No Valentine from Valencia

UK once again fails to enter the Full Fibre league table

Over the last decade the headlines have been memorable but harsh.

Bulgaria beats England’ might have caught footie fans blissfully unaware of the Full Fibre league — the annual assessment by the FTTH Council Europe of digital fibre to premises.

Successive UK governments have excused their former national champion — with responses ranging from ‘who needs speed anyway?’ to ‘we have the best superfast service in the world’: bragging about ‘availability’ stats (premises passed) rather than actual take-up, but very rarely admitting that the dominant offering was neither super nor fast and not even fibre.

That classically British disconnected approach hit the buffers last year when a digitally-enlightened government minister, Matt Hancock, proclaimed that Copper to the Home (AKA ‘superfast fibre’) was ‘not fit for future purpose’. Rare insights like that earned him promotion and he was replaced by Margot James MP, formerly of another parish — the department for business energy.

The digital department, DCMS, may today be bitterly disappointed, as indeed will HM Treasury and its Infrastructure Planning Authority. They may have thought that this time around their newfound feeling for full fibre might have been reflected in at least a passing mention at the foot of the rankings.

The UK’s Infrastructure Planning Authority (reporting to HM Treasury and Cabinet Office) is, of course, only too well aware that the advent of 5G Mobile will, at frequencies >26GHz, be hugely dependent on the availability of dense fibre backhaul to serve the millions of small local nodes needed for coverage of major conurbations — 0.5 million nodes in London alone. Someone, one imagines, is already crafting lines about the UK’s dominance in 5G software design skills . . . designs, presumably, for world-beating application in some other place.

The scale of the UK challenge is massive. Even if, however, the UK had this year crept over the entry hurdle of 1% full fibre penetration the victory would not really have been credited to recent policy or regulatory insight. If progress is being made (as it surely is) the credit would fall mainly to entirely independent and largely unsubsidized operators such as Gigaclear, CityFibre, Hyperoptic, the DIY villagers and farmers of B4RN and many more.

This is not only about delivering faster services at lower prices. In urban areas CityFibre’s ‘whole city wholesale’ approach with new ducts and dark fibre available for any operator is attracting new investors. Likewise, Gigaclear has rewritten the deployment manual for rural areas. Both are dedicated to standards of reliability that minimize future operational costs and meet customer expectations.

A valentine from Valencia would have been welcome — a warm embrace from our fibred friends in other parts of Europe gathered for their annual conference. Sure, we’ll keep the lines open. We can still show our commitment. Maybe, perhaps, more local leaders can be encouraged to strive for better connections to future digital realities. Even central government has enshrined ‘place-making’ in its national strategy. There’s a glimmer of local light at the end of the fibre.


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