Fibre is the future. It’s already become a well-worn phrase, but like most clichés, it’s grounded in truth.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, confirmed that the government agrees with this view in his Autumn Statement, in which he announced an overall £1bn spend on full fibre broadband and 5G, and 100 per cent rate relief for the next five years on full-fibre infrastructure.
Much was made in the media of the incredible speeds this will bring to consumers – being able to download a whole series of Game of Thrones in a minute, for instance. While that’s true – and is undoubtedly good news for the Game of Thrones fans among us – focusing on consumer benefits misses a much more important point.
The real benefit of widespread, high-speed fibre to premises broadband is the incredible speeds it brings for businesses – and, as a result, the transformational potential it has for how we operate as a connected nation. It allows access to ever more powerful cloud services, which gives organsations the ability to evolve as the technology does, future-proofing them and giving them agility in ther adoption of new technology. It also enables seamless remote working, increasing flexibility, potentially improving work/life balance and helping create a happier and more productive workforce. Widespread adoption of full fibre broadband will make remote working an achievable prospect for many more organisations, allowing them to have a distributed or even fully remote workforce.
The proliferation of high speed, reliable networks has already driven down costs, making it an affordable solution that is not just a luxury available to large corporations, but a tool that smaller businesses can use now. As these connections become more widespread, that trend will continue to the point where it will be the norm, often lowering overheads and giving British busineses the edge to compete not only nationally, but internationally too.
Connecting people is, of course, a huge part of that story. But we’re already a long way down the road when it comes to the personal and social applications of the internet. Where super-fast connections really come into play, particularly for businesses, is in connecting systems, devices and objects. The Chancellor acknowledged the importance of this in his statement, which said of the fund that it would “bring faster and more reliable broadband for homes and businesses across the UK, boost the generation of mobile connectivity and keep the UK in the forefront of the Internet of Things”.
Although the Internet of Things is often thought of as a futuristic concept, it’s already here for anyone who’s linked a fitness tracker to their smartphone, or set their heating timer through an app.
Fibre, though, has the potential to take these small beginnings and really open up a truly connected world of constant online communication. To some extent this currently manifests itself in seamless remote working and cloud services, but it has the potential to be so much more.
We already have devices that can routinely report back on their performance and state of repair – warning engineers when they are behaving inefficiently, or are about to fail, so they can be fixed before a problem even occurs, reducing down time significantly. Systems that constantly speak to each other, transferring data at high speeds, allow for full integration and improve operational efficiencies. We will see these kinds of examples evolve into fully smart buildings, autonomous vehicles, even whole cities whose traffic and lighting systems are connected and intelligent.
Only very high-speed connections can achieve this kind of integration, and only full fibre to premises broadband, supported by an improved 4G or fully-realised 5G network, will be capable of delivering it successfully. For companies, ultimately it means virtually every business being connected to the ultra-fast network with all their systems working seamlessly in the cloud, and each individual and connected object communicating flawlessly.
We are still a way off this vision, especially in rural areas which still often suffer woeful speeds, and getting there will take time. Recent statistics from a report by the Federation of Small Businesses show that 94 per cent of small business owners consider a reliable internet conection critical to the success of their business – yet a quarter orf them are fairly or very dissatisfied with their broadband provision.
Currently only two per cent of UK address are connected to a full fibre line – one of the lowest rates in Europe, putting us well behind Spain, France, the Netherlands and Germany. In a post-Brexit business environment, being able to hold our own is crucial to the UK’s future business success. This is a fact understood by the CBI, which had lobbied for the government to include significant provisions for digital infrastructure in its fiscal planning ahead of the Autumn Statement.
Digital minister Matt Hancock has previously spoken about the UK government’s commitment to ensuring full-fibre rollout, succinctly arguing: “We need the right infrastructure. That means ubiquitous coverage, so no-one is left out, and with sufficient capacity not only for today’s needs but in readiness for future change and demand.” Put simply, supporting pure fibre networks is supporting the British economy – it’s as simple as that.
Fast, reliable digital infrastructure is not a luxury – it’s a necessity, and one which will only become more important as the Internet of Things becomes a larger part of how we run our businesses. The Chancellor’s announcement moves us closer to where we need to be and is a huge acknowledgment that investing in digital infrastructure is at least as important as funding roads and transport. But the communications revolution will not be driven by the Government alone. Whitehall support is important, but true innovation is driven by the private sector – and the true leaders in this space are the independent unified communications providers.
With BT under fire for failing to invest properly in broadband infrastructure, and Virgin doggedly concentrating on expanding its own network, it falls to others to fill the gap. The task ahead is to successfully convey these benefits to businesses to encourage them to adopt. They need to be made aware of how high-speed connections increase flexibility, productivity and cost-efficiency, especially when paired with mobile and fixed line services as part of a unified communications package from a single provider.
No single company or provider will be responsible for the revolution – although some will be at the forefront of it. Becoming a global digital leader will be a concerted, combined effort, bringing the public and private sector together in pursuit of the same goal.
The unified comms revolution is already under way. The high connection speeds are there. The government is showing strong support. Now it’s just a case of whether Britain’s businesses are ready to move quickly enough to take the limitless opportunities on offer.
Darren Ridge, CEO, Onecom
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