Broadband coverage in the UK improved throughout 2018, according to Ofcom. Its annual Connected Nations report, released in December, showed that the number of people who cannot receive a 10Mbps connection across the UK has halved over the past twelve months, with superfast broadband speeds of at least 30Mbps now accessible by 94% of premises. Meanwhile, ultrafast broadband, generally defined as a service delivering over 100Mbps, is now accessible by half of premises, up from just over a third the year before.
Room for improvement
It all sounds genuinely transformative, and very positive. After all, fast and reliable broadband underpins everything from individuals’ abilities to access the latest media and entertainment, to businesses’ abilities to communicate effectively and sell globally.
However, there is still work to be done. The gold standard of broadband connectivity is full-fibre, or fibre-to-the premises (FTTP) broadband, which can deliver services of up to and beyond 1Gbps. The Ofcom report underlines that this is now available to around 1.8 million premises – a hefty million increase on the year before, but clearly still just a small proportion of the country as a whole. Meanwhile, there are still plenty of rural areas with patchy, unreliable or simply slow broadband connectivity in place.
What, then, might we expect to see happening over the next twelve months?
The 2018 Autumn budget is a good place to start. In it, chancellor Philip Hammond detailed a plan to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in the installation of superfast broadband in some of the most remote areas of the country. An extra £6 billion of funding was promised for the National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF), taking it from £31 billion to £37 billion, and within this sum was a £200 million pledge to pilot innovative approaches for installing the full-fibre internet outlined above in rural schools. The first wave of this rollout was named as covering the Borderlands, Cornwall and the Welsh Valleys.
It is, however, important to underline that this is not entirely new money; rather, the £200 million pledge represents part of a previous £740 million allocation for nationwide 5G and fibre projects.
Another part of the NPIF is the government’s £190 million Local Full Fibre Network (LFFN) Challenge Fund, which was launched in 2017 to boost commercial investment in networks across the UK.
In August 2018, local authorities were encouraged to bid for shares of the final £95 million of the funding, with particular attention in the final decisions paid to rural focuses, public sector productivity, and overcoming obstacles to the rollout of 5G. FarrPoint has helped a range of organisations to successfully apply for funding from the LFFN, including the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.
In 2019, as the final shares of this funding are allocated and the associated projects move forward, we expect to see more waves of funding and more impressive proportions of the country achieving high-speed connectivity by the end of the year. This is all driving to the UK target of full fibre connectivity by 2033. In addition to that, the view of commercial investors with regard to fibre has changed substantially over the last couple of years leading to new announced commercial rollouts of full-fibre and coverage pledges from operators, large and small, across the country.
In parallel and just as exciting, these rollouts go hand-in-hand with the development of 5G networks. Ofcom has already confirmed plans to auction two tranches of radio spectrum for 5G networks by the beginning of next year, which will offer data-rich, high-speed connectivity. The UK’s four mobile network operators – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – should now be able to enhance the 5G networks they are already working on, augmenting the full-fibre rollouts happening in select parts of the country.
This year the UK should see genuine expansion towards high-speed connectivity, thanks to a combination of innovative projects driven forward by local authorities in partnership with private sector organisations, and the rollout of 5G. High-speed connectivity is the foundation for next-generation businesses, entertainment, civic participation, work and play – and we think the UK is at last moving forward in some exciting ways.
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