UK full fibre: Industry reaction

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Following publication by the UK Government of its long-term strategy for UK telecommunications, a number of industry players and trade bodies have voiced their opinion on forging a full fibre broadband and 5G future for all.

ITSPA, the trade body for the next generation communications industry, has welcomed the announcement of the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR) but highlighted some concerns around the current plans to switch off the PSTN, which forms part of its strategy.

ITSPA in general welcomed plans to incentivise further competition in the deployment of full fibre networks.  This includes supporting barrier busting proposals that keep the cost of fibre deployment low, increasing access to Openreach’s ducts and poles (as well as other utilities’ infrastructure) and the development of a more stable and long-term regulatory approach .

“In general, the proposals put forward by Government are welcome,” stated Eli Katz the Chair of ITSPA. “The UK is lagging behind many other countries in terms of full fibre rollout and it is important that we step up now to remain competitive. Our members already see the benefits that full fibre brings where it is currently deployed; both in terms of new business as well as service offerings for their customers. The message is clear, there simply needs to be more of it!.”

Switchover from the old copper PSTN network to full fibre forms part of the FTIR. Ofcom and industry are already in discussion around some of the issues that this switchover involves. There are some concerns that the process could endanger competition, harm smaller providers as well certain groups of consumers if the transition is not undertaken correctly.

“Whilst switching over to full fibre is definitely welcome, the Government and Ofcom needs to ensure that in doing so, they don’t hurt a thriving telco industry that has developed over the past few decades,” warned Katz. “A balance needs to be struck around existing regulations that were relevant in a PSTN world but are becoming increasingly less appropriate in an IP environment, where consumers and businesses are using services in a very different way. Equally there are certain processes that need to be maintained, with IP alternatives developed before migration can be considered. Issues range far and wide; from battery backup for 999 access to developing an IP version of TDM Interconnect but all are important to ensure the industry is not unfairly damaged by an ill-thought out transition plan. We will be working with Ofcom and Government to ensure these concerns are clearly understood as we work towards a prosperous full IP future.”

The CLA, which represents landowners, farmers and rural businesses, has welcomed plans to increase connectivity in the countryside, but warned that rural economic growth is being put at risk because of the failure to recognise that 4G for all must be achieved before rolling out 5G services.

“We welcome the Government’s intention to connect hard-to-reach rural areas,” declared Dr Charles Trotman, Senior Rural Business Adviser at the CLA. “The future of the rural economy depends on fast, affordable and reliable connections. However, we need to see fully developed details from the Government as to why the full fibre broadband rollout should take 15 years to complete and where the money is coming from.”

“Many rural areas fall short of a 4G service due to the inability of mobile network operators to resolve poor signal and mobile not-spots. Rural business must not be side-lined. It is vital that 4G coverage is put in place first because a future 5G service relies on 4G infrastructure.”

“We support the Government ambition to deliver mobile coverage to 95 per cent of UK geographic landmass by the end of 2022. One of the ways to do this is to hold to account mobile phone operators to ensure they invest in a better connected countryside. By engaging all of the industry in the process and ensuring landowners’ rights are fairly balanced, we can finally ensure 4G for all.”

The UK’s Internet Services Providers’ Association (ISPA) said it shares the Government’s ambition to deliver world class digital infrastructure, maintaining the UK’s position as a leading digital economy.

According to the ISPA, rollout is market driven and its members are at the forefront of rolling out gigabit capable infrastructure and services across the country, from established players to alt nets, with significant investment planned and underway. “A clear and stable strategy from Government that provides regulatory certainty, incentivises investment and allows for competition and innovation will help industry deliver the digital infrastructure required,” it suggested.

“We particularly welcome commitment to remove barriers to rollout, the single most important lever policymakers can use to accelerate the rollout of networks. ISPA has been working closely with the Barrier Busting Task Force within DCMS regarding these proposals and looks forward to further engaging in the consultation phase,” it confirmed.

“The broadband sector is at an exciting intersection and ready to be propelled into the next full fibre phase of its development,” noted  Andrew Glover, Chair of ISPA. “It will be crucial for industry to work collaboratively and in close consultation with Government and Ofcom to further identify how the sector can be best stimulated to deliver the future-proof infrastructure the country needs. We particularly look forward to working further with Government to remove barriers to broadband rollout, the single most important lever policymakers can use to accelerate the rollout of infrastructure.”

“We welcome the Government’s statement today that a switchover from hybrid to full fibre networks could be underway in the majority of the country by 2030. But the devil is in the detail,” suggested Evan Wienburg, CEO of full fibre infrastructure provider TrueSpeed. “While the Government is right to state that a full-throttle drive to nationwide full fibre connectivity requires competition and commercial investment to succeed, a fair and equitable playing field for all infrastructure providers is essential. This has not always been the case. There are numerous examples of tax payers’ money being wasted by national incumbent providers building FTTC/FTTP networks in areas where privately funded infrastructure providers have already deployed.”

“We urge the Government to engage more closely with industry in the drawing up of the regulatory and policy changes mooted in the report. And to do this fast. Swift decision making is of the essence if the UK is to have the digital future it deserves.”

The Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA)  offered support for the Government’s Review (FTIR) and welcomed the emphasis placed on full-fibre, 5G and the role alternative network operators (altnets) play.

INCA’s CEO Malcolm Corbett said the support for competitive market deployment of new networks, the ‘outside-in’ approach to ensure rural areas are not left behind, and call for better mechanisms to allow consumers and service providers to easily switch to better network infrastructures will prove to be particularly beneficial.

“We welcome the Government’s FTIR and expect it to encourage the deployment of new networks to boost UK-wide competition, leading to wider coverage and much better services for consumers,” said Corbett. “It is significant that rural areas are now getting the recognition they deserve when it comes to high-speed connectivity and with the ‘outside in’ approach being taken, we feel confident that the FTIR will make a positive and well-received impact nationwide.”

Corbett was also pleased to see recommendations to provide better access to existing passive infrastructure from Openreach and other utilities, which he said will reduce the cost of deployments. Increased industry collaboration to allow operators to extend their fibre footprints by working together and a proposal that would require Openreach to publish its deployment plans in full were also welcomed by INCA, as was the continued emphasis on the need to reduce barriers to new network deployments such as wayleaves and street works.

“Traditionally, collaborative approaches were met with caution in case they breached competition laws but, as the FTIR rightly notes, this has not prevented such agreements being developed elsewhere in the EU,” added Corbett, “With such a big job to do to replace the ageing copper network, it makes sense to encourage more collaboration amongst all industry players.”

With the report’s emphasis on 5G, Corbett said a big bonus in the FTIR was the proposal for Ofcom to consider different approaches to spectrum access, including the 3.6-3.8Ghz band, that can help improve the investment case for rural fixed wireless broadband services.

In June 2018, UKWISPA (UK Wireless Internet Service Providers Association) and INCA highlighted how important new approaches to spectrum allocation would be following the High performance wireless broadband: an opportunity for rural and enterprise 5G report conducted by Plum Consulting which discussed the role independent networks will play in realising UK Government broadband targets.

“5G is more than another mobile network upgrade; it is not simply business as usual for mobile operators, but will facilitate new services and new business models, some of which are being trialled through the testbeds programme,” said Corbett. “With this also comes the need to change the way our broadband regulators work and we are delighted that the Government has backed our calls for change when it comes to spectrum allocation.”

 


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