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Should ultrafast broadband and 5G be a big deal for councils?

The gap between the 'haves' and 'have-nots' is increasing. While full-fibre broadband homes enjoy ultra-fast speeds, others are stuck with outdated copper broadband, some of which is pretty slow.  Mobile reach is problematic too, with many unable to connect to 4G or connect at all, making 5G seem like a distant dream. 

As citizens clamour for faster and faster speeds they turn to Government and local councils to help. But practically what can councils do to make a difference and could they risk holding back roll-out?

In the run-up to the General Election the Conservatives are promising to bring full-fibre and gigabit capable broadband to every UK home and business by 2025, while Labour is committing to free full-fibre broadband for all by 2030 through nationalisation of BT’s broadband providing businesses.

Current central government policy is for full-fibre availability for all by 2033 with £5billion announced to help everyone benefit from the fastest speeds no matter where they are, and working with Ofcom, they're encouraging industry to get the job done. BT, Virgin Media, CityFibre, TalkTalk, and many others have ambitious plans to deliver ultrafast broadband, while EE, O2, Vodafone and Three, together with a host of small niche players, are racing to roll-out 5G.

Leaving nationalisation aside, to achieve these ambitions, partnerships are key, with models coming in many differing shapes, and sizes. Whether through councils acting as 'anchor tenant'; forming a JV; easing wayleave or street works bureaucracy; or making council property, including street furniture, available of fair terms; there is much that can be done. There's no single perfect solution, and a variety of solutions or mixed economy approach is likely to work best.

For example, CityFibre – who style themselves as the UK's largest alternative provider of wholesale fibre network infrastructure and builder of Gigabit Cities – are working in partnership with several councils to roll out their full-fibre network, with major fibre infrastructure projects across 50 plus cities and towns throughout the UK. BT's access network business Openreach plans to full-fibre 15 million homes and businesses by 2025, in good part working with councils through its Fibre First programme.

Councils should be cautious in their choice of partner

Ofcom, the UK's communications regulator, believes 70% of the UK could support at least three competing full-fibre networks, likely BT, Virgin Media and at least one other. Currently only Openreach wholesales broadband access services at scale. While smaller operators like CityFibre do wholesale, coverage is limited. Virgin Media, who cover 60% of the UK, don't currently wholesale at scale, but that may change.

If wholesale access products based on full-fibre networks are not freely available to retail providers this may limit customers’ choice of provider and even create pockets of retail monopoly. This could lead to more expensive services, poorer service quality and less innovation. This should be a significant concern when selecting a partner, especially where the potential partner doesn't offer wholesale products or big retail providers are unable to consume those services. A poor choice may chill the effective wholesale market needed to feed a vibrant local retail market.

Similarly, offering exclusive concessions to particular network operators, for example to place 5G kit on street furniture, may reduce rather than increase the speed of roll out of 5G networks.  An open access model may produce greater long term benefits over and above the short term benefits of a cash payment.  Again the impact on competition and therefore the potential harm to citizens should be carefully weighed by councils when selecting who to partner with.

A vibrant and competitive market for ultrafast and gigabit connectivity across the whole of the UK is a must for our future prosperity. Enabling the right environment to encourage industry to get the job done quickly should be a key and immediate concern for councils, who should be working hard to accelerate roll-out and ensuring their cities, towns and villages are top of list for full-fibre and 5G connectivity.

This article was first published by The MJ.

This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at December 2019. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases. For more information see our terms and conditions.

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