The roll out of full fibre and gigabit digital networks is a massively hot topic, not just in the world of telecoms, but the business community overall.
It’s hardly surprising, when you see the size of the numbers hitting the headlines. In early March – before Rishi Sunak’s role became consumed with the financial battles of COVID-19 – the Government reiterated its plans to invest £5bn to help spread gigabit-capable broadband networks across the UK, by the end of 2025.
Without wishing to state the obvious, this is extremely well timed, as the nation’s need for connectivity is now more pressing than ever.
Entire workforces are trying to maintain ‘business as usual’ from home, the future of the traditional office is in severe doubt, friends and family have found new ways to stay in touch despite the physical distance between them, online shopping has spiked and box-set binging is a trend that looks to be here to stay.
In short, bandwidth matters.
But this second wave of digital growth will not come easy – not least because recent figures suggest only 22% of UK premises can currently access a gigabit-capable service.
That said, the industry is already debating how the numbers will come together. Reports suggest Virgin Media’s Hybrid Fibre Coax (HFC) and Full Fibre network upgrades, as well as Openreach’s Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) plans and the ever-increasing surge in alternative network providers’ projects, will all play a part in the nation being gigabit-ready. We need to see a diverse approach to feeding the country’s connectivity hunger.
Plans to help those in the hardest-to-reach areas have also been tentatively published, in what currently appears to be a three-tiered, technology-agnostic Gigabit Broadband Framework (F20 project) comprising general demand side interventions, a voucher scheme for premises and a direct supplier side intervention.
The next five years will certainly be demanding. And the upfront investment required to make all necessary roll outs a reality, cannot be underestimated.
Of course, there is the cost of the infrastructure itself, but there are so many wider ‘hidden’ costs too. Usually 20-30% of properties in a build project require wayleave consents, for example, which can be notoriously complex to navigate. Thankfully emerging case law is proving helpful for operators and slowly changing the landscape for the better, but the process remains complicated.
Despite full fibre broadband increasing the value of a property, landlords commonly ask for consideration to ‘wire up’ their premises. Add to this, exorbitant legal fees – which in traditional law firms can be anything from £1,200-£1,500 per wayleave – along with surveyor rates which vary from £750 to £950, and the costs rise further still. Furthermore, in many cases, these costs apply per unit in an MDU, when a managing agent doesn’t permit the wayleave for the whole building. And that’s before work can even begin!
Add to that, the costs and resource constraints associated with planning, surveying and the civils element of the works, and these are not projects for the fainthearted. There are daily fines associated with unreasonably prolonged highway works too, as well as penalties for not complying with noticing requirements, amongst other things.
So, while it’s reassuring that the roll out of gigabit-ready networks has multi-billion-pound Government backing, it still won’t be easy, and stalls seem likely without industry collaboration and suitably skilled project teams in place.
It’s a shame really, considering the value that such projects bring to both the national economy and communities on an ultra-local level.
For example, earlier this year, the Centre for Economics & Business Research (CEBR) revealed that the Full Fibre roll out – coupled with 25% of UK labour working from home by 2025 – could create 1.2 million jobs. The economic impact of this employment uplift would be astronomical.
The speed and agility with which organisations – particularly in the digital sectors – could work, if empowered with faster connectivity, would also unlock vast growth potential for the nation. Innovations based on the Internet of Things (IoT) often require vast bandwidth, which would no longer be hampered by unreliable connectivity; the UK could push ahead with its ambition to be the digital centre of Europe; and as already alluded to, the value of properties would surely rise.
It’s no wonder that so many people from the world of telecommunications were granted key worker status when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The reliance on the UK’s digital infrastructure has rocketed and will probably only rise further still.
So, from laying those all-important cables in the ground, to recommending the best-fit connectivity solutions for businesses and homes throughout the UK, everyone has a role to play in ensuring the 2025 aspiration is not just a pipedream – even the general public.