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Infrastructure Commission Calls for Detailed Gigabit Rollout Plans

Wednesday, February 17th, 2021 (10:50 am) - Score 1,392
infrastructure broadband transport mobile uk

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has just published its Annual Monitoring Report 2021, which among other things calls on the UK Government to set out a “workable plan” for ensuring that the hardest to reach homes and businesses can “get the benefits of high capacity broadband” (i.e. gigabit speed connectivity).

At this point the Government may well point to the recently published draft procurement strategy for their new £5bn UK Gigabit Broadband Programme, which among other things set out their plan (including an initial release of £1.2bn in funding) for ensuring that gigabit-capable (1000Mbps+) networks could reach a “minimum” of 85% UK coverage (currently 37%+) by the end of 2025 and then getting “as close to 100% as possible“.

However, the NIC views that strategy as more of a “vision“, rather than a solid plan. As such they’ve called on the Government to “set out a clear plan with milestones and funding for the roll out of broadband to the final 20 per cent of households as soon as practicable.” In reality it may be difficult to set out a series of strictly defined milestones due to the many unknowns involved.

A big part of the challenge here is that nobody, not even the government, can be absolutely certain about how far the market will actually be able to push gigabit connectivity before contracts have been awarded. Commercial networks alone should be able to do up to 80% of premises, but only time will tell exactly how far they get. Future progress beyond that will then depend upon how operator’s respond to the new procurement strategy.

The lack of clarity over future progress also flows from other uncertainties – such as overbuild between rivals, a shortage of skilled engineers and the future status of business rates relief on new fibre. Scotland has already opted for a 10-year tax holiday on business rates, but England’s existing 5-year relief will run out next year and that makes it difficult for operators to plan ahead.

Suffice to say that the current 85%+ target may be all we’re likely to get from a Government that probably now prefers to play it safe, particularly after a series of earlier overly-optimistic targets fell flat (remember full fibre for all by 2025? They’d rather you didn’t).

Sir John Armitt, Chair of the NIC, said:

“We anticipate that publication of the National Infrastructure Strategy will catalyse decision making and investment across all sectors, helping to address the challenges of levelling up the UK’s economic geography and achieving net zero. Infrastructure can also help create the conditions for a market led recovery from the major economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But achieving this will require detailed planning, and delivery roadmaps backed up by stable funding plans and, where relevant, clarity of regulatory oversight. These are critical factors for the successful delivery of the policy aspirations and targets government has now provided.”

The report also reiterates its call for the Government to establish an Infrastructure Bank to help “crowd-in private investment” (a bit like the current European Investment Bank), which will most likely be operationally independent and work to encourage private finance by reducing risks, promoting market stability, and increasing investor confidence. The UK Chancellor supports this idea and more details are due in the spring.

The NIC also calls on the Government and Ofcom to work with the mobile network operators to “identify suitable metrics and begin measuring actual 5G coverage and set ambitious targets for an accelerated 5G rollout,” which is a good idea since we haven’t really had much in the way of a solid coverage commitment for 5G connectivity before.

Otherwise the report often reads like more of an echo chamber for highlighting existing work, such as the future reforms to the ECC (here), as well as requiring new homes to be built with gigabit broadband, tackling unresponsive landlords (i.e. making it easier to build gigabit broadband into large apartment blocks / MDUs etc.) and the finalisation of Ofcom’s work to promote investment in full fibre networks.

However, the commission finishes its report with a warning, which states how “there is a risk that a digital divide will persist unless there is a published plan for roll out to the vast majority of the hardest to reach premises.”

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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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19 Responses
  1. Gary says:

    “there is a risk that a digital divide will persist unless there is a published plan for roll out to the vast majority of the hardest to reach premises.”

    Err, unless the rollout covers everyone the will still be a digital divide, When i went to school Majority didn’t mean equality

  2. aCabinetTooFar says:

    It’s funny how the 2 tier system of Urban vs Rural happens not only in the digital world but also others too. For example just look at the state of the roads……rural in most cases is worse off and urban seems to get the priority treatment.

    The digital divide will continue until altnet’s start expanding to more rural areas of the country and more community groups can sprout to increase competition against the monopoly.

    Lincolnshire is dreadful

    1. Buggerlugz says:

      That is very true. I think the government should make broadband connectivity part of the countries infrastructure and invest in it accordingly instead of vanity project “jobs for the Eaton boys” like HS2 and tunnels to Ireland. If they have to nationalize open-reach it’d be a benefit for everyone, not just those in the cities.

    2. GNewton says:

      Nationalizing Openreach won’t make much of a difference because Openreach doesn’t own the network assets. What’s really needed is a kind of a newly setup NBN for fibre for at least the areas where nobody would invest in the near future. Private telecoms aren’t able to do longterm investments when the ROI is too far in the future.

  3. joe says:

    “Infrastructure Commission Calls for Detailed Gigabit Rollout Plans”

    Seriously makes me doubt the ppl involved!

    1. Buggerlugz says:

      Maybe they could look at the affordability of gigabit too then? currently it’s a complete joke.

  4. Regorimabitbackward says:

    My guess is the isp’s will look at this and laugh. Why would you invest large sums of money trying to get to out of the way back of beyond places with the likelihood of very little return for your investment that’s not how you run a business besides there’s better pickings to be had in urban areas hence all the overbuilds. This has been the case so far. The government will have to come up with an incentive cash of some sort is my guess and encourage isp’s to perhaps work together in partnerships thereby sharing costs and offering choice otherwise it may end up one major provider with very little choice for rural. Furthermore it’s fine to have a plan the question is surely how do you implement/secure it?.

    1. M says:

      I think most people are laughing at the prices charged by the ISP’s for gigabit. And the more people they connect the cheaper it becomes including rural areas. You do realise pretty much everyone uses the internet now, even in rural areas, if they connect everyone then the costs will be paid for by the numbers taking it up surely.
      But personally I think the government should have ditched HS2 and this ridiculous idea if a tunnel to Ireland and pay for fibre to everyone’s door in this country, including all rural areas.

  5. Mark says:

    Wonder how they decide rural? Take Gloucestershire Stroud,Stonehouse and surrounding towns must be getting close to 100000 population, certainly urban to me, Virgin can’t be bothered, but can rollout to areas of only 10000, yes we know depends how near to their network, but they had to start somewhere. Gigaclear did the easiest rollout, just digging in grass verges, hardly any difficult deployment in roads, pavements and streets.A lot of planning still to do for a lot of areas.

    1. Buggerlugz says:

      Maybe Virgin also decides who’s likely more gullible to pay over the odds for their services too then and builds there?

    2. M says:

      From what I’ve seen the areas involved are circa 10 to 20 thousand in population, that leaves a hell of a lot of place, possible the majority, in rural areas without this scheme. For them it’s 5G or the smaller companies laying fibre that we read on here. Or nothing. But I could be wrong.

  6. M says:

    This will never happen, not only have we got to fund Boris’s train set, we now will have to fund his tunnel for his train set too.. waiting on that 5G.

  7. Optimist says:

    What is the point of investing millions to provide fibre to hard to reach areas when
    satellite ISPs are about to plug the gap?

    1. M says:

      Less junk in space? So astronomers can see the night sky instead of thousands of satellites streaming across their telescopes. Plus the fact a wired connection will 100% always be far far better then any satellite service, and a LOT cheaper. Bet you have fibre to your door right?
      Elon Musk won’t change the world…

    2. M says:

      I meant in the long run cable broadband prices will be cheaper.

    3. Mark Jackson says:

      Too many cost and capacity caveats for LEO/MEO Satellites to be viable for serving every single person and business. Likewise, the impact on observational science would be pretty brutal. Not to mention a myriad of other issues, such as with legal / government control of data and security etc. Plus if somebody decides to attack the satellites, or there’s a chain reaction of collisions due to an accident, then your digital economy is doomed overnight.

    4. Optimist says:

      M – “a wired connection will 100% always be far far better then any satellite service, and a LOT cheaper” – that’s OK, you won’t mind paying for fibre to be installed then!

      BTW, no I don’t have fibre, I use VM.

  8. M says:

    In fact the more I think about this the more this seems to be nothing more then a good sound bite for Boris to state, created to boost those re-election chances, as so far the government has shown little willing to instigate this plan, including the Civil Service, it’s reported little progress has been made in the policies or law changes to make this happen. And many predicting the digital divide will grow bigger and become more of a reality.
    I also don’t believe they have the money, as they don’t plan to use 3 quarters of the 5 billion pledged till after 2024 to 2025, that’s what I’ve read anyway. Which only enhances the belief this whole idea is nothing more then an empty sound bite.
    Yet they are seemingly pushing ahead with consultation on the tunnel to Ireland, and HS2 construction.

  9. A_Builder says:

    Well look in the bright side: someone is asking the ‘how do we finish the job question.

    And that is while build at extreme pace is going on.

    I must admit I do have concerns that tiny pockets and individual houses will not be connected. In otherwise blanketed areas.

    I’m less concerned about the smaller outlier villages and homesteads etc as these are what the LEO and MEO can pick up. There has got to be some control over installation to a town means all of the town including the fiddly bits.

    As ever there needs to be a carrot and stick approach with those that sign up for 100% coverage are allowed some extra business rates holidays – with very few exceptions so they have to work for it a bit harder. An incentive review is really the only wag to persuade firms to get this over the line.

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