Is as far as possible the same as 100 percent coverage?
The ambition to get Gigabit connectivity available to 100% of UK homes and businesses by 2025 is obviously not an easy task but it is one of the Conservative Party manifesto promises that is now backed by £5 billion of funding.
As we type this news item the UK is sat at 22.21% Gigabit coverage (full fibre and Gigabit), it would be higher but with the overlap between the Virgin Media and FTTP networks a good chunk of places like Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester and Liverpool already have a choice of two Gigabit services (340,000 premises have both Openreach FTTP and Virgin Media Gig1 options, some 2,237 premises even have Openreach FTTP, Vodafone Gigafast and Virgin Media Gig1).
Wednesday saw Matt Warman MP answering questions on the delivery of broadband and the Rural Gigabit connectivity programme. Transcripts are online via Hansard.
John Nicolson (Ochil and South Perthshire) (SNP)
I am concerned that the Government have gone completely silent on their 2025 roll-out target for gigabyte-capable broadband; instead, we are told that it will be delivered as soon as possible. It has been five months since the Secretary of State last pledged in the House the Government’s commitment to the Conservative manifesto promise. No statement has been made, and industry voices are growing anxious that without immediate action to address the policy barriers, there is simply no chance whatsoever of achieving the target. Meanwhile, thousands of businesses across rural Scotland continue to struggle with archaic internet speeds. For the avoidance of doubt and for the record: 2025—yes or no?
The Government have been clear that we will go as fast as we possibly can. We are removing the barriers that the hon. Gentleman discussed, but it is also right to say that it is an immensely challenging target. Going as fast as possible is the right thing to do, and we will work as hard as we possibly can to go as far as we possibly can by 2025. My ambition is absolutely to reach the number in our manifesto that the hon. Gentleman describes.Extract from House of Commons debate
There are a couple of preceding questions and the following page on Hansard covers the Rural Gigabit Connectivity programme, so reading those parts is worthwhile.
Like many political questions a simple yes or no answer is asked for, but a more complex one is given. In this case it appears that yes the ambition to deliver 100% Gigabit still exists but there are qualifiers and while it is not stated one of the biggest problems is that there are many outside factors that could derail the ambition. The largest is that a commercial operator starts down a path to deliver full coverage to area but at a later date has to change its plans or things are delayed - a very real possibility would be a buy out or merger of a commerical firm that introduces a delay to plans while a new owner integrates its new assets.
There is some debate and worry from some that slower services may be considered as meeting the target, with hints that in a few situations something that delivers just 50 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload might be considered. Clearly if the 50 Mbps is the maximum speed people can buy and also is technically possible then that does not tick the Gigabit box, where things start to get murkier is if an area has a fixed wireless service rolled out that guarantees a 50 Mbps connection and the operator is claiming that further upgrades will deliver Gigabit. In our tracking of the Gigabit total we would not accept that sort of thing, because if we were then since Openreach can upgrade its network to FTTP if they wanted we would have to count everywhere they cover with 50 Mbps VDSL2 now as Gigabit capable.
One thing worth repeating for the record is that the deadline we are counting down towards for Gigabit coverage is 31st March 2026.
The £5 billion from Westminster is expected to be spent in three different strands
- Continued work via things like Local Full Fibre Network, with things like schools and other public buildings acting as hubs and residents utilising vouchers to get connected to the same provider as who rolled out to the school. This is essentially a recycle of the digital village pump from the 2009 Digital Britain report.
- Voucher schemes, allowing those most in need to get ahead of the queue, though given the costs of building to lots of rural areas the vouchers while useful do require a fair bit of cash from the person wanting to get connected. Where the voucher schemes are most useful is if a community or business park can work together to pool vouchers and then the intervention cost per property reduces and vouchers may cover almost all the costs.
- A revamped BDUK type programme. It is thought that much smaller lots than the county level chunks from the original BDUK contracts will be used. This could encourage more community led schemes, but conversely might lead to bidders cherry picking and some geographically spread out lots being left behind or only getting served by something that in the short term can only manage 50 Mbps e.g. 700 MHz wireless utilising 5G radio.
The recent £500 million Government investment in OneWeb and the potential of its low earth orbit (LEO) satellite system is the ultimate backup. Though this in itself is a gamble as OneWeb is unproven and while some tests indicate speeds of 400 Mbps and latency around 32 milliseconds might be possible there is no concrete information on how many will be able to see that 400 Mbps at the same time.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the broadband problems faced by people now trying to work from home with speeds of just a couple of meg and the pressure is growing for the Government to move faster on its various broadband ambitions, but being honest about it the only short term solution available would be vouchers. Some will say that the broadband USO should be updated and the use of 4G to meet this be considered just a short term solution with USO invokers simply using the 4G while FTTP is built out to them. A strengthened USO with its inherent legal basis would seem a good way to go, but changes to how that works are not going to be fast due to the mixture of legal time frames, Government, Ofcom and BT.
Ultimately what the UK needs is operators to build out commercially as fast as they are able to and any future procurement programmes to be more dynamic and responsive.
One of the limited often raised by industry is a difficulty in hiring enough people to build at a faster rate and the pandemic does provide some potential there. Obviously you cannot simply go from being laid off by a high street store one day to putting on a harness and climbing a telecom pole the next day, so there needs to be training and apprenticeships and with the right backing from Government the UK could see FTTP roll-outs speeding up month on month after a training lull.
We looked at how far the commercial Gigabit roll-outs would reach back in March and if we get a gap in our FTTP finding schedule we will run the numbers again to see if there has been any substantial changes. In theory the announcement from Openreach that it is shifting from a 15 million FTTP ambition for 2025 to 20 million should change things, but the degree hinges on what the level of overlap is with Virgin Media and other Gigabit capable networks.