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Infrastructure Commission Calls for Urgent Action to Improve Broadband

Friday, October 13th, 2017 (1:21 pm) - Score 1,094
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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.”

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Mark Jackson

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

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19 Responses
  1. Steve Jones

    “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.”

    Doesn’t this also provide some support for using the hybrid fibre/copper path (where is makes sense) as a means of getting fibre deeper into the network and providing coverage much quicker than the 100% full fibre approach? Then full-fibre can be installed where there’s no realistic alternative and/or opportunities arise, such as new builds or where the commercial prospects make sense.

    • GNewton

      @SteveJones: Your reasoning is somewhat flawed. While the VDSL approach does indeed run fibre deeper into the access network, up to the cabinets, there is no reasonable complementary Fibre-on-Demand product to do the final fibre, the current incarnation of fibre-on-demand is pretty much a dead product, wrongly priced, and wrongly specified.

      There won’t be any widespread fibre coming from BT anytime soon, BT has followed wrong strategies over the past few years, focusing too much of short term goals, at the expense of a long term future. In view of BTs rapidly increasing pension fund’s time bomb this company will be increasingly restricted in its ability to do urgently needed larger investments. This is bad for end consumers and BT shareholders. Openreach should have been completely spun off BT ages ago, and the pensions issue should have been addressed a long time ago.

      Nowadays its better to let other telecom companies do the job

  2. TheFacts

    Surely:

    an increasing number of fibre optic cables

    or

    an increasing amount of fibre optic cable

    As we say in the trade, ‘a no-brainer’.

  3. George M

    I agree with Mark Collins at Cityfibre who is quoted
    “It has also been rightly critical of the current status quo which sees outdated and misjudged policies and regulations stifling fair competition and investment.”

    Yes let’s remove the outdated regulations are allow for full competition for ALL parties in the market.
    So either
    1. All infrastructure must be shared, that means BT can use Virgin or CityFibre if they wish under the same commercial terms that those organisations use (OFCOM could work out the formulas as they do for Openreach);
    or
    2. BT PLC can commercially build any infrastructure and no other competitor can use it.

    Let’s have real competition, not one hand tied behind the back stuff.

  4. TheFacts

    30 Mbps download (superfast broadband)
    • For households with multiple internet devices
    • Allows for multiple HD video streaming, Ultra HD streaming and video calls (Skype/Facetime)

    300 Mbps+ download (ultrafast broadband)
    • For households with multiple heavy internet users
    • Supports hours of Ultra HD video and music streaming, downloading, and gaming, and more’

    So higher speeds means you can stream for longer? ‘and more’, like?

    Who writes this stuff?

    • PaulM

      Seems pretty clear to me what they are saying.

    • GNewton

      @TheFacts: The article is pretty clear. There is a difference between households with “with multiple internet devices and multiple HD video streaming” as opposed to “multiple heavy internet users and Ultra HD video and music streaming, downloading”. Try to do the latter on a poor 30Mbps VDSL line, and you’ll understand.

    • TheFacts

      It’s the use of the word ‘hours’.

    • Ultraspeedy

      With a 30Mb download you would TECHNICALLY not be able to do “hours” worth of Ultra HD streaming, in fact some streams you would not be able to stream stutter free at all.

      A few examples…
      Netflix recommends 25Mb as a minimum for their Ultra HD service, As that is typically when calculated out the Average Bit-Rate a movie will consume. Streams on it are in VBR (Variable Bit-Rate) which means at certain points it will use hardly any bandwidth and at other points it will likely be wanting the full bitrate the stream goes to which can be anything up to around 50-55Mb for a Netflix stream, realistically on a 30Mb connection that (unless its a long scene at 50+Mb bitrate) will mean a 1-2 second pause buffer. Most people can live with that i could even live with that (and im fussy over paid for movie content), but TECHNICALLY it does not equate to it being able to stream for hours if the connection had to buffer content, it streamed for whatever time period it was before the stream was interupted to buffer.

      Example 2…
      Try playing this…
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1La4QzGeaaQ

      The 2160p stream should (JUST) about be doable on a 25-30Mb connection (overall/average bitrate for that version of the stream is 25.8Mb). If anyone else in the house is doing anything remotely bandwidth intensive (IE any uploading, downloading, gaming, video/music streaming etc) then Nope that will unlikely be doable without it buffering at somepoint even if just for a split moment.

      When you have played with that have a go at the 4320p stream/option. That stream is an average of 65Mb so a 30Mb connection has no chance in hell, let alone playing other clips in that 8k selection for “hours”.

      30Mb is not enough for serious consumption now from people that want to watch the best stream option available so it certainly will be NOWHERE near enough in 5 years.

      Mobile is ultimately the future, how far off that is though is anyones guess. Having a Spineless Ofcom along with arguing mobile companies about spectrum and toss in government who wants their snouts in the trough also does not help speed anything up.

      Cable laying all over the shop (apart from initial delivery to systems) be it copper or fibre is antiquated when you think about how its done and how long its been done like that. In many years to come i imagine we will all look back and laugh at how we all used to dig up streets and spend billions laying cables in the sea.

    • brian

      Once you are at about 20mbps. There’s no real mass market need for anything faster. Sure there are some people who will be 24/7 torrenting, but feeding peoples pron habit doesn’t seem a good basis for national investment decisions.

  5. Job

    BBS was relevant mail and company stats, back then on a 14.4k slug. You can give me tinnitus with 7g if I pay for it, but I get lost in the insane maze just trying to create or comprehend a simple, backward compatable peer window network from a wealthy kid to a needy kid. So the bare empathy we will need later on lost in a world of , well, complex future, can be established through the humane part in future AI. Kids for kids. And a little extra pocketmoney to keep their charity going.

    Anyone?

  6. Stephen Brookes

    I’m reading nothing here that gives me any comfort that those in rural areas aren’t going to be further disadvantaged. We keep reading about the USO which, in theory, will get everyone up to 10Mb/s. Whilst this is clearly better than many enjoy at the moment, it can only be seen as a compromise where policy makers ignore the need for Superfast broadband to these areas because it’s a bit too tricky for them.

    I’m still seeing the increase in the gap between those that have ful fibre and those left way behind.

    I do accept that the USO is targeting the last few percent, but there are still a large number in less remote areas that are highly unlikely to see improvements anytime soon.

    • Davek

      The USO is not going to happen.
      It will be full of loop holes and will be subject to the fact satellite is available to all.

  7. Optimist

    This idea of providing every home, however isolated, with a fibre connection regardless of cost is absurd IMO when wireless technologies are improving all the time and offer more cost-effective solutions for these users.

    Planning laws need to be looked at to end farcical situations such as in Derbyshire where the park authority has demanded the removal of communication masts.

  8. Bob Fleming

    Oh for crying out loud, this is embarrassing!
    I lived briefly in Barcelona last year. It was an old flat quite near the centre of town, but it had FTTP and I got 300/300 Mbit/s.
    Now I live in London in Zone 2 and I get VDSL at 38/6.
    With GBP the way it is, the prices were almost equal also.

    It’s not rocket science to roll out fibre.
    The Spanish have even rolled out fibre to rural premises in the Islas Baleares.

    • Gadget

      Not rocket science, but someone has to find the money to pay for it initially, and the profits to payback that money over a sensible period of time

  9. Jeff Boxall

    The amount of BDUK clawback shows that investment costs CAN be recovered quickly. BT need incentives and or USO regulation, to use more of their own capital investment in local loop fibre, where as at the moment why should they when the councils will “lend” them money via the BDUK scheme.

    • Gadget

      Don’t forget the money from Councils and BDUK is only to bring the payback up to commercially viable, BT still has to find the rest from its own pocket, which AFAIK from early statements means a payback in tens of years.

    • MikeW

      Isn’t clawback notionally the “excess profit” shared with the local authority. BT will still have enhanced, but not excess, profit … so will still be paying back a little faster.

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