The Government’s Digital Minister, Matthew Hancock MP, appeared to send all the right signals today when he told the ‘Broadband World Forum’ in London that “gigabit speeds” and pure fibre optic (FTTP/H) connectivity “is the future” that he wanted, with specific help for alternative networks.
Until now we haven’t been able to get much of a sense for Hancock’s position on the subject of broadband or even whether he supported his predecessors (Ed Vaizey) direction, which isn’t surprising because he’s only been in the job since mid-July 2016 (here). So today’s speech was the first real chance to gauge his position and the words were positive.
Predictably Hancock began his speech by recapping the Government’s work to push through a new 10Mbps broadband USO, as well as its efforts to expand public WiFi hotspots, the Broadband Delivery UK progress (i.e. 91% able to order a fixed superfast broadband [24Mbps+] service) and not to mention the 2015 agreement to deliver nearly universal coverage of mobile services.
Matthew Hancock, UK Digital Minister, said:
“Around five years ago we took a strategic decision, as a nation, to drive the roll out of high-speed broadband – based largely on what we should call part-fibre, part-copper solutions. That was the right decision then, because many countries that pursued early full-fibre strategies have left large swathes of their citizens on super-low-speeds.
But the price we’ve paid for 95% superfast part-fibre broadband is that only 2% of premises have full fibre. Yet demand marches on. Over the time it’s taken to deliver on the superfast plan, people’s needs and expectations have risen further.”
At this point the speech became more interesting as Hancock turned his attention to future policy and started to praise the “new entrants” to the market (alternative network operators like Cityfibre, Hyperoptic, Gigaclear and so forth were named). “I will be on the side of the challenger: helping in every way I can to deliver fair competition and a level playing field … treating broadband as the fourth utility,” said Hancock.
The minister then lent his support to Ofcom’s Strategic Review and the “forcing BT with its incumbent infrastructure to open up access to, and maps of, its ducts and poles. It means ensuring a fair market in which all providers can compete for business.” A touch of pressure was also applied to the Advertising Standards Authority too, with more calls for “fair rules that reflect reality on speeds and prices.”
Matthew Hancock added:
“Around the world the evidence increasingly points to fibre roll out as the underpinning of a digital nation. To those who say it’s been tried and failed, I say go to Hull. It’s the one part of the country not covered by BT, and full fibre is now available to over half its businesses and homes.
But there is a clear role for Government, and we intend to play it: In setting the structure. And I am clear that we want a market structure that delivers fibre as widely as possible. In experimentation and testing. In reducing the costs. And above all in leadership, in setting the ambition. In some cases even in stating the obvious.
And believe you me: we will ensure Britain gets connected. The future is about enabling gigabit speeds, and high quality connectivity across the country. Demand is only going to rise so we need to stay ahead of the curve. When it comes to fibre, it is a case not of if, but of when.
I was interested to read INCA’s recent report, which said only a full fibre infrastructure is sufficient to support the UK’s digital growth. I agree: fibre is the future. The market will have to lead.
But Government can support that by ensuring the right incentives are in place and any barriers are removed. When I meet the altnets, INCA’s recommendations will top of my list of things to discuss. I want to know from you what we can do to reduce the cost of full fibre roll out, so that in reality as well as rhetoric, fibre is the future.”
In keeping with that the CEO of the Government’s Broadband Delivery UK programme, Chris Townsend, separately suggested that new funding for getting better broadband into the final 5% of premises would figure into next month’s Autumn Statement 2016 announcement.
Our educated guess is that at least part of this will revolve around the AltNet centric Broadband Investment Fund, which was first announced last year and has been slowly developed over the course of 2016 (details). This may attract a mix of public and private investment, which would be used to support the roll-out of “ultrafast broadband” via alternative networks.
Hancock separately admitted that the issue of a “fibre tax” was also on his radar, although it’s not clear if he meant tackling business rates or the proposal for an industry levy to help fund the roll-out of faster broadband. Perhaps we’ll find out in November.
On a less positive note Hancock also reconfirmed that inferior Satellite connectivity was still going to be an option for some of the most remote rural communities, most likely as part of the forthcoming USO. Otherwise most of what he said was positive, but words are easy and action is what people tend to demand.