Full-fibre coverage grows to 8%

Can nationwide fibre actually happen?

a globe with a network map overlay

Friday, 20 September, 2019

Ofcom have announced that 400,000 new premises now have the option of full-fibre broadband. That marks a 1% growth in just four months.

Boris Johnson has pledged that full-fibre will reach nationwide coverage by 2025. But how far away is that pledge from reality?

With 92% of premises lacking full-fibre, the current rate (1% in four months) means it will take more than 30 years to connect the entire nation.

With numbers like that, Boris Johnson’s pledge sounds utterly impractical.

Achieving the goal means connecting 1.5% of premises every single month from now until 2025. That’s more than 420,000 homes getting new cables set down every 30 days.

Is full-fibre by 2025 even possible?

Telecoms industry experts have said that it is indeed possible to deliver nationwide full-fibre within the next six years. With enough engineers, funding, and public interest, getting the pipes laid is relatively simple.

There are already dozens of companies building full-fibre networks, and there doesn’t appear to be much shortage when it comes to funding. As well as telecoms companies investing in their own service, there has also been government funding, and even substantial private equity investment.

The biggest bottleneck to network construction is the government’s own regulations. Property planning laws and landowner permissions can hold up development plans for months. It isn’t earthworks that’s slowing things down, it’s paperwork.

Operators have called for reforms to planning permissions laws to help speed things along. Of course, changing laws and regulations takes a long time in itself, especially when the government is overwhelmed by other issues.

This Government wants to deliver world-class, gigabit-capable digital infrastructure across the country and will announce further details on how we will achieve this as soon as possible.

We are investing over £650 million in full fibre broadband until the end of 2021 and are committed to creating the right opportunities for investment as we speed up the roll-out of this technology

- Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS)

What is “gigabit-capable digital infrastructure”?

The government may have already given up on their initial pledge of ‘full-fibre by 2025’, instead focusing on the less snappy ‘gigabit-capable by 2025’.

Gigabit speeds are 1000 Mbps or more. This includes full-fibre, which reach 1 Gbps at a minimum, but also a range of other technologies.

Virgin Media’s new network upgrade boosts customers up to 1 Gbps speeds, without using a full-fibre connection. 5G is the new wireless broadband standard, and that can also reach 1 Gbps speeds.

Both of these are viable options for reaching nationwide coverage by 2025, but they’re both a significant downgrade from full-fibre. The differences in speed between these standards may be small today, but full-fibre infrastructure has much more potential for growth. In theory, a full-fibre connection could eventually deliver terrabit speeds (1000 Gbps).

The government and telecoms companies might be rushing to meet the 2025 goalposts, but full-fibre could sustain the UK’s communication infrastructure for decades to come.

The “digital divide”

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA) have published an inquiry into the state of rural connectivity. They expressed concerns that the Government has not “fully grasped” the scale of the disparity between broadband in rural and urban areas.

They also criticised the lack of direction surrounding the 2025 pledge, and the “obsolete” 10 Mbps Universal Service Obligation that comes into effect next year.

It is a fact that gigabit speeds are coming to urban areas first and foremost. This creates the largest divide in history between rural and urban broadband speeds. It is vital that rural areas are not overlooked when it comes to full-fibre and 5G coverage, as has been the case with superfast and 4G broadband.

The exact plans for meeting Boris Johnson’s pledge are expected to be revealed in the National Infrastructure Strategy, set to be published in autumn. Until then, it is difficult to say how close we will get to nationwide “gigabit-capable” by 2025.

Samuel Newman author picture


Samuel Newman is a consumer journalist and blogger based in Sheffield.