Broadband chiefs fire back at PM’s full-fibre internet pledge

The UK’s telecoms industry has issued the prime minister a challenge of its own after Boris Johnson said he wanted full-fibre broadband “for all” by 2025.

An open letter says the target is possible, but only if the government tackles four problems causing delays.

It adds that all of the issues must be resolved “within the next 12 months” to achieve the high-speed internet goal.

But one expert said at least one of the measures was unachievable in that time frame.

Mr Johnson originally declared his desire to deliver the 100% rollout of fibre-optic broadband to properties across the UK “in five years at the outside” in an article for the Telegraph published before he won the leadership vote.

In it, he described the government’s former target of 2033 as being “laughably unambitious”.

The letter sent to 10 Downing Street lists four policies that the industry says require urgent attention:

  • Planning reform – at present telecom providers need to get a type of permission known as a “wayleave agreement” to get access to land and buildings to install cables. But in many cases property owners are unresponsive. The industry wants ministers to force landlords to provide access if a tenant has requested a full-fibre or other connection be installed
  • Fibre tax – the so-called tax refers to the fact that fibre infrastructure currently has business rates applied to it, just like other commercial property. The industry claims this discourages investment and should be rethought
  • New builds – the government has carried out a consultation into whether new-build home developments must incorporate gigabit-capable internet connections, but has yet to publish its response. In the meantime, the industry says too many new homes are still being developed without provision for fibre broadband
  • Skills – a large number of engineers will be required to carry out all the work involved. BT and Virgin Media have previously warned that Brexit could result in labour shortages. The industry says more money must be committed to training, and it must also be allowed to continue to “compete for global talent”

“Nationwide full fibre coverage is not a can that can be kicked down the road,” the letter concludes.

“Work needs to start now, and 100% fibre coverage requires a 100% commitment from government.”

The letter has been signed by the chair 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.

Their members include BT, Openreach, Sky, Gigaclear, CityFibre, Hyperoptic, Virgin Media, Google and Vodafone among many others.

Openreach, which maintains the UK’s digital network infrastructure, said it welcomed the government’s ambition but warned: “Upgrading the entire UK network is a major civil engineering challenge.”

It urged the government to “boost the build” by “creating an environment that encourages greater investment”.

Number 10 referred the BBC to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for comment.

“We are pleased industry shares our ambition to turbo-charge the economy by delivering world-class, gigabit-capable broadband across the country as soon as possible,” a DCMS spokesman said.

“The government is committed to creating the right opportunities for investment and speeding up the rollout of the required digital infrastructure.”

He declined to comment specifically on the four demands, but indicated that a more detailed response would be given later.

One industry-watcher noted that the Scottish government had already pledged 100% tax relief to companies that install fibre broadband in Scotland, and suggested a similar reform would address the fibre tax request.

But she added that it would be almost impossible for ministers to resolve the access issue by the next summer.

“That is going to require a very carefully worded piece of legislation that takes into account business owners, property owners, landowners, as well as the telecommunications and service providers,” explained Fiona Vanier from the consultancy CCS Insight.

“It’s going to be a difficult piece of legislation to draw up.

“And there’s just recently been a change in Prime Minister, the majority is very slim, and they have things to be getting on with the [Brexit] deadline at the end of October.”

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