The Government is in determined election mode, only with no election to fight, for now. While the Prime Minister and his senior colleagues make their appearance at the nation’s hospitals, it is in areas like infrastructure and technology that are also receiving the attention of Ministers. The recent announcement that the Government is planning to support full-fibre rollout with £5 billion was met with what could at best be described as lukewarm applause.
Full-fibre – a fibre-optic cable running directly into a building, thus vastly increasing Internet access speeds – has been high on the political agenda in the UK for years. The country plays catch-up with other European countries, so the Government’s intent is to ensure that while the UK is doing that, no part of the UK falls behind. The financial support is therefore specifically aimed at the “hardest to reach 20% of the country”, meaning mainly regions in the North.
There is more context to this. In its 2018 Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review, the Government revealed its fibre goals: 10 million premises to have full-fibre access by 2025, 15 million by 2028 and 30 million by 2033. It also estimated that by then, 10% of the UK will not be covered by the commercial sector, and that it would require Government funding of between £3 billion and £5 billion to achieve nation-wide connectivity.
This timeline was then substantially revised by Boris Johnson this year, just before he became Prime Minister. Bringing forward the 2033 deadline to 2025 not only means that costs inevitably will go up – it is a very basic principle of any market economy that if you need anything urgently, you will have to pay more. The Government also expects that by 2025, the commercial sector will not be able to cover 20% of the UK. So the £5 billion injection will help, but if it is going far enough remains to be seen.
The ISPA – the UK’s trade association for providers of Internet services – promptly reacted to the announcement with a renewed call for urgent regulatory reform, primarily with regards to the Fibre Tax – the business rates applicable to the use of services delivered over fibre – as well as planning laws. “Full-fibre” is a huge infrastructure project, and without making it easier to lay the actual cables, the industry will struggle to accelerate the rollout.
The Government now will evaluate and define these areas. It will have to balance the public’s expectation of nation-wide fast Internet access with creating a level playing field for the companies that will make this happen. It will also need to listen to these companies’ concerns, and will need to consider their views. After all, full-fibre connectivity is not a shiny nice to have. At the very heart of the nation’s infrastructure, it needs much more than just monetary support.
With a Queen’s Speech set for next week, expect to see more manifesto commitments from the Government, with technology taking the stage. Our Political + Public Affairs team will have more on that and the Government’s latest election focused announcements.