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Can private companies really help drive the roll-out of full fibre connectivity in 2021?

Gigabit capable broadband has always been an intrinsic part of the UK government’s investment in projects that will kick-start the economy and improve the UK’s competitiveness in the longer term.  

Throughout 2020 the government made a series of budget announcements and pledges to revitalise Britain’s broadband, as well as its roads, railways and housing. All communicated as part of the nation’s levelling-up agenda. In November, the Spending Review 2020 included £100bn of capital spending in 2021-22. Over £260 million is being earmarked for transformative digital infrastructure programmes, including the Shared Rural Network for 4G coverage, Local Full Fibre Networks, and 5G. A £5 billion commitment to support, and subsidise, the rollout of gigabit-capable broadband to the hardest to reach areas of the UK (£1.2bn being made available up until 2024) was also made. Then just before Christmas, Scotland’s Full Fibre Charter – a series of pledges by the Scottish government to help extend full fibre broadband across Scotland – was announced. This has continued into 2021 with the DCMS’ announcement of a consultation on the changes to the regulation that governs the rights of telecommunications operators to install and maintain their apparatus on public and private land.

But the pandemic has placed an enormous and unexpected burden on the UK economy. The financial strain resulting from COVID-19 cannot and must not be allowed to derail infrastructure spending ambitions such as the roll-out of full fibre.  Digital connectivity is directly linked to the socio-economic and economic prosperity of a country. At VX Fiber, we’ve experienced first-hand with our work across the globe, just how the introduction of a full fibre network has the capacity to transform a whole community and help to narrow the digital divide.

While the UK government’s commitment to delivering infrastructure remains undeterred, the country’s fiscal position has substantially worsened.  In this context, the private sector now has an even more important role to play in helping to bridge the gap needed to deliver the government’s vision for UK infrastructure. Private sector investment can be a major driver of the UK’s ‘infrastructure revolution’ at a time when public purses have been stretched by unprecedented COVID-19 support measures. 

We’ve been extremely vocal about our thoughts on the need for private investment to support full fibre roll-out in the past. And this is an issue we will continue to shout about in 2021. We firmly believe that there is a vital role that private companies can, and should, play to help drive the roll out of full fibre in the UK. After all, the industry cannot, and should not, rely solely on public funding. When it comes to the provision of broadband, support is needed from other sectors of society, not just the government via public funding. Perhaps those who potentially will gain profusely from both the economic and socio-economic benefits of full fibre connectivity need to play their part too.

To support its ambitious infrastructure agenda and provide better connectivity, at good value for taxpayers, the government must reinvigorate the UK infrastructure market tackling concerns about regulation and a lack of clarity about investment opportunities.  It must commit to an approach that gives confidence to investors and capitalises on the attributes of businesses and the public sector establishing itself once again as a world class destination for investment.

One of the solutions that VX Fiber has heralded is the need for third-party investment opportunities such as individual regional or local digital infrastructure projects to be opened-up to multiple external investors. Not only does this present a huge and scalable opportunity it could open-up a more sustainable territory for private investors. This is only one example of what can and should be done.

But it’s an important part of allowing private companies to help drive the roll-out of full fibre connectivity in 2021. And take us on a superfast highway towards meeting the ambitious revised government targets of ‘at least 85% of the country’ connected by 2025.