At the end of August the Government announced that a share of £95 million is being made available to local authorities to help rollout full fibre connectivity across the UK. It’s the third round of funding from the £190 million Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) Challenge Fund, which was launched to boost commercial investment in networks across the whole of the UK. This announcement is of course hot on the heels of the Government’s Future Telecoms Review, where it set out its ambition for a nationwide full-fibre broadband network by 2033.
At Hyperoptic we see initiatives such as these as a catalyst to help build stronger partnerships between Gigabit broadband providers and local authorities. Whilst the funding on offer is relatively small it does help coalesce action and in particular address one of the key objectives of the initiative to – ‘use existing infrastructure and public assets to bring homes and businesses, not currently within scope for commercial investment, within reach of fibre connection points.’
It’s a slight red herring that lack of cash is holding back local authorities from enabling their residents and businesses to have access to full fibre. By and large, the funding has been raised already by private sector broadband suppliers. They will more often than not shoulder the costs and risks involved with deploying brand new fibre optic cable infrastructure to homes and businesses – and at no cost to the taxpayer. The issue instead is one of ‘red tape’. It can take many months and even years to get the necessary permissions to install to install services. Normally this take the form of a ‘wayleave’ – the right of way granted by the land owner to give access to the property. It is this part of the process that needs to be streamlined.
This isn’t the 1990s when pavements turned into construction sites for months on end whilst cable was laid. Today many of the underground ducts already exist and sewers can also be used to minimise disruption to residents. More often than not it is a question of having the will and vision to drive the change that is needed.
However, there are examples of where local authorities are doing things differently. Last year, consumer champion Which? named the London Borough of Southwark as one of the 20 worst places in the UK for broadband speeds, with an average download speed of 10.4Mbps. To change this, it has entered into a landmark block agreement with Hyperoptic to deploy full fibre broadband across the entire council-owned residential estate of Southwark over the coming year. Whilst this agreement will service the whole of Southwark Council’s housing portfolio, which includes over 53,000 residential homes and nearly 1,000 commercial properties, an additional major benefit is that since Hyperoptic’s network will also pass an additional 46,000 homes and businesses in the borough it brings 100,000 homes and businesses in reach of full fibre – from just one agreement.
In just the last six months other councils have since followed Southwark’s suit including Thurrock, Brent, Hammersmith & Fulham, Southampton, and the City of London. This proves that the business case for local authorities is a genuine ‘win win’ –hundreds of thousands of residents gain quick access to Gigabit broadband, some 22x quicker than the national average, at no cost to the taxpayer.
Going back to the Future Telecoms Review, the Government’ broke its target down further, with 15 million premises to have access to full fibre broadband by 2025. Cutting through red tape further means there is the appealing prospect for the tax payer, and Government, that the entire UK’s broadband infrastructure could be full-fibre ahead of the deadline with only minimal recourse to the public purse to seed some initial projects.
The Government has identified many projects which would suit funding for phase three of the LFFN Challenge Fund. Funding community schemes is understandably looked upon favourably. This can include providing fibre connections to premises such as job centres, training academies, youth facilities and sports centres. Again, partnership is key here. Local authorities should look to the areas of need within their communities and work with broadband providers on schemes to regenerate the entire area. It is not uncommon for broadband providers to (for example) part fund non-commercial projects in conjunction with grants.
The UK has tolerated poor broadband for too long. Today, just 4% of UK premises can access the gold standard of fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband. We trail behind other developed nations and are currently 32nd out of 34 OECD countries for full fibre. This must change. It’s up to alternative network providers like us to do what the larger players in the industry have failed to – invest in new fibre networks, rather than consistently try to get more out of decades old copper wires. We can however only do this with strong partnerships with local authorities and housing providers. Let’s Gigabit Britain.