Executive Q&A: Ben Allwright, CEO of Ogi
How have you seen the UK's demand for digital infrastructure change during the past two years of the pandemic?
I think the pandemic has driven demand for improved digital infrastructure in many ways. Firstly – the practical need for always on, reliable connectivity has been highlighted by our newfound reliance on collaboration tools, such as Teams and Zoom, and cloud-based systems, which became a lifeline during the pandemic. As gaming, working and schooling from home increased, our current connectivity shortcomings quickly became clear. With many more of us working from home and video usage normalised, creaking Wifi coverage and ageing Superfast connections were often left wanting. And it was often worse outside our larger cities and towns, where the legacy copper networks, often decades old, were already operating at their technical limits.
Second - the pandemic also enabled more of us to realise the lifestyle benefits of hybrid working, making it suddenly more realistic for people to live and work in their communities, even if their company is headquartered elsewhere. This is driving demand for services from a company like Ogi, where our focus is on market and post-industrial towns like Haverfordwest and Abergavenny, where people would have struggled to find a broad range of jobs in the past. This very much aligns with Welsh Government’s agenda to encourage around a third of the workforce to work from home more regularly and boost the prosperity of local areas and high streets – normalising demand for resilient digital infrastructure advancements.
Finally, perhaps the biggest demand driver has been the cultural shift we’ve seen towards digital living: Grandparents on Zoom; contactless payments at local shops; and almost everyone streaming…
These shifts in lifestyles and expectations, and the drive towards fair and equitable access, have really exacerbated the need to speed up major infrastructure programmes such as Ogi’s £200m (US$250mn) full fibre plan for Wales, to plug the gaps now and for the future.
What role do Alt nets have to play in the UK’s journey to full fibre and beyond – especially with regard to the country’s digital divide?
Altnets are playing a vital role in accelerating the roll out of full fibre – especially to areas that are traditionally underserved, like in Ogi’s case.
Take Wales, for instance, where Ogi is currently the only major altnet. Many of the places we’re prioritising are not even on Openreach or Virgin Media’s radar, and if they are, they won’t be in service for many years to come; so we’re literally bridging a digital divide by enabling families and businesses in these communities to get world-class connectivity as quickly as our biggest cities. And with these agile plans comes major investment into towns and communities that have traditionally been overlooked and/or joined the back of a long queue. Fast moving altnets like Ogi serve to shake up the existing monopolies, catalyse action and offer the consumer more choice. The reality is that for most of the UK, Openreach remains the only infrastructure provider and the myriad ISPs in business have only one place to go for connectivity. That’s not a real choice – and it’s bad for business and consumers.
What have the past few years been like for Ogi?
In 2020 we secured landmark funding of £120mn (US$150mn) to deliver our phase 1 - a £200mn (US$250mn) plan for Wales - so it’s been an exceptionally exciting and fast-moving couple of years. Within 12-months we’d rebranded to Ogi (a familiar chant in Wales – and a rallying call to come together); started our infrastructure build programme in three communities – from the west Wales coast to the hills of Monmouthshire; put in place a 10-Gigabit capable network; and grown from 20 to 120 staff members - and we’re not stopping there!
Our ambition is to continue at pace to bring future-proof connectivity to Wales’s communities and to accelerate the nation’s general gearshift to a digital future – securing additional backing for our plans as we grow.
Building a network takes time and can be disruptive, and we’re also a relatively unknown brand – especially in the residential market – so we have a lot to do to generate confidence in our offer. However, where we are building, customers are responding positively to our product range, with users seeing the benefits of our services instantly.
We’re already making a difference too. In the last 12-months we’ve helped drive a significant increase in full fibre roll-out in Wales: which saw its highest increase in terms of coverage last year (from 19-27%) thanks in part to our contribution. We’re certainly accelerating the pace of roll-out across the board, and bringing fibre to areas that would have otherwise been underserved.
Do 5G and fibre broadband necessarily have to exist in competition, or is there a more cooperative way?
Customers deserve and need the choice, and both technologies complement each other and rely on each other too, of course. In simple terms, without fibre you can’t have 5G. Mobile networks are increasingly reliant on full fibre backhaul networks to guarantee the speeds and reliability that comes with people’s expectations of 5G.
However, in some places – like the rural communities we’re working towards – it might be more practical to install 5G than the extensive digs that come with installing full fibre networks. That, together with plans to retire the PSTN network in the coming years, mean the different services will need to work together and separately depending on local need.
Cooperation is vital and a huge opportunity – including for Ogi, as we build-out a backhaul network that will offer dark fibre opportunities for all kinds of third-parties that want to work with us to grow their own reach in Wales.
Where do you see broadband connectivity in the UK headed between now and 2025? How about beyond?
We’re seeing a big acceleration in the roll out of full fibre broadband connectivity, as well as other innovative connectivity solutions, especially as the PSTN switch-off gets nearer. We’ve already seen the emergence of a wide range of altnets that are helping to plug the gaps across the UK, and are also willing to go head-to-head with the established players and with each other to give customers better speeds, new services, and more choice. Ultimately, I’m sure we’ll see a degree of consolidation in some areas as synergies appear, but it’s really inspiring to see such pace and energy in the market.
Most importantly perhaps, is that I think broadband connectivity will become a huge factor in driving major socio-economic and environmental changes to the way the UK lives and works. We’ll become a sector that makes a massive difference.
In Wales, it’s interesting to see the changing emphasis towards a more sustainable future at Government level: if we’re not building more highways today, then now’s the time to support initiatives and investments into the digital superhighways of tomorrow, to link Welsh communities to the world. Being part of this societal change is very exciting – it’s a commercial opportunity, sure, but it’s the sense of purpose that motivates me and the chance to leave a lasting legacy, too.