Last week’s Autumn budget included a significant focus on fibre rollout and the announcement of funding dedicated to boosting economic growth and innovation. This is great news when it comes to improving connectivity in the UK but how much of it is new funding and what is likely to be the real impact?
In this blog we look at some of the key points and explore earlier funding commitments to better understand the government’s latest fibre thinking and the challenges ahead.
One of the central elements of the budget was the news that the National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) has been given an additional £6bn of funding, increasing from £31bn to £37bn.
As part of this, the budget announcement included £200 million pledged to pilot innovative approaches for deploying full fibre broadband in rural locations, starting with primary schools and a voucher scheme for homes and businesses nearby. The first wave of this will include the Borderlands, Cornwall, and the Welsh Valleys.
On the face of it this seems like a big step forward however it’s important to recognise this is not entirely new money. The £200 million pledged by Phillip Hammond represents part of a previous £740m allocated to support fibre and 5G projects up and down the country.
Furthermore, this announcement ties in with previous initiatives focused on an “outside-in” approach to the issue of rural connectivity. So rather than heralding further plans and additional funding, the budget, though a welcome development in this area of policy, is largely reinforcing earlier announcements.
While government funding and initiatives play a hugely important role in improving connectivity across the UK, they are not without their challenges. The Local Full Fibre Network (LFFN), for example, which aims to stimulate commercial investment in “gigabit capable” broadband networks, has received some criticism for a focus on urban areas. Hence we now see more discussion around an “outside-in” approach.
While our cities and towns are clearly the economic centres of activity, there is a strong argument that urban connectivity should be addressed using commercial programmes and public funding, such as that announced in the budget, should be concentrated on overcoming the connectivity gap in rural areas.
The government is keen to create local community hubs to help drive fibre roll-out in rural areas, but how this will work from a commercial and contractual standpoint to incentivise further commercial build out to nearby premises, remains to be seen.
It is pleasing to see the budget allocating money to improving connectivity across the country, given the impact this will have on communities and businesses, and especially pleasing to see the issue of rural access higher on the agenda. However, our experience suggests that some communities may need a completely different commercial model, and the challenges of rural connectivity still require further innovations and the development of greater public and private sector partnerships. In all of these deliberations, it is important to remember that connectivity drives all we do in a modern society, from health care, education, social activities and not least business. That is why this is so important.
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