Government infrastructure investment could mean the end for UK’s digital divide

In the Autumn Statement, Chancellor Philip Hammond unveiled a new National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) which will provide £23 billion of spending to ensure that the UK economy is “fit for the future”. Of this, £1 billion will be used to support the private sector in rolling out more fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband by 2020-21 and trialling 5G networks. 

An additional £400 million will be invested into a Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund, which will offer commercial finance for emerging fibre broadband providers looking to scale up.  

These initiatives could go a long way to tackling the digital divide that currently exists in the UK, enabling reliable speeds of 100Mbit/s+ to be offered to all, irrespective of distance; but only if they are targeted in the right way.

Targeting the investment

The Government rightly recognises that FTTP is the future. Unlike fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC), which has been the focus of investment so far, providing fibre direct to the property eliminates outdated dependence on copper. This means fewer faults and significantly higher speeds, but also eliminates the confusion of “up to” speeds that currently plague disappointed internet users. In other words, instead of performance depending on range, FTTP promises an improved service to all customers.  

BT’s upgrade to G.fast, a mix of fibre-optic and copper cable that pledges speeds of “up-to” 1Gbps, is still a FTTC solution that is strongly distance-dependant: those who are far from the exchange and poorly served before, will continue to be poorly served. (To put this in context, the same-sized investment would be enough to cover half of the country with the latest fibre technology.) True FTTP, which could be deployed today with a starting speed of 1Gbps (regardless of distance from the exchange), will contribute to the future proofing of the UK’s communications infrastructure. 

Even at current growth rates for internet use (60 per cent per annum), investing in fibre would allow for approximately 40 years of growth for customers living up to 60 miles from an exchange. This compares to just six years of happiness for customers using the latest G.fast technology – and then only if they live within 50 metres of a cabinet.  And there are even more good reasons to invest in FTTP. It would be less expensive to fibre up the whole country from scratch than to build HS2, and would arguably provide a greater return on investment and benefit a far greater number of people than the high-speed rail service. 

While the Government’s investment, significant as it is, will not be enough to reach all parts of the country, it does not need to. Instead, spending should be prioritised in areas where it can make the most difference.  Technologies such as G.fast can already sufficiently serve cities and other densely populated areas, where distances to the nearest cabinets are relatively small. But they do not support customers living in more remote areas nearly as well where service variability. 

Of course, the commercial case for infrastructure development in these areas is also lower, so private sector providers have been reluctant to invest.  However, if Government was to focus its FTTP investment in traditionally harder-to-reach areas, such as rural districts and market towns, the economy would be given a major boost.   

National and local strategy

For the investment in improved digital infrastructure to be a success, the Government’s strategy for could be based on population density:

  • Cities (high population density): Upgrade the copper network with G-Fast in the short term, introduce high capacity 5G mobile networks – backed by fibre-to-the-base-station – in the medium term, and replace the entire network with fibre technology in the long term.
  • Small towns and rural areas (moderate to low population density): Work with larger operators that already have existing customers in these less densely populated areas and introduce FTTP immediately, with wireless routers or local networks within the building.
  • Ultra-remote areas (very low population density): For isolated farm houses in the Scottish Highlands, for example, the cost of installing a cable will be exceptionally high and so a point-to-point wireless connection may be the most cost-effective stop-gap for a few decades until fibre technology is installed across the entire country.

To support this strategy, the Government would need to set clear priorities: 

  • Any infrastructure related subsidies should be targeted at areas where fibre has the most impact over G.fast (i.e. outside of major cities).
  • Any infrastructure related tax breaks should be proportional to how much FTTP is included.
  • New operators’ licenses should be biased towards fibre.
  • Community networks should be enabled to be established, with compulsory connection to the main network by Openreach, and clear guidance published on how this can be done.

At the same time, local authorities need to bolster these efforts by: 

  • Ensuring local plans include the development of fibre networks.
  • Requiring planning applications for new builds to include fibre tubes to enable low cost upgrade to fibre in the future.
  • Coordinating the installation of fibre when other infrastructure developments or maintenance are under way.

In summary, we need a ‘fibre on demand’ service that is available outside major urban areas, where G.fast is adequate for now, and also well publicised – not buried on a technical page of Openreach’s website.

Wireless

Of course, the last few metres of any fibre connection must be wireless. There are those who claim that wireless is the better solution to rolling out expensive FTTP but, given wireless networks need to be connected to the rest of the world using fibres, it is not an either/or situation. The only outstanding question is which wireless network to choose, and this decision is driven by cost, capacity and coverage.  

Wireless capacity is finite and so, for each user to enjoy sufficient bandwidth, a minimum number of wireless transmitters are required. In urban areas, high frequency wireless carriers (at or even well above 2.5 GHz) which have a short range and high capacity can be used, because there will be enough users per base station to make this cost effective. In less densely populated areas, the range needs to increase in order to spread the cost over sufficient users. This decreases the carrier frequency, due to atmospheric absorption which, in turn, decreases the total bandwidth. 

Therefore, more, smaller base stations are needed. One per house seems to work well, with outdoor communications served by the mobile network. It is a good thing that more people should gain access to fast and reliable broadband. But, of course, with internet consumption growing at an exponential rate, the core network will soon begin to feel the strain. This will need to come next on the Government’s list.

Professor Andrew Ellis, 50th Anniversary Chair of Optical Communications at Aston University
Image source: Shutterstock/Yorkman