One of the good thing abouts Covid is that it has exposed parts of our society or economy that don’t work properly. A big revelation for government, for business, and the population at large is this: Britain has a connectivity problem.
It may come as little surprise to many (especially those that live outside city limits) that the UK has one of the lowest amounts of fibre rollout in the developed world. In 2019, just 11% of UK premises were within reach of a Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) based network. That’s a staggeringly low number for a service economy, and one purporting to be a fully-fledged ‘digital’ economy at that.
The reasons for this are myriad, but the short answer is that we’ve spent decades, and billions of taxpayers’ money, investing in the wrong (or increasingly redundant) technologies. Over the years, through organisations such as Building Digital UK (BDUK), the government have channelled hundreds of millions of pounds into supporting faster broadband. The chief beneficiary has been our incumbent, BT, who has not invested in true fibre but instead in upgrading their aging and archaic copper network and calling it ‘Superfast’. This is now not fit for purpose and it means that UK has missed a decade of investment, leading us to be one of the lowest ranking developed countries for fibre infrastructure.
We could see that fibre was the future many years ago – the simple fact that it can transfer unlimited amounts of data means that it is a technology that cannot be readily surpassed. And yet, if you live in parts of the country where trees and fields are prevalent, you will know the pain of trying to get a decent internet line into your property.
The simple fact is that dominant players in the market are not digging enough. That is to say, they’re not laying the physical infrastructure into the ground that will facilitate our digital economy. It’s rather like trying to supply a city using B roads rather than motorways.
There are many companies building fibre networks and gaining investment. One of the key issues to unlocking wider adoption is the cost of ‘backhaul’ fibre to connect remote villages and towns with ISPs in city centres. Unbeknownst to many is that National Rail have a national fibre network, which has been taxpayer funded, with true fibre running along every railway line across the UK. Access to this infrastructure would unlock the backhaul issue and dramatically reduce the cost of fibre infrastructure to remote locations. BT are of course against this plan and call it state aid.
The government, with its post-Covid stimulus package and much-vaunted desire to ‘level-up’ the country now has the golden opportunity for a headline-catching quick win. By allowing smaller ISPs to tap into the National Rail infrastructure and liberalising their ability to lay new lines to remote locations, they can grow our fibre network much more quickly by stimulating competition. This is a classic example of an industry being held back by big players who make more money on older technology. It’s time to take a wrecking ball to this edifice of special interest and get Britain digging.