Can we fix connectivity to our homes and businesses in the 2020’s?

We read a lot about what the ‘Internet of Things’ (IOT) can bring to modern day living – that is to say, the array of devices we can connect to the net to deliver us the services we need. Not simply internet shopping, but a whole plethora of services that can be delivered to us at home, such as health services – booking appointments with GPs, interacting with our kids’ schools in their learning programmes, driverless cars and home automation – even our bins may eventually be linked to the ‘smart cities’ in which we live to tell the council when to empty them. But how can we ever hope to achieve this when we currently don’t have the connectivity via broadband or the UK’s cellular network to achieve it?

Only 10 to 15 percent of households and businesses in Britain are currently connected to full-fibre broadband – the type that can deliver up to 5GB of data which is way below the 26 percent average of the other 36 nations in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development – a worrying statistic. From an economic perspective, it’s critical for UK Plc that super-fast connectivity is delivered in the coming decade. It’s not alarmist to say that if the UK doesn’t pay attention to its gigabit connectivity through fibre to the home and businesses, our competitive position globally will be hindered or worse, eroded. It also drives our ability to deliver a flexible workforce that can work remotely. Innovation depends upon it, and the rebalancing of jobs and prosperity across our towns and cities from the top to the bottom of the country depends upon it too – it is as critical to the infrastructure of the country as our motorways and railways. The problem is never more acute than in our rural areas where between five and seven percent of households are unable to get even 30-50mb of broadband coverage. Most of these are also totally cut off from the UK’s cellular network, plunging them into a connectivity abyss – or “not-spots”. Where cellular is concerned, there is some light on the horizon. The Shared Rural Network is an alternative proposal from the UK’s four mobile operators to work collaboratively to improve coverage in rural areas. With £500million investment from the Government, the operators can build new ‘shared’ masts that will deliver 4G coverage to 95% of the UK by 2025. However, it still falls short of the system deployed in New Zealand which also shares the spectrum airwaves and without a plan for the remainder of rural homes being connected either on broadband or cellular, there will still be places too remote to connect up.

BT and Virgin provide the UK with the lion’s share of connectivity via fibre to the home (FTTH). BT has already rolled out fibre to the cabinet and aims to have connected 4 million homes by March 2021 – connecting around 23,000 homes per week. It has aspirations to reach 15 million completed homes by the mid 2020’s. Virgin currently has round 15 million homes with services but must make them all gigabit-enabled over a period of time. Project Lightspeed is expanding the Virgin network and installing full fibre. Then there are the alternative network providers; City Fibre, Hyperoptic, Gigaclear and FibreNation each with big plans too – but currently they make up for around a million connected homes between them. They will deliver a critical mass in various regional locations and cities over the next five years pulling together some of our more remote towns. The issues are being addressed, but the challenge is an expensive and costly one, and the UK has legacy systems to maintain to keep the current system functioning until there is a full-fibre one in place. But to achieve the government’s ‘minimum of 85%’ gigabit-capable coverage by 2025, rural areas must be a priority if they are ever going to be brought in from the cold, connected up to UK Plc and help to drive innovation across the whole of the UK in a post-Brexit Britain.

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In a very challenged and dynamic UK telecoms market, every operator is clambering to ensure they meet their customer connectivity targets. Here we look at if there are strategies beyond just marketing, for operators to gain traction and connect more new customers. 

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