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NIC Report Updates on UK Broadband and Mobile Infrastructure Progress

Wednesday, Oct 18th, 2023 (12:01 am) - Score 1,128
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The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has today published their second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) report, which is published every 5 years and highlights areas where the government still need to make improvements. But its recommendations for broadband and mobile are wafer thin.

The NIA is designed to set out a series of costed recommendations to government on priorities for ensuring key networks can address the challenges and opportunities of the next 20-30 years. The Government is then obliged to respond formally to the Commission’s recommendations within a reasonable timeframe. Part of the report focuses on Digital Communications, and thus it helps to start with a little context.

NOTE: Gigabit broadband currently covers 77% of UK premises or 56% when only looking at full fibre (FTTP). At the same time 76-85% of premises can get an outdoor 5G signal from at least one operator (or just 12-22% for all operators). The NIC uses slightly older data for their report.

The government has a number of targets and programmes running related to broadband and mobile infrastructure. Firstly, there’s the £5bn Project Gigabit broadband rollout scheme, which aims to extend networks capable of 1Gbps download speeds (and uploads of at least 200Mbps) to 85% or more of UK premises by the end of 2025, before rising to “nationwide” coverage (c.99%) by around 2030 (here).

In addition, there’s the £1bn industry-led Shared Rural Network (SRN) project that aims to help extend geographic 4G mobile coverage (aggregate) to 95% of the UK by the end of 2025 from at least one operator or 84% for all operators combined (the 5G rollout will also benefit from this). The scheme involves both the reciprocal sharing of existing masts in certain areas and the demand-led building and sharing of new masts in others.

Finally, the government recently set out its ambition for “all populated areas to be covered by ‘standalone’ 5G (5G-plus) by 2030” (here), which is a much better target than their weak 2017 manifesto promise “to have the majority of the population covered by a 5G signal by 2027” (commercial builds have already hit that) – the 2027 date was even nonsensically downgraded to 2030 in their Levelling Up Plan (here).

What did the NIA recommend

In the 5 years since the first NIA report, government has worked to increase the share of electricity generated by renewables, set up the UK Infrastructure Bank, devolve transport funding to major city regions, and provided industry with the direction to rapidly build gigabit capable broadband networks.

NIC-UK-Broadband-and-Mobile-Coverage-2023

The new report finds that there is still more to be done to address “significant deficiencies” in the UK’s economic infrastructure and ensure it can meet the challenges ahead. But the best it can do for digital infrastructure is to simply recommend that the government keeps to its current targets.

For digital networks, government should secure nationwide coverage of gigabit broadband and 5G services, and ensure the specific telecoms needs of infrastructure services are met,” which isn’t exactly the most thought-provoking of recommendations. We had hoped that the NIA might hunt down any weaknesses in current policy and make some constructive recommendations, but instead what we get is about as effective as a chocolate teapot.

Sir John Armitt, Chair of the NIC, said:

“The good news is that modern, reliable infrastructure can support economic growth, help tackle climate change and enhance the natural environment.

We stand at a pivotal moment in time, with the opportunity to make a major difference to this country’s future. But we need to get on with it.

People often talk about infrastructure as the backbone of our economy: what our infrastructure needs now is the collective mettle to turn commitments into action that will reap rewards for decades to come.”

In fairness, it does look as if the Project Gigabit programme is going in the right direction, but some admittedly anecdotal feedback from network operators (seen by ISPreview) suggests that the related Building Digital UK (BDUK) agency can still be a bit of a slow – and sometimes awkward – organisation to work with.

More resources (e.g. extra staff) might help to alleviate some of that, and we’re still waiting for BDUK to setup a more consumer friendly portal to help track build progress. On top of that, it seems to be taking an absurd amount of time to make progress on Project Gigabit’s procurement plans for Scotland and Wales, although there are some complex political dynamics with devolved administrations to consider.

The fact that the government has also just begun yet another review to help them better understand how to improve broadband in “Very Hard to Reach” areas is another issue (here), which is despite the fact that the issues in this area have been quite well understood for a number of years. A little less bureaucracy and a little more action, is a line that Elvis could have sung.

Finally, there needs to be a better solution for the patchwork of urban areas that are still being, consistently, missed out by commercial FTTP deployments due to various complex reasons. BDUK are known to be looking at this, but it’s an issue that has been going on for years and may require some greater intervention from the government to solve.

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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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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Comments
4 Responses
  1. Avatar photo Optimist says:

    What is the cost to taxpayers of this toothless and useless quango?

    1. Avatar photo Cheesemp says:

      I assume its to remind minsters that UK infrastructure needs a long term view rather than what goes in the papers tomorrow? To be honest that is important give todays sound bite driven politics that gives zero effort to long term planning. Still bet they just ignore it anyway.

    2. Avatar photo Buggerlugz says:

      Millions no doubt.

  2. Avatar photo Buggerlugz says:

    “priorities for ensuring key networks can address the challenges and opportunities of the next 20-30 years” like blocking a Vodafone merger with a company tied to the Chinese communist party for example?

Comments are closed

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