Are regional franchises for full fibre on the way?
The Telegraph has an article behind its paywall, but the introduction is visible and suggests that there are fears that rural areas of the UK are going to miss out on the full fibre revolution and that the UK is once again behind its European rivals.
The reality that as a percentage of premises that rural UK has better full fibre coverage may have escaped politicians and journalists memories again i.e. GB Urban 2.9% vs GB Rural 4.2% (update 6.30pm GB Urban 3.3% and GB Rural 4.7%). Of course if you take the unpopular but agnostic view that a 100 Mbps connection if it delivers that speed does not matter whether a hybrid or full fibre solution then its 66.6% GB Urban vs 16.6% GB rural. A lot of 'promises' have been made by operators around full fibre roll-outs and a lot of the commercial activity is set to be urban areas and thus will overlap a lot with Virgin Media.
The key part of the Telegraph article is the suggestion that ultrafast full fibre networks would be delivered via a series of regional franchises with two aims: improve ultrafast coverage in the countryside and challenge BT.
Some of us are old enough to remember the original cable franchises and the rules that stopped BT exploiting the lead it had in fibre optic technology to give the regional cable operators time to build their network and win customers for what at that time was seen as a way of increasing the number of TV channels. Ironically the main economic benefit once you get beyond speeds of 30 Mbps and cross into the mystical realm of ultrafast is that all the public spend thousands of pounds on 4K televisions and always subscribe to the top tier Netflix account that allows 4K viewing, so any new ultrafast franchise would really be all about enabling more OTT TV viewing at 4K or better resolution. Most other digital economy benefits are achievable with superfast type speeds, hence why the digital economy is doing so well in the UK already.
A franchise system could hand smaller operators a chance to build a micro-monopoly and eventually we would see a dominant one emerge to thus become the rural version of what Virgin Media is today i.e. part of a much larger global operator who is carefully managing things to stay one step ahead of its competitors but is not really setting the world on fire.
The questions about what would happen to existing operators in an area who did not win the franchise and whether they'd be allowed to commercially expand, what about ongoing use of gainshare funding as numerous local authorities continue to push superfast and as many are increasingly doing full fibre. Would BT be like it was for two decades stopped from doing much beyond maintenance in the franchise areas? Would new commercial full fibre operators be refused code powers in areas where a franchise operators exists?
At a time when we have companies willing to spend money on full fibre introducing a wave of changes will unsettle investors who will once more wait for the dust to settle. Look at how long it is taking the Broadband Universal Service Obligation to actually be properly defined any franchise system is going to take similar lengths of time to setup.
The original cable franchises did not result in uniform coverage in the areas they owned the franchise, so how would new franchises guarantee that regional rural franchises would not just target the market towns and once again leave out the harder to reach areas?
Ultimately what the public who don't have decent broadband want is broadband that lets them doing their banking, shopping, social media and watch TV online at the same time and they want it yesterday, they don't want promises that sound good on TV or radio they want to see actual network construction on its way to them and monthly prices that are the same as they spend now or only slightly higher.
Or this could all be a test by The Telegraph on behalf of the Government to gauge reaction to the idea, and thus we have fallen into the trap by talking about and propagating something that is just a note scribbled on the corner of a page in an ideas to consider notepad and if it gets adverse reaction never sees the light of day as anything official.
By the way yes we are aware that 4K televisions are now available in the sub £400 bracket, but how many of those that people have purchased are connected to devices capable of supplying 4K resolution content. The extra costs of new 4K capable games consoles, Sky Q subscription, Netflix subscription, new 4K capable Fire TV device all add up and given the pressures on household budgets we are some time away from wall to wall 4K viewing in the median household.
Update 6.30pm The word NOT was missing in one paragraph, the problem of writing on a sleepy Sunday morning and the urban vs rural full fibre figures had not been updated for 6 weeks. The change in the full fibre coverage figures gives an idea of the effect of existing roll-outs and impact of the new build integration.