Is the UK on track for a full fibre future?
As part of the Government’s commitment to “levelling up”, full fibre broadband is being rolled out to millions of homes and businesses across the UK. But are we on track to meet the 2030 full fibre target? Here, Guy Miller, CEO of wholesale fibre network operator MS3 Networks, rounds up the last year of gigabit progress and provides a glimpse into what 2023 might hold.
With increasing use of data-intensive services like video streaming, video calling and gaming, gigabit broadband is not only about meeting current demand, but also futureproofing infrastructure. The Government’s commitment to improving internet access has led to numerous schemes and grants being rolled out to close the digital divide, boost education and job prospects and increase business productivity.
The stats so far
Significant progress has already been made. Over the last year, the number of premises with access to gigabit connectivity has almost doubled, from 39-70%.
At the forefront of the rollout is Project Gigabit, a huge Government infrastructure project that seeks to connect over one million hard-to-reach homes and businesses with next generation broadband. With a £5bn backing, the project aims to boost connectivity for areas of the UK that have typically missed out on upgrades, often due to a lack of financial support.
These areas have experienced the biggest increase in gigabit-capable broadband since the project’s launch in the spring of 2021. Prior to this, only 14% of premises in the North East had gigabit broadband access, compared to 70% in August 2022 — an increase of 56 percentage points. The East Midlands and the South West also improved greatly, both with increases in connectivity of more than 40%.
While Scotland showed improvement, moving from 47% up to 64% of premises with access to gigabit broadband, Wales still lags behind overall at only 53%, which is lower than any English region.
The incumbent BT Openreach is working to tackle this. Over the past year, Openreach upgraded the network for around one million premises in Wales under commercial contracts, as well as connecting a further half a million premises under the Welsh Government.
Openreach has also begun delivery in Scotland, including projects to lay 16 new subsea cables, providing connection to thousands on isolated Scottish islands.
Incumbents like Openreach are vital to supporting nationwide infrastructure improvements. In the year 21/22, Openreach alone gave 2.6mn households access to full fibre ultrafast networks, bringing their total to 7mn premises to date.
A game of monopoly
But there are some areas where fibre providers have been slow to connect. Rural areas tend to be left with only one broadband provider, resulting in a broadband monopoly. The problem with these monopolies is that the cost and quality of the connection can vary wildly, and since customers have no other choice of provider, there is little pressure on the monopoly company to improve.
Towns and cities can also suffer from monopolisation. Back in 1904, Hull City Council was permitted to run its own telephone network, which remained independent from the big-name broadband companies that bought out most of the UK. Until 2021, KCOM was the only broadband provider covering the area. The result is that Hull has the least affordable broadband in the UK.
Hull is just one example of an area that would benefit from having more service providers and fibre wholesalers. By increasing competition, customers can choose packages that fit their needs and budget. Altnets like MS3 Networks are helping to tackle this, undertaking their own projects to bring ultrafast broadband to homes in the Hull, East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire regions, and are vital in helping customers get connected at the best price.
In order to reach the nationwide gigabit target, broadband providers need to work alongside the government in the rollout and look for ways to optimise the process. The government’s £5bn fund must be reserved for those hard-to-reach, financially unviable areas that won’t be connected by commercial projects. For the rest of the country, rolling out full fibre broadband remains in the hands of network operators.
It's clear there’s still a long way to go before every home has access to full fibre broadband. But with government initiatives and the important work of altnets, the UK is well on its way to a connected future.