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The public demands the best broadband. Here’s how Government can help.

Catherine Colloms, Managing Director Corporate Affairs | Openreach

4 min read Partner content

In the run up to the 2019 general election, broadband was a big battleground in the bid for votes.
A headline-grabbing policy to nationalise BT met with an equally ambitious plan to cover the country with “gigabit-capable” broadband. It's a major pillar in the Tory party’s levelling up strategy, which will see £5bn spent to reach homes and businesses in the most rural parts of the UK.

Fast forward two and half years, and the race to upgrade Britain’s broadband is well underway. Around 70 per cent[1] of the country can already order a gigabit capable service and Openreach has made ultrafast, ultra-reliable Full Fibre technology available to nearly eight million homes and counting.

The Government’s target is to reach at least 85% of the country by 2025, so the pace of that build is unrelenting. At Openreach, we’re leading the charge and underpinning that pledge as the nation's leading broadband network. Right now we're building Full Fibre to 60,000 premises – a town the size of Harrogate - every week. And we’re going everywhere, from rural hamlets to market towns and city centres. It’s a once in a lifetime project.

But why is this so important?

Well, if the pandemic proved anything, it’s that great connectivity is a must for families, society, and the modern economy. The existing network kept us all connected, but it’s clear we need a futureproof answer to our ever-increasing demand for digital communication.

New research from Yonder[2][3] Consulting shows 80 percent of Britons view fast, reliable broadband as a utility that’s no different to gas, water, or electricity. It’s seen as a right, not a privilege or aspiration and people expect the UK to meet or beat other countries with the quality of its digital infrastructure.

Meanwhile studies by the Centre for Economic and Business Research suggest a nationwide Full Fibre network would unlock up to £59 billion in annual productivity gains – something that couldn’t be more welcome in our current economic situation.

The public overwhelmingly recognises the opportunity too.

As we wait to see the results of the Conservative leadership election, nearly three-quarters of Britons (73 percent) believe upgrading the UK’s broadband network should be a national priority whilst a similar number think Government should do everything it can to make life easier for the likes of Openreach to get it done. For our part, we’re investing £15 billion and training thousands of apprentice engineers to reach 25 million properties by the end of 2026. It’s a massive project but we’re on track.

That said, there are significant challenges to the pace and scale of the build for all operators, which could be addressed by supportive legislation. Access to private land is the biggest of these challenges, and the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill - currently being considered by the House of Lords - is the opportunity to tackle them head on.

Of course, the rights of landowners and landlords must always be respected, but it’s difficult to give people access to the best broadband if network builders can’t get permission to install it.

Thankfully, the Bill goes some way towards addressing that. As it stands, it will allow operators to upgrade old copper connections to fibre if they’re housed in ducts under private land and that’s a welcome move. It will certainly help companies reach more properties throughout Britain.

But there’s an opportunity to go even further.

With much of the UK’s broadband network suspended from telegraph poles, allowing operators to upgrade the cables that span between them would be a logical next step.  We have a billion metres of overhead network in rural areas alone!

More than a million of our poles sit on private land and many of these are found in rural areas - so a simple change to the rules could avoid tens of thousands of rural homes and businesses being left behind from a sweeping wave of broadband upgrades.

The visual impact is minimal – basically a new wire and box, following exactly the same path as existing cables. And a big majority of landlords support this rule change. Nearly three-quarters of them (72 per cent) want to see powers extended to broadband builders in order to prevent landowners delaying improvements and blocking access to their land.

Of course, this ‘right to upgrade’ should be managed carefully, and it should only apply where we already have a landlord’s permission to access the existing network. But alongside smoother access to blocks of flats, it’s a change that could prevent a new digital divide from opening up across the country.

The government has already shown its commitment to making the UK’s broadband network ultrafast, and whoever the next Prime Minister is will have a golden opportunity to strengthen the legislation and to turbo-charge the UK’s digital future.


[1] Thinkbroadband

[2] Yonder




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