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Impact of COVID-19 on the UK Full Fibre Broadband Rollout

Saturday, March 28th, 2020 (12:01 am) - Score 7,789
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The rapid spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) has had a significant impact upon the United Kingdom and we thought it might be useful to take a quick look at how it’s impacting the national roll-out of Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) broadband ISP networks, as well as to try and answer a few common questions.

Previously “full fibre” infrastructure had been starting to positively barrel its way across the UK, and at an ever increasing rate, but that is now changing. At this point it probably goes without saying that the deployment pace will almost certainly continue to slow considerably over the next few weeks and months, which is a disappointing but unavoidable reflection of the current reality.

As it stands the Government is continuing to designate telecommunications under the “key worker” category (including but not limited to network operations, field engineering, call centre staff, IT and data infrastructure, 999 and 111 critical services), which means that such people can continue to work (see guidance).

On the surface this might sound like work can continue as normal but, as Openreach has shown (here), this is often not the case. The Coronavirus has created a vicious circle where so many other sectors are impacted that the entire supply and support chain can suffer, which has inevitably had an impact (e.g. if the people handing out permits aren’t at their desks then you can’t start work etc.).

NOTE: Openreach are continuing to accept Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA) orders, but operators should be aware that they are prioritising Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) issues, as a consequence there may be delays in enabling PIA builds.

As a result of all this many operators have switched their focus to critical repairs and maintenance, rather than new fibre roll-out or consumer installations.

What about service installs / bill payment for vulnerable people?

Some vulnerable customers who are self-isolating could be affected by the current situation, such as if new installations don’t proceed and leave them disconnected, and thus operators are presently debating what approach to take. Meanwhile Openreach has already said they will make exceptions for vulnerable people.

We should add that, at the time of writing, there is currently no consensus amongst ISPs regarding support for vulnerable customers who may be unable to pay monthly bills in the short term. We’ve seen some sporadic offers from the odd provider but, as yet, most are simply giving customers freebies and discounts to help (e.g. free calls, unlimited data etc.), rather than taking an agreed stance on bill payments (we expect this to change tomorrow).

What about broadband voucher and BDUK schemes with deadlines?

A number of broadband voucher schemes, both from the Government (RGC and GBVS) and various local or devolved authorities, are likely to be impacted by the current situation and existing broadband roll-out contracts may also face challenges. One key issue here is that many of these have very tight build deadlines and if those aren’t met then there could be consequences (no voucher funding etc.).

The Government’s Building Digital UK (BDUK) team informs that they are mindful of this and, where it can be “demonstrated that projects have been delayed by COVID-19” (not too hard in the current climate), then they we will look at these “pragmatically at the point at which we can quantify the extent of the delay and the financial impact.”

However, at present BDUK considers it too early to answer this with any specific details, which means they cannot yet give solid assurances on funding extensions but would remind all of these projects that Government Policy is unchanged on the importance of rolling out Gigabit-capable infrastructure (i.e. the aim is still to cover every home by the end of 2025). This remains a priority for DCMS/BDUK.

What about building access for full fibre?

Access to buildings – whether business or residential – is becoming problematic in the current climate and that can impact operators as they deploy new networks. In this case, BDUK suggests that network suppliers could choose to build to the curtilage (i.e. the boundary), such as to a jointing point in a chamber or a connectorised block terminal in a chamber or on a pole (i.e. leaving the final lead-in to homes until a later date).

At present BDUK is understood to be considering how they could assure this (i.e. what evidence they’d need) and thus amend their funding agreements to recognise Work in Progress (WIP) payments for the part-built networks, with a subsequent payment when the building is connected.

What about Street Works in general?

As above, new fibre builds are already being delayed due to circumstances beyond their control elsewhere. On top of that the Government are also continuing to come under a lot of political pressure to halt all construction work, but this could be counter-productive where that work involves key utilities, transport and services etc.

A spokesperson for BDUK told ISPreview.co.uk: “We would not mandate that suppliers continue to build, and we certainly would not want engineers to put themselves at risk. However if suppliers are content to continue to work on delivery projects, and have appropriate safeguards in place for their staff and members of the public, then we are entirely supportive of that. You should of course ensure that your teams are following the Social Distancing Guidelines.”

In keeping with this the Government yesterday issued the following guidance to Highways departments at all UK Local Authorities (LA), which does a nice job of summarising what is and is not expected during the current crisis. We’ve summarised the key points below.

NOTE: The following was agreed by all parties including the DfT, HAUC UK, JAG, Street Works UK and DCMS.

Advice for Highways Departments

To assist with how we should operate responsibly, we have prepared the following advice based on the latest information. Complying with this advice in a consistent way will help us all through these testing times. We will keep this advice under review and update it as the situation evolves.

This key advice should be followed:

• The Government has made it clear that our roads remain open and they expect works, including emergency and essential street and road works to maintain utility and highway services to continue, ensuring that life-saving medicine, equipment, supplies and healthcare staff can travel across the country to where they are needed most.

• Government advice is, if you can work from home, do so, but if you are working outside then it is important to follow Public Health England guidance on social distancing.

• To ensure that essential works can take place, ask your supply chain to keep operating where possible.

• Plan and communicate well and try and build in resilience should the availability of the workforce be reduced or the supply chain fails at short notice.

• Do not introduce blanket refusals of permits or notices. Other essential street and road works need to take place so continue to process them as usual wherever possible.

• Do not introduce blanket refusals of associated orders such as parking bay suspensions, TTROs etc.

• The highway authority will still need to include national conditions on permits, e.g. work restrictions applied where working in close proximity to a hospital. Utilities should accept reasonable conditions on planning and resilience. Authorities should not introduce any that are not reasonable at the present time e.g. requirement to place heras fencing, netting and matting on all works, or requiring Traffic Sensitive times when there is reduced traffic flow.

• Permits are still needed for works, as well as start and stop notices. Information continues to be needed for network management purposes.

• Early starts should still be used for major works where the network is available (i.e. it is not sensible to block routes to hospitals)

• It is worth repeating this point: act reasonably and communicate.

Enforcement
During this time, a common sense pragmatic approach needs to be applied when reviewing works. Shortfalls that are not safety related should be managed proportionately (e.g. erroneous/no permit info boards). This should also apply for S74s and, where best endeavours are being undertaken, then understanding needs to be given, However, where established requirements are disregarded or abused, promotors may find themselves subject to sanction and redress.

Prioritisation
Although the way in which each highway authority and utility will fulfil its responsibilities will vary depending upon the local circumstances, each will hold as close to a ‘business as usual’ position as advised by Government (including Regulators) as they can during these challenging times.

However, we recognise that there may be a need to prioritise works to safeguard the delivery of services with depleted resources. Highway and utility depots and offices remain open and work will continue because it has to in order to keep the country going. But should it be necessary to prioritise, the following section provides advice that will be kept under review.

Essential works that should be allowed to continue include the following:
Note this list is not exhaustive and works promoters are ultimately best placed to decide what is essential:
• Emergency – immediate & urgent

• Essential Network Rail works (to keep trains running)

• Essential utility work to maintain networks and safety

• Broadband works – network maintenance and fault repairs/customer repairs/network build/increasing network capacity where possible

• Other new supplies to support housing development and Enterprise Zones

• Essential road maintenance & safety improvements

• Essential planned works – microsurfacing and surface dressing as we may lose the window and resources and most need road closures (this will need to be under review as accommodation and resource may become scarce for these migrant teams)

• Critical junction improvements which will increase capacity when the pandemic is over.

• Highway improvement works already in progress

• Other schemes that may lose external funding if not delivered on time

• Works that Gas etc. businesses may/are doing upon instruction from Health and Safety Executive

Examples of works that should be postponed:
Note these are examples and there may be exceptions:
• Non-essential* mains replacements

• Non-essential* infrastructure upgrades whether SU or HA

• Minor routine maintenance schemes

* Non essential means any new work that can be postponed with no immediate impact on supplies, safety or access to services.

The situation is of course evolving daily and so the aforementioned advice may change. We should also add that for all the problems, there may also be opportunities. For example, the lack of traffic on the roads (limited congestion) enables street works to be conducted more quickly and with less disruption (at least that’s the theory but these are not normal times).

Separately the major UK broadband and mobile providers will today join together in order to highlight the essential work that tens of thousands of dedicated staff are carrying out to ensure the country stays connected during the Coronavirus crisis. You can expect this to appear as an advert in national and regional newspapers.

The providers have also asked consumers for their understanding as it takes a little longer for customer queries to be answered, and have listed a number of tips and guidance to help people get the most out of their services. The advert is being supported by BT, EE, GiffGaff, O2, Ofcom, Openreach, Plusnet, TalkTalk, Tesco Mobile, Three UK, Virgin Media and Vodafone (no Sky Broadband?).

Leave a Comment
8 Responses
  1. Avatar PhilipSmith72

    Understandable but also a shame really, now would be the ideal time to bash out those situations where awkward civil’s or roadworks are required.

  2. Avatar Mike

    I guess the only way the UK will achieve 100% gigabit coverage by 2025 now is if 1/2 the population dies and those left move into the ones currently covered.

  3. Avatar Bryn MacAnley-Dale

    OR have been installing Fibre Optic Cables in our area in the last few days. Wanted to stop and chat to the guys but didn’t due to social distancing…

  4. Avatar Brian Holden

    OP have been installing Fibre cables in my area over the last two weeks with up 10 OP vehicles parked near me. All this seems to have now stopped and all the cable holding trailers have been removed from the exchange yard.

  5. Avatar Oldskoo1

    The rollout for us is still continuing uninterrupted

    My town is on the rural towns scheduled for 2020/21

    Feb saw cable length surveys – contractors arrived end of feb and began pulling cables and installing DPs in pavement chambers. The only did one side of the road and finished 1st week of March.

    They came back in the first week of lockdown to do the other side of the road. They side the pavement chamber outside my house 2 days ago.

    Today, Sunday, a contractor was testing all the DPs and logging the results.

    I was surprised myself actually to see the work continuing especially at the weekend and for port testing to happen on Sunday.

    Still, I think I won’t be able to get an install any time soon.

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