, will fund digital asset management solutions for mapping and brokerage of publicly owned assets. The objective is to reduce costs and timescales involved in using publicly owned assets for digital infrastructure, making future transactions as frictionless as possible.
The volume and breadth of activity in this area is impressive and encouraging, and there is (by and large) a good deal of common purpose between network operators and local authorities in pursuing nationwide rollout. In many areas, we have come a long way from the ‘culture of mistrust’ between local authorities and operators identified in the 2018 Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review, which stemmed from inconsistent approaches to sharing information and interpreting legislation.
Given the overlapping interests and priorities involved in any infrastructure project however (never mind one where the brief is to replace a network that took 100 years to build, in a fraction of that time!), the task ahead remains far from straightforward. Industry and local action groups will continue to call for tax breaks, longer-term regulatory certainty and additional funding to avoid rural areas being left behind. Labour and materials shortages will feed into wider national conversations as well as negotiations around risk allocation at the contractual level.
But the commitment from the Westminster Government is there – so it is for those involved in the sector to seize the opportunities to deliver ambitious and transformational change, through continued collaboration, innovation, lobbying and perseverance. As in so many areas, local authorities can be instrumental in leading the way.
Then for the next step: from gigabit-capable broadband to full fibre nationwide!
This article is part of Local Authority Matters – Nov 2021
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