UK national broadband infrastructure – what now and where next?

UK national broadband infrastructure – what now and where next

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how reliant we are on the vital infrastructure of national broadband. In recent months, the internet has seen an increase of millions around the world who now need fixed broadband to work, learn and play from our homes.

The UK government introduced ‘Delivering Gigabit Britain: Broadband for all, just before the pandemic. Its timing could not have been better as the UK wanted their broadband targets amped up before the December general election. Then of course, COVID-19 struck.

The delivery of this scheme, then became more critical than ever as the financial (and other) impacts of missing broadband targets became bigger. The UK governments approach was to set an ambitious goal of 100% coverage of gigabit cable broadband by 2025. Pre-pandemic, this would of course, be an admirable goal and many were unsure of its attainability. There was also a huge boost for the ever-controversial lack of rural coverage, when the government pledged £5bn to cover the most impossible to reach 20% of the country and then a further £510m as part of the shared rural network.

Now the United Kingdom is in the middle of a pandemic and has seen a huge surge in the use of fixed broadband. There is now no time to become complacent and such ambitious plans need to be expedited, with new and improved policy aims and suggestions about how these connectivity targets can be achieved more rapidly. Failure to do so at the moment, is not an option.

If the country’s post lockdown strategy is to aim for an economic revival, with the intention of getting back to where the country was before the pandemic came along, then broadband for all, around the country is a must have.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the pandemic so far – and not just in the UK, is that the internet has managed to survive with the huge uptick in usage. Many predicted that it would falter, however the networks have all held their ground, not just in terms of traffic but also with changes in the pattern of use during peak hours.

Hopefully, with the above in mind, it has become easier for all those involved to see the necessity of digital infrastructure.

Perhaps pre-pandemic, such a clear perspective was not available and often, government strategies did not apply the importance it originally advocated to broadband. This has basically gone on for 20 years.

There is an ongoing joke about how if Britain’s broadband was rated by the number of promises given by the government and by the number of reports published over the years, then it would have the fastest broadband on earth.

Now, as a result of the pandemic, things are changing very quickly. The views and opinions of decision makers used to be much more stagnant but now the importance of achieving the impending targets means that the idea of 100% fixed broadband coverage is of the highest priority once again.

The priority also includes cable and wireless as well as fibre. This may help achieve the targets quicker and more cost effectively. Consumers don’t seem to care about how they get the services they need, as long as the result is the same.

And of course, with the sudden rush to implement, competition is rife, as is the awareness of connectivity – which has increased substantially.

Providing it plays the coming months right, Britain stands in good stead. They are the lowest in Europe in terms of fibre, however, the highest for superfast broadband. Operators need to see progress in this area, so that they continue investing in UK national infrastructure.

London based consultancy, Assembly Research, released their recommendations about how the UK government and operators should approach the situation.

1. The focus on achieving the 2025 connectivity target should remain given how crucial connectivity is proving to be for UK citizens, and how it will underpin future economic growth and recovery.

2. Sufficient government subsidy and funding models must exist for non-commercial areas if the whole country is to be covered and nobody is to be left behind.

3. A commitment to the technology-neutral approach will be needed to reach the hardest parts of the country on time and in a cost-effective way.

4. Investment and innovation should be pursued through competition with a regulatory framework that considers how this competition varies by geography. 

5. Remaining barriers to deployment must be removed and promised planning reforms must be completed.

6. The demand side must be given more attention to encourage take-up and help lower investment risk.