“We want to see 15 million premises connected to full fibre by 2025, with coverage across all parts of the country by 2033.”
In a similar statement of intent, Ofcom’s annual plan for 2019/2020 sets out two main methods to meet the demand for better and future focused broadband: a continued investment in fixed line broadband and a greater focus on how mobile networks can support a rising demand for services. Communications connectivity is no longer a luxury – it is a core part of critical national infrastructure: for entrepreneurs to innovate, for businesses to compete on the global stage and for public services to achieve quality and efficiency simultaneously. Robust, resilient and high-capacity full-fibre networks are essential. However, we know that a single solution will not meet the UK markets’ diverse needs and geographic challenges will further limit the impact of a single solution. 100% coverage with 300Mbs on the open market will require a blend of solutions.
Our vibrant broadband infrastructure and wider telecommunications market is, as you would expect, oriented to commercial centres where infrastructure providers and network operators have balanced the investment required against the greatest possible returns. To achieve the government’s stated goals, we need to be prepared to break down that overall goal of 100% full fibre rollout nationwide into separate areas, and come up with more creative solutions in different parts of the country, particularly in rural areas which have proved less attractive for ‘organic’ commercial investment.
A national infrastructure agenda?
What would this approach look like in practice? One possibility is setting a single national infrastructure agenda, which then uses tailored models in different areas, therefore combatting the challenges created by an open market when it comes to fibre connectivity in particular. Such models might involve sharing resources between private and public sector organisations. Ofcom, for example, recently announced that companies laying high-speed fibre cables for broadband and mobile networks will gain greater access to Openreach’s duct and poles infrastructure.
However, a national infrastructure agenda should go beyond easier access to commercial assets to explore how public sector organisations, such as local authorities, can lead the deployment of infrastructure in their region; this approach can be designed and operated on a shared basis.
Local authorities taking the lead
Local authorities need to demonstrate creative solutions for full-fibre connectivity in their local communities. They need to take advantage of central government funding where possible in order to provide financial and policy support to make this happen.
This model is already becoming a reality, with West Sussex County Council, securing more than £4 million in funding from the first wave of the Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) Challenge Fund. The investment has been used to upgrade both the Council’s connectivity, and public sector partner organisations within the region. This has resulted in the council taking direct responsibility for infrastructure upgrades across the local area with a view to benefiting other public sector organisations and even businesses in the region who might otherwise be unable to harness the full benefits of commercially supplied broadband infrastructure. Achieving this kind of success depends on local authorities and community groups presenting robust business cases for the rollout of next-generation infrastructure, not just in terms of the benefits harnessed for citizens, businesses and public services, but also in terms of sustainable, scalable and cost-effective investment. This requires local authorities to look beyond current commercial restrictions to assess the specific challenges and contexts of a given area. From the physical environments that need to be covered by a full-fibre network, to population projections over the coming years.
Localised strategies needed to connect our future
Market forces alone will not deliver 100% full fibre connectivity across the UK.
But if local authorities develop a local strategy to meet local area needs, working across both public and private sector organisations, a new approach to delivering 100% connectivity across the UK will be established.
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