UK broadband chiefs warn PM Johnson's full-fibre plan unachievable without major changes

UK broadband chiefs have warned that PM Johnson's full-fibre plan is unachievable without major legislative changes.

Full-fibre broadband by 2025 is one of the new prime minister's key pledges, made on the steps of Downing Street in his maiden speech. The new target is eight years earlier than the previous target of 2033 which Johnson called "laughably unambitious".

Johnson's pledge was quickly welcomed by broadband provider Virgin Media which said it was ready to get working with the government on achieving the target.

In an open letter, the heads of rival broadband providers have also welcomed the pledge but warned that major changes would be needed to achieve it.

“As you said on the steps of Number 10 as you began your Premiership: ‘let’s start now.’

“Industry is ready and willing to work with yourself, your Government and the new Digital Secretary to ensure that Britain’s connectivity is fit for the future. But that work needs to start now, and 100% fibre coverage requires a 100% commitment from Government.”

Four key issues have been identified which need to be addressed to meet the 2025 deadline:

  • Planning reform – Current planning regulations mean suppliers must get a “wayleave settlement” to install infrastructure on private land. In the many cases where a landlord is unresponsive, the letter calls for increased response pressure or for entry to otherwise be granted.

  • Fibre tax – The letter calls for reform to the so-called fibre tax which taxes buildings with fibre connections as if they are business buildings. Signatories claim the fibre tax discourages funding.

  • New builds – The government is yet to decide whether all new build housing should be built with full-fibre connections. The letter says too many houses are being built without such provision.

  • Expertise – The work required to deploy full-fibre by 2024 will need a lot of engineers. BT and Virgin Media have warned that Brexit may result in labour shortages, and cash should be made available for training.

The letter was signed by the chairman of the Internet Services Providers Association, the interim chief executive of the Federation of Communication Services and the chief executive of the Independent Networks Co-operative Association.

Members of the bodies include BT, Openreach, Sky, Gigaclear, CityFibre, Hyperoptic, Virgin Media, Google, Vodafone, and many others.

“Nationwide full-fibre coverage is not a can that can be kicked down the road, and these issues need to be resolved by your Government within the next 12 months to ensure that industry can continue to accelerate roll-out," the letter concludes.

Only around seven percent of UK properties currently have full-fibre connections. Even with the changes, the 2025 target feels ambitious. After years of broadband failures, it's at least heartening to see the new UK administration giving broadband the attention it deserves.

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