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Prime Minister Liz Truss Commits to “Faster” UK Broadband Build

Wednesday, Sep 7th, 2022 (9:07 am) - Score 3,312

The new UK Prime Minister, Liz Truss, yesterday entered 10 Downing Street – after replacing Boris Johnson in the post – by acknowledging that “we need to build roads, homes and broadband faster” than they have been doing so far. But it remains to be seen whether that statement is more than just a sound bite.

Unlike Johnson, Truss has not entered office with a clear target for improving broadband and mobile connectivity. Indeed, her opening speech didn’t even define what kind of “broadband” (gigabit or otherwise) she was talking about or mention mobile networks, which leaves plenty of political wriggle room, and we all know how politicians love to move the goal posts.

NOTE: Gigabit Broadband networks already cover around 70% of UK premises (around 40% via just FTTP), but most of that stems from commercial projects in urban areas.

On the other hand, having a clear target doesn’t always matter if what you set out to achieve ends up being undeliverable, as shown by Johnson’s ever shrinking ambitions for digital connectivity (here). In 2019, he promised full fibre (FTTP) for all by 2025, then it became “gigabit-capable broadband” (softening the goal to include Virgin Media’s existing coverage), then it was at least 85% by 2025, and finally, we learnt that “nationwide” (99%) coverage would not be achieved until 2030.

No doubt Truss will be wanting to avoid that particular roller coaster of policy changes. As it stands now, the targets under the Government’s £5bn Project Gigabit broadband rollout scheme are at least reasonably realistic. The UK is currently also one of the fastest in the world for new deployments of Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) infrastructure (here) – even if we are playing catch-up with most of the advanced economies.

Nevertheless, anything that could help to give that a further boost would be welcome, and at the same time it wouldn’t hurt if the Government could set a much more ambitious goal for 5G mobile coverage. The existing target (i.e. “the majority of the population will have access to a 5G signal by 2027“) is already laughably weak, with both EE and Three UK having exceeded that via commercial builds. A strong target for geographic coverage would have much more credibility.

So, what might Truss be able to do to improve the situation? Our expectation is that her pledge to build “faster” will largely rely on existing / planned changes to regulations and planning (example), such as around the ongoing updates to the Electronic Communications Code (ECC), which already aim to make it easier and cheaper for operators to build new digital networks.

However, in an ideal world, the Government might also consider bringing back 100% business rates relief on new fibre. Scotland already does this, but England and Wales ended their 5-year relief earlier this year and chose not to extend it – an unusual move, given all the effort they’ve put into encouraging the deployment of new full fibre networks up to 2030.

One other area where we’re due to see some positive movement is with respect to the ongoing shortage of skilled fibre engineers. At present, finding UK fibre engineers with the necessary skills remains a challenging task, which is one reason why so many network operators have established their own in-house training schools, but this takes time.. too much time.

Prior to Brexit, businesses would have looked to other EU countries to fill the shortfalls (Spain and Portugal have plenty of fibre engineers as their respective builds near completion), but until recently the Home Office had made securing surplus engineers from Europe difficult (example). However, the Government now seem to be working to develop a fast-track scheme for foreign engineers that might help to resolve this, which would fit neatly into Truss’s pledge to build “faster“. But the details remain unclear.

A government spokesperson said:

“We’re funding the biggest broadband rollout in British history and we are supporting broadband companies to source the essential skilled workers they urgently need. We will not be providing a running commentary on the number of workers required or visas issued.”

One other area of interest is around the bloated and increasingly controversial Online Safety Bill (OSB), which seeks to regulate what people can say online, although many people fear that the bill in its current form will end up becoming a Draconian mess of unworkable measures that stifles freedom of expression by the backdoor. Forcing online content providers into a position of intolerable liability, where the safest outcome is to prevent speech in the first place, rather than risk being wrong on a moderation decision and burying websites in costly red tape.

Truss has so far only offered lukewarm support for the OSB, which means she probably won’t scrap it, but there is a hope that her leadership might encourage a re-think to find a better balance between tackling so-called “harmful” online content and protecting free speech. But a lot of this will be for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) to tackle.

Speaking of the DCMS, Truss has already replaced Nadine Dorries with Michelle Donelan MP as Culture Secretary. Before going into politics, she worked in the media and entertainment industry, having started her career in Australia for Pacific Magazines, and then going on to work for The History Channel. She has also worked for WWE as an International Marketing Communications Manager. Much of her time in parliament so far has been spent in education related roles, thus mobile and broadband is going to be unfamiliar territory.

As usual, time will tell on all of these points. But we’ll finish with this comment from analyst firm Assembly Research.

James Robinson, Senior Analyst at Assembly, said:

“Over the coming weeks and months, the new prime minister’s plans in areas such as online safety, digital competition and the ongoing upgrade of the UK’s connectivity will come under the spotlight. Concerned about the implications for censorship, Truss has offered only lukewarm support for the Online Safety Bill. While highly unlikely to scrap it, she wants to find a better balance between protecting free speech and those under-18 before bringing the legislation back to Parliament. Should Nadine Dorries continue as Culture Secretary, it’s hard to envisage significant changes to what’s already been presented.

In contrast, Truss has provided a more definitive signal of her intent regarding digital competition and big tech, committing to presenting legislation this autumn aimed at reining in the power of big tech, and taking fire at Chinese-backed TikTok. While the relationship with China doesn’t look set to improve, more power to the Digital Markets Unit would make it better equipped to tackle anti-competitive practices by the largest online platforms and give teeth to a regulator that has so far only been operating in shadow form.

Despite a well-publicised visit to CityFibre in Leeds, Truss said fairly little on the subject of telecoms, beyond stating that she wanted to level up infrastructure in places where broadband and mobile coverage is currently poor. Broadband builders will want to know whether the “super deduction” tax relief for infrastructure investment will continue. Given this was a Sunak initiative, and Truss’s choice for Chancellor is keen to do things differently, it seems unlikely to survive in current form. Without a replacement, going beyond today’s 70% gigabit broadband coverage would get that bit harder.”

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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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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23 Responses
  1. Avatar photo jason999 says:

    Liz Truss and the majority of other politicians tell you what you want to hear and conveniently forgot what they have promised later down the line

    1. Mark-Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      Politicians and quite a few network operators / businesses have much in common :).

    2. Avatar photo Fastman says:

      i expect Truss to be around for quite a while and also Truss has a background in Telecomms and worked for a major telecomms company before she entered the world of politics so knows quite a lot about this stuff actually –

    3. Mark-Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      ^ That aged well 🙂

  2. Avatar photo Something Strange says:

    Q all those without gigafast broadband.

  3. Avatar photo Steve says:

    Given that Poundshop Thatcher won’t be PM for long – I’d say give her until Xmas – then take whatever she says with a large mountain of salt. I’d be very surprised if BoJo the Clown isn’t back in the hotseat at some point.

    1. Avatar photo MartinConf says:

      Those in the spectator’s seats like Labour can promise the earth and make solutions sound easy but its a different matter when you’re in the hot seat and making decisions for real.

    2. Avatar photo Richard Branston says:

      “ Given that Poundshop Thatcher won’t be PM for long”

      People were equally dogmatic about Johnson – saying he had no staying power / wouldn’t last 3 months / would be off at the first sign of difficulty.

      C3 years on (with a pandemic and war in between) he proved his critics wrong.

      It’s likely Truss will do the same – for all the “pound shop” type comparisons it’s hard to deny that Truss is well educated and was successful before entering politics.

    3. Avatar photo Mike says:

      Lavrov showed she was a complete numpty.

    4. Mark-Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      @Mike. Lavrov probably isn’t much of a credible benchmark for weighing against anything any more, even Johnson.

    5. Avatar photo Steve says:

      Liz Truss:
      “Great Britain will never recognise Russia’s sovereignty over those regions .”

      She really is a thicko.

    6. Avatar photo Steve says:

      by “regions” she was referring to Rostov and Voronezh. Which is already in Russia.

    7. Avatar photo Jazzy says:

      Goodness me – Poundshop

      She will be there until January 2025 if she wants to be. They will not oust another leader and you have your lovely leftie Lib Dems to thank for the fixed term parliament act

      As for the build. I am not even on the Openreach build map and we had it laid in Feb and activated in March/April. We have also had Cityfibre laid but they’re as slow as can be and 10 months on it’s still not active

    8. Avatar photo 125us says:

      When did we go to war Richard? I must have missed that.

    9. Avatar photo An Engineer says:

      The FTPA was repealed in March, Jazzy.

    10. Avatar photo Winston Smith says:

      @Richard Branston, Johnson proved his critics wrong by resigning in disgrace half way through his first term? What would you consider abject failure to be?

  4. Avatar photo Optimist says:

    There can be no justification for charging business rates on fibre, as electricity, gas, and water utilities don’t have to pay. Furthermore, telecoms services are already subject to the highest rate of VAT.

    1. Avatar photo Mike says:

      The justification is to pay for all the socialism people voted for.

    2. Avatar photo An Engineer says:

      100% agreed, Optimist. It’s the 4th utility now and should be treated in that manner with regards to taxation.

    3. Avatar photo timeless says:

      one could argue thats what they are doing.. they see a service people have no choice but to use and see it as a means to profit, and thats what we are paying for.. granted they are highly taxed but a good chunk of the rest too often goes into shareholders pockets rather than innovation.

  5. Avatar photo Bob says:

    The roll out is speeding up now although we are still long way behind similar European Countries

    The real question is there the capacity to speed the roll out up by much. The real problem is historical in that little was done for several years

    For a long time other than Virgin BT had no real competition so were happy to keep to FTTC

    With FTTP are we going down the same road that Cable went down. Lots of small system that proved to be non viable and ended up merging

    Are we with FTTP wating time and resource by having lots of duplicate networks going in

    Would it not be more sensible for just Open reach to install the fibre and ISPs can access that network. IT would need good regulation to ensure Openreach did no abuse their position and did not give advantageous access to BT Retail

    AS it is I can se these Alt Nets slowly merging peraps ultimately into one company

    1. Avatar photo Winston Smith says:

      The plethora of alt-nets announcing coverage of a couple of thousand premises on this site make it seem as though they are more significant than they really are in the grand scheme of things.

      In reality Openreach are aiming for 85% coverage by 2026, VMO2 have around 50% coverage and CityFibre are in a distant third place (with a fantasy target of 8 million premises, about 30% coverage). The others barely register.

      So in effect Openreach *are* doing most of the FTTP installation and ISPs will have access to it. VMO2 may go that way too.

      The government only really need to get involved with the remainder that will need subsidy to be commercially viable.

  6. Avatar photo Buggerlugz says:

    Well she can’t take credit for the huge increase in gigabit connectivity across the country (when in reality it was only Virgin rolling out its DOCSYS3.1 that did it) because Boris already took it in his “goodbye list of his greatest achievements.”

Comments are closed

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