House of Commons Library

Full-fibre networks in the UK

Published Monday, September 3, 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 (Mbps). Superfast broadband has been mainly delivered using Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC) technology, which is a part-fibre, part-copper technology. Superfast broadband is now available to 95% of UK premises. 

Although the UK has high levels of superfast broadband coverage, access to full-fibre networks sits at 4% (as of January 2018). 

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 speeds up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps;1 Gpbs is equal to 1000 Mbps). They 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.

While superfast broadband is normally sufficient for today's domestic broadband needs, the demand for data and internet-connected devices is growing. Although there is some uncertainty about whether and when future data demands will outstrip the capacity of existing copper-based networks, in July 2018 the National Infrastructure Commission recommended that investment in building a national full-fibre network should begin now to avoid the potential consequences of not having the digital infrastructure to support future needs.

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

The FTIR includes policy proposals aimed at making it easier to build fibre infrastructure. The Government stated it intends to make changes to procedures for obtaining wayleaves to build infrastructure on land, and to make it mandatory for new build properties to have access to full-fibre infrastructure. Other policy measures 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

No new money was announced with the FTIR. 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. Further funding options will be considered in the “forthcoming Spending Review process”. Public funding for full-fibre networks is currently awarded on a competitive basis open to public sector bodies across the UK as part of the Local Full Fibre Networks Programme. More information about the Government's superfast broadband programme is available in the Library briefing paper: Superfast broadband coverage in the UK.

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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