BoJo's UK Broadband Plan Looks Barmy, but Don't Write It Off

The UK's new prime minister may be chasing perfection in the hope of catching excellence, but the country's operators are demanding action on numerous fronts.

Iain Morris, International Editor

August 5, 2019

10 Min Read
BoJo's UK Broadband Plan Looks Barmy, but Don't Write It Off

"If we chase perfection we can catch excellence," said legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi. Perhaps Boris Johnson, the UK's new prime minister, had the same philosophy in mind when he recently promised zippy full-fiber networks for every property by 2025, eight years sooner than a previous government target. Against multiple odds, nobody seriously expects the UK to go from fiber loser to leader in the next few years. But if it aims high, it might just become a fiber contender.

Johnson's plans prompted guffaws when he first wrote about them in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, weeks before succeeding Theresa May in the UK's top political job. Full- or all-fiber networks, which replace copper in the final drop to customer premises, are currently available to just 8% of UK properties. Covering every home in the country would cost around £30 billion ($36.5 billion), the government estimated last year. A major public-sector commitment might force it to borrow heavily as the economy feels the impact of a "no deal" exit from the European Union in October. Private-sector companies see no business case for building networks in the most remote areas.

Figure 1: Fiber Fanatic Boris Johnson, the UK's new prime minister, has emerged as a cheerleader for all-fiber broadband networks. Boris Johnson, the UK's new prime minister, has emerged as a cheerleader for all-fiber broadband networks.

Since then, broadband stakeholders have been eager to show they are in a coalition of the willing. With negativity out of fashion under Johnson, operators worry that persistent grumbling could leave them friendless at the full-fiber party. BT Openreach, the country's infrastructure incumbent, has more reason than anyone to smile enthusiastically. Ofcom, the regulator, has already threatened to separate it entirely from BT, its parent company, if it sulkily drags its feet on making service improvements.

Even before the intervention by Johnson, nicknamed BoJo by the British press, the UK's full-fiber rollout was starting to gather pace. Forced by Ofcom into a "legal separation" of Openreach, and warned that full dismemberment could happen, BT is targeting 4 million properties by March 2021. The emergence of new infrastructure rivals is partly responsible. CityFibre, a fiber investor backed by Goldman Sachs, is targeting 5 million properties by 2025. Hyperoptic, a similar venture that has secured investment from Abu Dhabi, aims to cover the same number a year earlier. Virgin Media, the UK's cable incumbent, is also providing "gigabit" connections using a mixture of fiber and cable infrastructure.

Figure 2: In the Fiber Relegation Zone Source: FTTH Council Europe, IDATE. Source: FTTH Council Europe, IDATE.

This would still leave a gulf to reach all 27.2 million or so UK homes (according to UK government figures from 2017). Openreach has dangled plans to cover a total of 15 million properties by the mid-2020s, but only if the "investment conditions" are right. Having recently warned it may have to cut dividends to pay for a full-fiber rollout, it needs above all to persuade shareholders it can make a decent return on investment.

Encouragingly, BT executives have made some positive noises about the future direction of pricing regulation by Ofcom. This includes suggestions BT will have visibility of regulatory plans over a longer investment cycle, a move that might provide "welcome certainty until 2031," said Cathryn Ross, BT's director of regulatory affairs, during last week's earnings call.

Existing customers

Existing coverage

Long-term ambition

Timeframe

BT Openreach

352,000

1,514,000

15,000,000

Mid-2020s

CityFibre

N/A

N/A

5,000,000

2025

Gigaclear

19,000

93,000

500,000

2024

Hyperoptic

N/A

500,000

5,000,000

2024

In other regards, Openreach remains deeply morose. An open letter addressed to Boris Johnson at the weekend -- and signed off by representatives of FCS, INCA and ISPA, three industry groups -- sets out the operator's main concerns and demands. Uppermost is the maligned "fiber tax," which taxes fiber cables as if they were business buildings. Cutting these rates would naturally spur fiber investment, say the letter's signatories. They also want easier access to buildings and land where "unresponsive landlords delay rollout." Mandating fiber rollout to all newly built homes would further help the industry move closer to the latest government target.

The skills gap is another big challenge that needs to be overcome. "Investment in digital and engineering skills needs to be prioritized and our members need to be able to compete for global talent to fill the ever-increasing skills gap," says the letter. Philip Jansen, BT's CEO, reckons about 35,000 people are needed to build the UK's full-fiber network. The UK's looming withdrawal from the European Union could shut off certain labor markets where there is an abundant supply of these professionals. "I'm worried about access to the wider labor pool and that is why we are hiring into Openreach rather than relying on third parties who use European labor," said Clive Selley, Openreach's CEO, during the recent Connected Britain event in London. After a hiring frenzy, BT now has about 5,000 employees dedicated to the fiber job.

Next page: A litany of complaints?

A litany of complaints
Fiber investors also have different priorities. While the missive to Johnson was presented as a "cross-industry" letter, it is no such thing, according to CityFibre, which probably has the highest profile of any UK fiber investor apart from Openreach. "A whole bunch of players refused to sign that despite it masquerading as the industry voice," says a spokesperson for the company. Although CityFibre shares many of the concerns that were raised, it says there is a "critical" need for action elsewhere. Anti-competitive practices, "overbuild," pricing and access to Openreach infrastructure all make its list.

Overbuild, the deployment of two or more networks in the same area, explains why authorities cannot simply tot up the various full-fiber commitments to arrive at a single coverage figure. Gigaclear, another investor that aims to cover 500,000 properties by 2024, is going after rural areas, while CityFibre steers clear of London and other major cities where existing competition is rife. Yet with the private sector usually drawn to wealthier, more densely populated communities, the overlap seems bound to be significant.

"The key point here is that if the UK is to have any chance of meeting either the original target, let alone the accelerated one, the government and Ofcom must do whatever they can to ensure contributions are additive and not duplicative," says CityFibre's spokesperson. Estimating how much overbuild will happen is "impossible" right now, he adds.

BT's relative satisfaction with Ofcom is also at odds with the unhappiness felt by others. Despite recent changes, duct and pole access, the Ofcom scheme for giving other investors access to Openreach facilities, is still not a product that works "at scale," said Greg Mesch, Openreach's CEO, at Connected Britain. Vodafone, one of the UK's big mobile operators, still complains about the limited access to Openreach's "dark fiber," which it wants to use for the mobile "backhaul" connections between its basestations and core network. Executives stop short of describing legal separation as a failure. But there are signs of support for a more comprehensive BT break-up.

Getting broadband customers to use new fiber networks is another problem. Although Openreach had extended full-fiber networks to more than 1.5 million properties by the end of June, there were just 352,000 live connections. Justifying rollout to investors will be even harder if fiber remains unused, especially given the cost of maintaining older copper lines. That dynamic means Openreach has an incentive to move customers from copper to fiber products. But resellers are nervous about a backlash from a forced eviction, as Selley is only too aware. "Retail service providers are concerned about vulnerable customers and how they are handheld through the migration process," he said at Connected Britain. "They have a set of practical operational concerns."

Figure 3: BT's Full-Fiber Progress Source: BT. Source: BT.

Johnson's preoccupation with fiber may be counterproductive in the short term. Much of Virgin Media's infrastructure will not count strictly as full fiber and yet be capable of handling gigabit-speed connectivity. Other technologies could economically provide high-speed connections in hard-to-reach areas, especially given the near impossibility of building full-fiber networks in the most isolated communities. About a half of UK properties can be covered with fiber at a per-home cost of £300-400 ($365-487), says Openreach. For the costliest tenth, that expense rises to about £4,000 ($4,868). "Public funding will probably be needed to bring FTTP [fiber-to-the-premises] to the hardest-to-reach 10% of the UK population," said BT's Jansen last week.

That works out at an overall commitment of nearly £10.9 billion ($13.3 billion), far more than the £3-5 billion ($3.7-6.1 billion) the government has earmarked for hard-to-reach areas, according to the FCS/INCA/ISPA letter. A mixture of fiber and other technologies, including the high-speed 5G networks now appearing, could massively reduce the bill. Other countries, including the US market that is often seen as a technology leader, are using 5G to support residential broadband in out-of-the-way places. Yet Johnson remains fixated on fiber.

For more fixed broadband market coverage and insights, check out our dedicated Broadband content channel here on Light Reading.

Full-fiber penetration of 100% would be unprecedented in Europe. According to data published last year by the FTTH Council Europe, an industry association, Portugal and Spain are the region's full-fiber leaders, with availability rates of 99.2% and 97.8% respectively. Some experts see that huge lead as an accidental by-product of old regulatory shortcomings that made it hard to access incumbent networks, driving other service providers to invest in their own infrastructure. Whatever the explanation, the European Union availability average is just 36.4%, according to the FTTH Council Europe. Even the fiber leaders rely on other technologies in some areas.

With Brexit looming, Johnson might not last long in his current role, and a successor could tear up his plans. Much worse for the UK's fiber investors would be a plodder who does nothing to ease regulation or improve conditions. If he survives as prime minister, the real broadband danger for Johnson is that he fails to back up his rhetoric with positive action. Perfection is unattainable, said football great Lombardi. In this case, excellence would more than suffice.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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