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Infrastructure Commission Calls for Urgent Action to Improve Broadband

Friday, Oct 13th, 2017 (1:21 pm) - Score 1,277

The Government’s National Infrastructure Commission has launched a new consultation which, among other things, warns that the United Kingdom “risks falling behind” other countries in its next generation mobile (5G) and broadband connections unless “urgent action” is taken to increase capacity.

The consultation – ‘Congestion, Capacity, Carbon: Priorities for National Infrastructure‘ – notes the progress that has already been made to expand the coverage of fixed line “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) and 4G based Mobile connectivity, but it also calls for much more to be done.

Under the current plan it’s hoped that 98% of the UK’s population should be able to connect (outdoors) to a 4G network by the end of this year (geographic reach will still be well behind this), while fixed line superfast broadband coverage is expected to cover around 98% of premises by 2020. However the report claims that the UK is far behind other countries in its 4G mobile coverage, and “it needs a plan to become a world leader in 5G and ultrafast broadband.”

Extract from the Consultation

Over the next few years, the UK will need substantial investment in digital infrastructure to retain its world leading digital economy and secure the benefits of new technologies for UK businesses and households. The UK needs to take an integrated view across both fixed and mobile infrastructure to maximise the benefits of this investment.

One thing is clear; an increasing amount of fibre optic cables will be needed to support both fixed and mobile networks. However, physically connecting every home and office will be expensive and take time to roll out. A focus on the deployment of full fibre networks risks the creation of a two-tier online community in the shorter term. This has been the case in Hull, where the incumbent operator chose to convert their network to full fibre straight away, rather than making incremental upgrades. This has delayed improvements for households that have yet to receive full fibre.

An alternative strategy could be to deploy fibre to support future mobile technologies, then connect homes where and when it is economically viable.

It’s funny how the “alternative strategy” for deploying “full fibre” (FTTP/H) ultrafast broadband sounds a lot like a normal commercial deployment, which tends not to work so well for the final 20-30% of the United Kingdom where traditional commercial models often become economically unviable without public subsidy.

We should point out that the current Government has so far only committed to ensure that 10 million premises will be able access a FTTP/H network by 2022, although they did include a vague reference to creating a “clear path to national coverage over the next decade” (here). The private sector already looks set to deliver the lion’s share of that 10 million figure, but it’s what comes later that will be the real challenge.

Lord Adonis, Chairman of the NIC, said:

“We have a proud history in this country of delivering world-class infrastructure – but for years funding has been squeezed, policy decisions have been erratic and the network is showing signs of age and strain.

The endless delay to a Parliamentary decision on Heathrow is a case in point – and perhaps the most serious infrastructure failure of all. If we are to make the most of our economic potential and compete globally, we need the ‘Heathrow is full’ sign to come down.

But we also risk falling behind internationally if we don’t improve our mobile and broadband connections, and residents of our great cities will suffer unless we do something to improve air quality.

We cannot afford to sit on our hands – Ministers must act now to tackle the Three Cs of congestion, capacity and carbon if we are to have infrastructure fit for the future, supporting economic growth across the country.

But this doesn’t just rest with Whitehall and Westminster, and I’m pleased that the country’s Mayors are also stepping up to plan to meet the infrastructure needs of their communities.”

Broadly speaking the consultation is merely seeking feedback on how to solve the key challenges and they don’t offer much in the way of recommendations, except to encourage the Government’s to publish their final plan for the 10Mbps Universal Service Obligation (USO) for broadband before the end of 2017 and to start properly preparing for the “widespread deployment” of 5G technology from 2020.

Any future recommendations made by the Commission will focus on projects and policies of “strategic national importance.” Responses to the consultation should be submitted by 12th January 2018.

So far it’s all a lot of lip service, but not much else.

UPDATE 1:30pm

Cityfibre has added a comment.

Mark Collins, Director of Strategy at CityFibre, said:

“The National Infrastructure Commission report recognises the critical importance of full fibre digital infrastructure as well as the significant contribution it can make towards protecting the UK’s future competitiveness. It has also been rightly critical of the current status quo which sees outdated and misjudged policies and regulations stifling fair competition and investment.

As CityFibre’s recent £200m equity raise shows, we are ready and willing to invest to rectify this. And we agree with the NIC that there is an opportunity now to put in place the right policies and regulations to rapidly and dramatically transform the situation. This is more important now than ever given the fact digital connectivity underpins all aspects of modern life – from households and businesses to education and other forms of community infrastructure such as traffic management, community safety and smart utilities.”

By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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