by Greg Mesch, CEO – CityFibre
Just 12 months ago, the prospect of Britain finally casting off its copper shackles anytime soon felt unlikely, even for CityFibre, which has long had the foresight to imagine a future lit by fibre.
For years, near universal frustration with the UK’s ailing communications capabilities has been mounting as users hit the limits of technology and their own patience. Despite this, our businesses, public services and consumers have been told consistently that a half-hearted upgrade of our creaking copper network to a part-fibre, part-copper solution is up to the job of supporting our digital future.
With BT Openreach squeezing ever more value from its national copper network (some of which was built under the reign of Queen Victoria), and Virgin Media doing the same with its own hotchpotch of cable TV networks (yet more copper), the idea that Great Britain could call itself a digital leader was approaching ‘fake news’.
This approach has left the UK falling perilously behind its key competitors on ‘full-fibre’ deployment, where fibre optic cables go all the way to homes and business premises, enabling reliable, consistent and transformative gigabit speeds. As a consequence, the UK sits 17th out of 19 OECD countries on full-fibre deployment and less than two per cent of British buildings have full-fibre compared with Spain, which enjoys 80% coverage. As a consequence, a quarter of UK businesses are still operating with a connection slower than 12mbps, and almost half (40%) have connectivity slower than 24mbps. This is the platform for digital failure, not future economic success.
However, after months of campaigning and a change of Government policy – first signalled in last year’s Autumn Statement – we may have finally reached a turning point in the UK’s journey towards an information age fuelled by fibre. I believe that CityFibre, as the leading advocate and architect of full-fibre alternative infrastructure in the UK, has been instrumental in achieving this progress.
This turning point was marked by an extraordinary week of events which started on Monday 3 July 2017 – the official launch of the UK Government’s Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund. Announced in Peterborough, one of CityFibre’s earliest Gigabit City projects, by the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, Andrew Jones MP, the £400m fund has been set up to incentivise and therefore, accelerate, full-fibre deployment across the UK by alternative providers (in other words, companies like us who have no interest in old copper networks and are instead committed to building new gigabit-capable fibre).
The very next day, Tuesday 4 July, the Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill was introduced to Parliament, delivering on the Government’s promise to introduce 100 per cent relief on business rates on investments in new fibre – another accelerator for full-fibre deployment.
These events provided the perfect backdrop for our own announcement on Wednesday 5 July, which made public our successful £200m fundraise, our move into the residential market and our acquisition of Entanet, a leading connectivity wholesaler. Together, these commitments not only mark the start of a new chapter for CityFibre, but reflect the changing zeitgeist for Britain’s digital ambitions.
This new funding will enable us to progress and accelerate our movement into new cities as well as pave the way for wide scale fibre-to-the-home deployment, initially targeting at least five cities and 1 million homes. Confidence in our strategy to deliver fibre connections into the nation’s homes has stemmed from the huge appetite from consumers and consumer ISPs for full-fibre products. We have after all been in active consultation with ISPs since 2012 while Openreach have only just begun their own process.
Meanwhile, our acquisition of Entanet, an established provider of wholesale communications services, will give its 1500 channel partners access to our next generation networks, driving uptake of full-fibre connectivity, and the realisation of its many benefits, on a much greater scale.
The winning streak for full-fibre didn’t end there. After evidence was presented to the ASA by CityFibre, Hyperoptic and Gigaclear (two other leading full-fibre builders) showing that the current advertising rules on ‘fibre’ broadband mislead consumers, the Advertising Standards Authority announced on Monday 10th July it would conduct an in-depth review of ‘fibre’ advertising.
This was another important step forward for fibre and the UK’s digital future. At present, advertising rules allow broadband products that rely on a final copper connection to the premises to be advertised as “fibre”. Reform of these rules, so that “fibre means fibre”, is essential to empower consumers to make informed choices between copper-based and full-fibre products. Without reform, millions may not be able to benefit from the full-fibre networks that are now being built, and the enhanced connectivity and opportunity that they bring with them.
So, at long last a full-fibre future feels within reach, and we’ve followed this journey every step of the way. Now it’s time for us to up our pace as the builders of Gigabit Britain, with the might of an ambitious nation behind us.