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NIC Nudges UK Government for More Action on Broadband

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020 (2:53 pm) - Score 1,195

The Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, has written to the UK Chancellor in order to encourage the Government to “bring forward” their roll-out of “gigabit broadband” – particularly for towns and cities outside the South East of England – and to support this via a new National Infrastructure Bank.

At present the government has already launched several investment schemes (e.g. vouchers, towns fund) to support builders of broadband ISP networks (summary). On top of that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has committed £5bn – focused on the final 20% of hardest to reach UK premises – to help extend “gigabit-capable broadband” to every home by the end of 2025 (here), as well as extra funding to boost 4G and 5G mobile (here).

Despite this Sir John has previously criticised the Government’s approach as merely offering “vague promises” (here), while also pointing toward the absence of their long-awaited National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS). Admittedly we can forgive some of the delays no the latter issue due to COVID-19 and last year’s snap General Election.

Similarly today’s letter to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak MP, is aimed at reinforcing the “need for long-term infrastructure planning alongside short term stimulus measures” to help re-build confidence in the economy, following the devastation caused by COVID-19.

As part of that letter Sir John recommends, among other things, “bringing forward … [the] gigabit broadband rollout” and creating a domestic replacement for the European Investment Bank, albeit with an explicit focus on infrastructure.

The idea of supporting longer term projects via a National Infrastructure Bank is not a new one and has been raised before. At present a lot of broadband projects outside of urban areas tend to harness a mix of public and private investment, which is something (i.e. the private investment side) that could conceivably be further encouraged by such a bank, although much would depend upon the detail.

Sir John Armitt said:

“While significant public investment will be necessary, private capital is critical to infrastructure in many sectors. Clear guidance on the direction of policy and regulation, supported appropriately with public money for R&D and pilot projects, will stimulate private infrastructure investment. A domestic replacement for the European Investment Bank, with an explicit focus on infrastructure, could also play a major financing role and crowd-in private capital.

More broadly, there is a need to boost the connectivity of towns and cities outside the south east of England, to reduce regional inequalities. I know this is a key objective of the government, and that much work – including planning an integrated rail plan for the North and Midlands – is underway.

The current crisis is only likely to sharpen economic disadvantage in long struggling communities, and upgrading transport and broadband connections (alongside skills) has the potential to improve economic opportunities.”

Admittedly the NIC is often quick to criticise, but they can also be equally bad at testing the viability of what they recommend, such as the idea of bringing forward the gigabit broadband roll-out. As usual it’s an easy thing to recommend, but quite another to deliver (sadly the NIC don’t say how they think this could be achieved), particularly considering the significant difficulty of actually hitting the existing 2025 target on time (many in this industry regard the likelihood of that as being overly optimistic).

The catch is that the Government have yet to detail their framework for the gigabit broadband plan, which leaves plenty of room for the policy to be watered down again in the detail. In any case the procurement and contract award process won’t be completed until sometime in late 2021, which leaves precious little time for the build phase to cover several million premises (assuming that process even goes according to plan; delays do happen).

On the other hand there’s never anything wrong with lighting a fire under the Government’s feet to encourage faster movement (Guy Fawkes pun not intended), even if right now COVID-19 seems to be doing everything it possibly can to screw up the normal workings.

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Mark Jackson
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 Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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10 Responses
  1. Avatar joe

    NIC must know some of this is not possible.

    “Clear guidance on the direction of policy and regulation”

    Until Brexit is sorted the regulation aspect is out of the gov’s hands in key areas.

    • Avatar A_Builder

      @Joe

      Maybe.

      Depends how it is framed.

      Rural FTTP connectivity is EU policy and supporting that policy even handedly won’t foul anything.

      This could actually work very well.

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      The NIC do know the issues (briefs to parliament etc). Criticism of the lack of a clear policy and future funding mechanisms from the Government is in my view justified. Those investing in broadband (OR and Altnets) need a clear steer on the “20%” subsidies and fibre business rates. We may have current constraints and much of our economy is halted but the Government keep telling us that we will be free from Europe and bouncing back next year. If the broadband provision is also to be bouncing we need the foundations laid now but it appears Ofcom and the DCMS (and their Minister) have gone to sleep for the last 4 months. Perhaps it’s because they don’t know how to use technology, I would have thought home working should have made them more productive and holding meetings being on-line more focused and effective.

      We need updates on the uptake and potential effectiveness of the USO (if they are at all interested), plans for increasing the USO standard going forward, a consolidated and timely updated view of UK BDUK/Rollout/Initiative plans from providers and more certainty for FTTP investors from 2023/24 onwards.

    • Avatar joe

      A_Builder

      Only if there is in effect no policy change. If the gov wanted to act (if only!) in way that breach state aid or the regulatory framework approved by the EU they can’t. Any step that laid the groundwork for such would remain at real risk of JR until 31

    • Avatar joe

      @Mead

      “If the broadband provision is also to be bouncing we need the foundations laid now but it appears Ofcom and the DCMS (and their Minister) have gone to sleep for the last 4 months”

      Tbh Covid has done that. Almost no gov or stat bodies are running normally.

      ” plans for increasing the USO standard going forward, a consolidated and timely updated view of UK BDUK/Rollout/Initiative plans from providers and more certainty for FTTP investors from 2023/24 onwards.”

      All that is fine and needed. A new BDUK needs SA approval. Rates on cabs would help (though tbh would be better focused on rural and not for commercial cabs)

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      @Joe. Yes of course COVID has had an enormous impact on product manufacture or anything requiring physical presence but civil servants are not furloughed, on full pay and most of this is theoretical. It may be some are volunteering for other duties, different approaches are required but nothing other than Ofcom work stack delays?. COVID should not become an excuse for those that have not been materially affected during lock down or delay in future.

  2. Avatar Ryan

    So I am in a town in the south of England with no FTTP, Virgin or alnet in sight.

    BT have not got us on our list for FTTP at the moment.

    Odd to just exclude us when in fact the speeds we can get are actually worse than many areas of the country.

    • Avatar gary

      What towns that Ryan ? There certainly are some oddities in the commercial and BDuk coverage when you look at the numbers in some of the Areas.

  3. Avatar Dave Scott

    I honestly think the main reason why Vodafone has the most complaints just now it’s mainly because of the lack of understanding from the Customer Service representatives. I mean some of the Customers Service representatives I speak to if I have a problem sometimes you need to repeat yourself time after time. It’s not Vodafone it’s poor customer service they don’t have very good English. Sorry to be brutally honest. I mean the same problems I had with BT before I moved to Vodafone instead of calling BT Customer Service I would Call BT sales department because they had more understanding and also that department was in the UK. I think all UK ISPs should be UK call centres.

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