23 Jul 2020

The UK Government has issued a call for evidence to enable a review of the current regulations around access to the nation's passive infrastructure, with the ultimate goal being a gigabit-capable UK.

On 24 June 2020 Ofcom issued their annual report which looks at what people are doing online, how they are served by online content providers and platforms, and their attitudes to and experiences of using the internet.

Ofcom reports that adults are spending a quarter of their waking day online during lockdown. As Matt Warman (Minister for Digital Infrastructure) says:

"At a time of national crisis, telecommunications has provided a lifeline for people across the UK. Our digital infrastructure has allowed millions to continue to work, access education and keep in contact with their loved ones.

"It is clear, now more than ever, that digital connectivity is vital to our communities, businesses and essential public services, and will only become more important in the future. We need to ensure that the UK has world class digital infrastructure to support this."

Current superfast broadband in the UK has been mainly delivered by Fibre-to-the-Cabinet technology (part fibre, part copper). Growing demands are pushing the limits of that copper-based infrastructure now more than ever. As of September 2019, just 10% of UK properties had access to full-fibre connections. The UK is falling considerably behind other countries where full fibre coverage is much higher. For instance, Latvia has 88% full fibre coverage, Spain 77%, and Sweden 72%.

Whilst campaigning to become Conservative party leader, Boris Johnson proposed a target of delivering full-fibre broadband to all households by 2025. In October 2019 the government gave a briefing which stated that "gigabit-capable" speeds (1Gbps is equal to 1 Mbps) will be rolled out, but no specific end date was given. It is the Governments strategic vision that the UK should be at the leading edge of the global digital economy. 

On 12 June 2020 the Government announced that they are seeking industry input on changing regulations to make infrastructure sharing easier for broadband companies. It is clear that significant changes are needed to the current regulatory framework to encourage investment and the development of a gigabit-capable network.

The Access to Infrastructure Regulations came into force in 2016 and introduced measures to reduce the cost of deploying high-speed electronic communications networks and enabled the sharing of information about access to physical infrastructure across the utility, transport and communications sectors. In order to consider what further measures can be taken to deliver full fibre broadband to all households the Government has launched a call for evidence as part of a review of the 2016 Regulations. 

The 2016 Regulations granted network operators the right to obtain information about, conduct a survey on, or gain access to the physical infrastructure of infrastructure operators such as communication network providers, or undertakings providing physical infrastructure for gas/electricity distribution, water and sewerage companies, transport services etc. The measures were intended to reduce the cost of deploying high speed electronic communications networks in accordance with the requirements of the Broadband Cost Reduction Directive 2014.

Now, the Government wants to explore how the deployment costs and barriers can be further reduced by improving access to the UK's passive infrastructure such as the networks of ducts, cabinets, poles and masts that deliver utilities' services across the country. The Government states that sharing the existing infrastructure of other telecom and utility providers has the potential to increase the speed and lower the cost of improving both fixed and mobile networks dramatically.

However, whilst sharing infrastructure sounds sensible it is complex and careful thought must be given to the nature and extent of such sharing of infrastructure. Careful consideration will need to be given to issues of space and access, age and condition of existing infrastructure, safety, coordinating repairs/maintenance, balancing competing interests and preserving commercially sensitive information regarding network capabilities, as well as to wayleaves to access infrastructure on private land.

Some infrastructure sharing already exists, such as Openreach's Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA) product, and the 2020 agreement between BT (EE), Vodafone, O2 and Three UK on costs to support the Government's £1bn Shared Rural Network (SRN) plan which will work to extend geographic 4G mobile coverage. No doubt lessons can be learnt from those schemes, as well as from similar schemes already employed in other countries.

At this stage there are no specific changes planned by the Government – this is just the first step and will enable the industry to provide their input. Certainly any changes are likely to take time, more robust regulation and perhaps more incentives to encourage greater co-operation.

The call for evidence will run for 12 weeks from 12 June 2020, ending on 4 September 2020.