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Next UK Infrastructure Assessment to Focus on Gigabit Broadband Takeup

Monday, November 15th, 2021 (10:17 am) - Score 1,896
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The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has today revealed the topics that will sit at the heart of their next (second) major assessment of the UK’s long-term infrastructure priorities, to be published in 2023, which among other things looks set to shift the focus on gigabit broadband from build to take-up.

The Government’s £5bn Project Gigabit programme aims to extend 1000Mbps+ (1Gbps) broadband ISP speeds so that they’re available to at least 85% of UK premises by the end of 2025 and to get “as close to 100% as possible.” The scheme assumes that commercial builds will be able to tackle the first 80%, thus leaving public investment to help the final 20% of hardest to reach areas (e.g. rural and semi-rural villages and towns etc.).

NOTE: Gigabit broadband coverage should hit around 65% by the end of 2021, thanks both to Virgin Media’s DOCSIS 3.1 upgrade of Hybrid Fibre Coax (HFC) lines and the rapid rollout of Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) technology via multiple operators (Summary of UK Full Fibre Builds).

The funding released for this will depend upon how the industry responds (i.e. so far only £1.2bn has been released, but more will be unlocked if the industry shows it can deliver). As a complement to that, the Government supported £1bn Shared Rural Network (SRN) project is also working to help extend geographic 4G mobile coverage to 95% of the UK by the end of 2025 (this may also indirectly support the wider 5G rollout).

Broadly speaking, the NIC’s latest report reflects the current progress and then attempts to set the tone for their next (second) major assessment of the UK’s national infrastructure (i.e. digital, energy, flood resilience, water and wastewater, waste and transport), which is due to be published in 2023 and will focus on what is needed for the next few decades (they do one of these assessments every 5 years).

The NIC Identified Nine Key Challenges for the Second Assessment:
➤ all sectors will need to take the opportunities of new digital technologies
➤ the electricity system must decarbonise fast to meet the sixth Carbon Budget
➤ decarbonising heat will require major changes to the way people heat their homes
➤ new networks will be needed for hydrogen and carbon capture and storage
➤ good asset management will be crucial as the effects of climate change increase
➤ action is needed to improve surface water management as flood risk increases
➤ the waste sector must support the move to a circular economy
➤ improved urban mobility and reduced congestion can boost urban productivity
➤ a multimodal interurban transport strategy can support regional growth.

In terms of digital connectivity (i.e. gigabit broadband and mobile), the report states that the second National Infrastructure Assessment will “consider barriers that are preventing the adoption of new digital technologies in infrastructure, and what policy and regulatory interventions may be needed” (i.e. for the first time, it won’t focus on fostering rollout and will instead consider adoption and the benefits of use).

We note that the NIC has previously called on the government to develop a strategy to encourage the take-up of new communications networks and services, although one has yet to emerge. But sadly this report doesn’t tell us anything particularly new or provide much detail on their train of thought, although we did perhaps get a better indication via a recent Westminster eForum speech from James Heath, the NIC’s CEO.

James Heath, CEO of the NIC, said recently:

“At the Commission, we see two areas in particular where faster progress is needed:

First challenge: We must avoid areas falling behind. We must avoid a new digital divide in gigabit broadband replacing the old divide in superfast broadband. There are millions of premises in the UK that will be hard to reach and where public funding will be necessary to connect them. These premises are not just in rural areas but also scattered across our towns and cities. While government has set aside £5 billion for this task and BDUK has set out several phases of its public procurement programme, we do need to see a full plan with milestones and a target end-date for completing the rollout of high quality broadband to all hard to reach premises.

Second challenge: The economic benefits of increased coverage of broadband networks will only be realised if the networks are widely and intensively used. We’d like government to widen its focus from network rollout to demand stimulation particularly among smaller businesses, where we know there is a productivity dividend from technology adoption but where barriers to this adoption persist.

And, finally, one of the questions that came up repeatedly at the global investor conference – and which was discussed earlier, is this: Is the UK’s rollout model sustainable, or will gigabit broadband burst like the cable bubble did before it?

The latter scenario is, of course, possible. There may well be an element of optimism bias in the business plans of some new entrants. And there is certainly a big difference between promising fibre rollout in presentations to investors and actually connecting premises on the ground.

But I personally think the planning assumption that the vast majority of UK premises will – by the end of this investment cycle – have a choice of networks, is a strong one, as long as we maintain the right conditions. Yes, there is likely to be future industry consolidation but there may also be new co-investment and wholesale deals that could create different market dynamics. And if we do end up with a market structure in the UK where competition in new networks replaces the monopoly in the old ones, this should both benefit today’s consumers but also mean that the UK is better placed for the next infrastructure investment cycle.

In the digital space, we won’t focus this time on broadband rollout. This is because – as I’ve set out today – we think the UK has a clear plan in place – and one that is working so far. We will of course continue to monitor progress against the government’s broadband targets and may decide to do further work if the strategy were to stall.

What we will focus on in the second Assessment is the potential for digital and data to transform all the other infrastructure sectors in the Commission’s remit. The widespread use of digital technologies and data has the potential to cut costs, enhance service quality, improve resilience, and enable better demand management across a range of infrastructure services.”

A Call for Evidence process has been launched alongside today’s report, with interested stakeholders being invited to submit data to the NIC to inform work on the topics it has identified. The Commission will also undertake sector events, regional visits and social research as it develops its future recommendations.

In terms of demand stimulation, it’s worth noting that the Gigabit Take-Up Advisory Group (GigaTAG), which is supported by Which?, Ofcom, the FSB, CBI and other groups, has already published a useful report that proposed several changes to help Ofcom and the Government boost take-up of 1Gbps capable broadband services (here). We think this did a pretty solid job of highlighting the main issues, which the government are still in the process of “considering” (i.e. no action has been taken, yet).

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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.
Leave a Comment
5 Responses
  1. anonymous says:

    Other than improving people’s ability to pay for a ‘nice to have’ like gigabit or inventing an application that requires huge amounts of bandwidth I’m not sure what else they have in mind?

    No-one needs gigabit to take advantage of a variety of digital services. It’s a bonus and helps get some tasks done more quickly but nothing a customer will be using at home stops working if it gets 200 Mb instead of gigabit.

    Increasing our disposable income seems the obvious way to increase take up.

    1. Pikkoz says:

      Being able to access a gigabit FTTP connection doesn’t mean paying for the most expensive package, most of the people can have for example the 20 quids it so a month for the basic 100mbit download/100mbit upload and be happy saving money and thinking that in the future if they need they can access something 10x faster.
      Is not just about now it’s future proofing.

  2. ian barker says:

    How about get those with low speeds up to at least 10mbps rather than those that already have good speeds up to not required speeds. Digital divide in this country!

  3. Roman says:

    I wish it was clear to customers who might provide their fibre Gb broadband one day. In Fulham where I live, from four streets away for almost a mile every street is dug up with G network going in. In the next street to mine all the poles have Community Fibre on them and 3gbps is available. They even signed me up as my home shows in their system as accessible. Came out to connect me and gave up, putting me up in the too hard basket and I have not heard from them since. Would be good to know who might one day upgrade the service in my street, but no such information anywhere.

    1. GaryH says:

      @Mark.

      ‘the final 20% of hardest to reach areas (e.g. rural and semi-rural villages and towns etc.).’

      Most of these aren’t really the hard ones, its the properties that aren’t in villages and towns that are difficult, The very same ones that get the worst of FTTC and adsl.

      Re the review, Its too late to avoid another digital divide.. it’s already here and planned to remain so for many years. The worst dialup then adsl..adsl2..fttc will remain the worst the longest and be the last to see FTTP by commercial or Government intervention.
      The clause to ignore is ever present, as far as possible, as close to 100%. Project targets will be targeted to provide best value for money inevitably translated as leave out the worst connections again.

      Do we really even need people to keep re hashing the same old carp in these reviews when its obvious to me and you and I’d like to think in reality, them. No but words and reviews and statements help give the illusion of progress or the will to actually do something about it.

      As for take up barriers are they really that hard to understand ? Cost availability and need/desire, it’s not rocket science.

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