The UK will desperately need better connectivity once it is outside the European Union, say technology leaders. Getting there is another matter.

Iain Morris, International Editor

June 18, 2019

5 Min Read
Brexit-bound Britain's broadband blues

LONDON -- Connected Britain -- Tousle-haired Brexiteer Boris Johnson, the leading contender to be the next UK prime minister, doesn't seem like the most technologically sophisticated Etonian. He once turned up at Queen's tennis club in central London with a wooden racket from the Bjorn Borg era. This week, an article he wrote on broadband for the Daily Telegraph newspaper showed he is as clueless about fiber as he is about economics.

BoJo's plan to build "full fiber" networks everywhere by 2025 met with restrained laughter at today's Connected Britain event in central London, where most of the country's major broadband stakeholders are debating the challenges the UK's own blond political bombshell (as if the world needed more than one) has conveniently overlooked. "We want 15 million premises by 2025 and nationwide coverage by 2033 -- unless Boris is in and then maybe it's 2025," chuckled Greg Mesch, the CEO of fiber investor CityFibre, drawing a contrast between the UK's existing broadband targets and Johnson's crackpot scheme.

Figure 1: Be Afraid... Along with tax cuts, Boris Johnson is promising ubiquitous full-fiber coverage by 2025. Along with tax cuts, Boris Johnson is promising ubiquitous full-fiber coverage by 2025.

Where Mesch and Johnson would find agreement is on the UK's lag. If the country is not quite the broadband backwater described in Johnson's Telegraph article, it remains a long way behind leading European nations on full fiber coverage. Data from regulatory authority Ofcom suggested that about 7% of properties could access these networks in May. Coverage was 89% in Portugal and 71% in Spain back in 2017, noted the UK regulator.

Mesch and Johnson might also agree the UK desperately needs better connectivity in a post-Brexit world (although Johnson would probably resist using the word desperately). "The right fiber will spark 1% GDP growth across a city," said Mesch. "Why? Because we are a service economy based on the Internet and only fiber can compete in a digital world." In his Telegraph story, Johnson writes: "Every pound invested in full fiber broadband will lead to economic gains worth many times the cost."

Yet as the UK stumbles toward Brexit, it is at risk of making a BoJo-haired mess of connectivity. Duct and pole access, the regulator's scheme to give other companies access to BT's Openreach facilities, is still not a product that works at "scale," grumbled Mesch, despite recent changes. Vodafone, one of the country's big mobile network operators, continues to moan about limited access to Openreach's "dark fiber," which it would like to use for mobile "backhaul" connections between basestations and the core network. Low-cost fiber backhaul will be essential when 5G is more widely available, it says.

When it comes to 5G, the UK is now in the process of widening the digital divide by concentrating deployment on relatively affluent cities and towns. Sticking up a few 5G masts in urban areas allows operators to boast a 5G headstart over European countries yet to launch services. But markets such as France and Spain, with their underlying full-fiber networks, look better prepared for a nationwide extension of 5G.

"My sincere message to Britain is to treat 5G as a critical national infrastructure," said Arun Bansal, the head of Ericsson's business in Europe and Latin America. "With Brexit looming, for Britain to be attractive it needs digital infrastructure that is ahead of the rest of Europe, and for that we need wider investment to happen as soon as possible."

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Of course, a faster rollout would suit one of the world's largest vendors of 5G gear. But the Ericsson executive raises some valid concerns about the difficulty of obtaining planning permission for infrastructure projects in the UK. "The cost of deploying infrastructure in the UK is higher than in Asia and the US," he said. "In the US last year, the FCC mandated easy access to government infrastructure to deploy 5G fast and that is providing a significant advantage. We need similar regulations in the UK."

Scott Petty, the chief technology officer of Vodafone UK, has made similar observations in the past. One sore point is the restriction on mast height in parts of the UK, making coverage a challenge. Such nimbyism is less evident in other European countries, says Vodafone.

Ofcom has announced plans for a shake-up, but drawn-out consultations over the details could swiftly erode any 5G lead it currently boasts. Asked by Light Reading about plans for the densification of mobile networks -- to support 5G services on shorter-range spectrum -- Derek McManus, the chief operating officer of O2, highlighted regulatory constraints. "The discussion with the government is about creating an environment where it is easier to invest, and we have talked about rural coverage and the policy changes required to ensure densification can happen without barriers," he said.

As with Brexit, getting everyone to arrive at some form of sensible compromise will be tough -- not least when it comes to Openreach. "I know some of you were late and I'll give you Greg's presentation in two seconds: We like competition unless you are competing against us," said a combative Neil McRae, BT's chief architect, after sitting through a presentation by the CityFibre CEO that slammed BT for monopolistic behavior. "That is all you need to know. Greg just doesn't like us competing with him." With BoJo in charge, a no-deal Brexit on the cards, and operators bickering over broadband, Britain can confidently anticipate further mayhem.

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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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