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UK Tech News: Could COVID-19 accelerate the UK’s full fibre roll out?

It is undoubtedly one of the most sobering times in modern history, but could COVID-19 eventually have a positive impact on the UK’s roll out of full fibre broadband? UK Tech News quizzed telecoms specialist Terry Daniell, co-founder of Trenches Law, on his thoughts. If you missed the article, you can catch it here in full...

We’re currently going through what – for most people – is an experience like no other. Families, households, communities and businesses have all been turned upside down, and it’s unsurprising that the economic and psychological repercussions are expected to last for quite some time, when this terrible pandemic has hopefully passed.

Therefore, throughout all of this, it’s been comforting – if we can use that word – to read of uplifting stories of camaraderie, collaboration and innovation, as we attempt to navigate COVID-19 together. And the telecoms sector’s position, in this respect, has been exemplary.

We’ve seen countless examples of ‘tech for good’, with tools being deployed to keep the vulnerable connected, for instance, and cutting-edge gadgets being used to keep our key workers safe. We’ve witnessed companies set up workforces at home to protect them from the virus, some offer paid leave to support NHS volunteering, others overhaul their terms and conditions to safeguard customers’ cash flow, and many donate their time and services for free, to help keep businesses alive.

Many of these wonderful gestures have been in the face of companies’ own fears and uncertainties, so their efforts must be applauded. It certainly breeds a sense of positivity during what is otherwise a very bleak landscape.

As we look to a future beyond COVID-19 – admittedly no mean feat for many right now – perhaps there’ll be even more achievements to come from this difficult time.

For a start, telecoms engineers’ status as key workers, gives recognition to the role they play in keeping the country connected. It acts as deserved praise for the jobs they do, coronavirus or no coronavirus, and I hope people will remember their efforts long into the future.

Linked to this, the Government has encouraged local authorities not to introduce blanket refusals of permits or notices for streetworks, and where possible, grant early starts for major works so that operators can progress their network builds without delay. The roads are quiet, after all, and the nation’s need for connectivity has never been so great.

As someone heavily immersed in this world, I know all too well how long such teams must ordinarily wait for the green light to undertake streetworks to install fibre. The process can typically take up to three months depending on the works category. It’s therefore great to see many local authorities now pushing notices through in only four weeks, if not less, and landlords asking if telecoms works can be undertaken during this period of lockdown. Perhaps it will even help to establish a new normal when all of this is over, because does it really need to take so long?

The widespread hunger for connectivity – among self-isolating residents through to busy home workers – is also helping telcos ‘fibre up’ faster. Wayleave negotiations can notoriously stall the installation and maintenance of network infrastructures, unless handled effectively. However, there appears to now be more of a willingness – particularly among landlords – to negotiate and provide wayleave consent far quicker, no doubt because they acknowledge the advantages that come with ultrafast broadband. If people continue to work from home when this is all over, and video calls to friends and family supersedes a standard voice call, the appetite for bandwidth is only going to rise. Full fibre access could even be a deciding factor when house hunting or relocating business premises!

Despite the best efforts of the telecoms industry, the Government’s UK-wide full fibre roll out by 2025, always felt like a stretch. But COVID-19 could be the unfortunate catalyst to finally force some much-needed change when it comes to the network build we now need more than ever.

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