House of Commons Library

Full-fibre networks in the UK

Published Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A Commons Library Briefing on the Government’s policy for building a UK-wide full-fibre broadband network by 2033. It covers what is full-fibre broadband compared to superfast broadband and the Government's strategy for promoting full-fibre set out in its Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR), published in July 2018.

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What does broadband coverage look like today?

Since 2010, the Government has focused on the roll-out of superfast broadband, which it defines as download speeds of at least 24 megabits per second (Mbps). Superfast broadband has been mainly delivered using Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC) technology, which is a part-fibre, part-copper technology: fibre optic cables run from the exchange to a street cabinet, and existing copper telephone lines connect the cabinet to the premises. Superfast broadband is now available to 95% of UK premises. For background information, see the Library briefing paper on Superfast broadband in the UK (CBP06643).

Although the UK has high levels of superfast broadband coverage, access to full-fibre networks sits at 5% (as of May 2018). Statistics for full-fibre coverage in each constituency are available on the Library website: Constituency data: broadband coverage and speeds.

What is full-fibre?

Full-fibre networks use fibre optic cables to connect the exchange directly to each premises. Full-fibre connections are capable of deliver speeds greater than 1 gigabit per second (Gbps; 1 Gpbs is equal to 1000 Mbps). Full-fibre networks are more reliable than copper-based networks, and cheaper to maintain and operate. Full-fibre networks are also important for supporting high capacity mobile broadband networks, particularly future 5G networks.

Government’s policy: Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR)

The Government has set a target to build a UK-wide full-fibre network by 2033, with 15 million premises connected by 2025. The Government set out its strategy to deliver this target in the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR) published in July 2018. The overarching approach is to promote commercial investment by encouraging a competitive market to build fibre infrastructure. The Government’s assessment is that with policy reforms and targeted regulatory intervention in some areas, private investment should be able to deliver full-fibre to 90% of UK premises with the remaining 10% requiring public funding.

The FTIR is broadly in line with recommendations made by the National Infrastructure Commission in July 2018. Stakeholders have broadly welcomed the proposals as a clear statement of Government policy and direction. However, some industry operators have cautioned that the “devil is in the detail”.

Building fibre infrastructure

Sections 3 and 4 of this paper explain how the Electronic Communications Code and other legislation applies to building telecommunications infrastructure (for example, broadband cables, cabinets and mobile masts) on public/private land and public roads.

The FTIR includes policy proposals aimed at making it easier to build fibre infrastructure. The Government launched two consultations in October 2018 on proposals regarding full-fibre connections to new build properties and reform to procedures for obtaining wayleaves to build digital infrastructure to tenanted properties.

Other policy measures in the FTIR related to building fibre infrastructure include Ofcom’s work to open-up access to Openreach’s network of underground ducts and poles. The FTIR looks towards a future where broadband connections are “switched over” from the copper network, but does not set a date for “switching off” the copper network.

Public funding for full-fibre networks

The Government has identified £200 million saved from the superfast broadband programme that will be used to deliver full-fibre networks as part of the last stages of that programme. For background information, see the Library briefing paper on Superfast broadband in the UK (CBP06643).

The FTIR stated in July 2018 that further funding options will be considered in the “forthcoming Spending Review process”. In the 2018 Budget the Chancellor announced that £200 million from the National Productivity Investment Fund would be used to connect primary schools in hard to reach areas alongside a voucher scheme to provide funding to connect nearby premises.

Public funding for full-fibre networks also awarded on a competitive basis open to public sector bodies across the UK as part of the Local Full Fibre Networks Programme.

The Government also funds a gigabit voucher scheme that provides vouchers to businesses to support the cost of installing a gigabit-capable connection.

Is telecommunications a reserved power?

The UK Government has primary responsibility for broadband policy and coverage targets because telecommunications is a reserved power. However, the delivery of broadband infrastructure projects often involves local authorities or devolved responsibilities, for example, engagement with planning and highways authorities regarding street works.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8392

Authors: Georgina Hutton; Louise Butcher

Topic: Telecommunications

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