Britain's Victorian era copper connections have seen much of the country fall behind other developed economies in the uptake of ultrafast fiber broadband, but a recent spike in infrastructure investment could change that.
Speaking June 19 at the Connected Britain conference in London, industry heads said additional funding would reverse years of under-investment in the U.K.'s digital infrastructure.
The march toward full fiber would also promote competition to Openreach, a national broadband network whose assets are still owned by the incumbent operator British Telecom, despite its legal separation from BT last year, speakers told the crowd at the annual event for the telecom, cable and tech industry.
In the last 12 months, operators in the U.K. have ramped up plans for more reliable full-fiber networks, which have the capacity to deliver speeds higher than 1 gigabit per second, with TalkTalk Telecom Group PLC, Openreach, Hyperoptic Ltd., Vodafone Group PLC and CityFibre Infrastructure Holdings PLC all announcing major schemes to connect customers.
"The worst thing for the U.K. would be to fall back into a lazy mode of [over-reliance on BT]," said Greg Mesch, CEO of fiber network provider CityFibre.
"We don't want anything to do with fiber-to-the-cabinet. We don't want anything to do with copper. We want a fresh new infrastructure," he added.
CityFibre, which this year agreed on a £538 million takeover by a Goldman Sachs-backed consortium, signed a deal with Vodafone in 2017 to connect up to five million premises over the next eight years. The network is expected to reach one million premises by 2021 and could be extended to another four million by 2025.
"We don't want to be dependent on Openreach's infrastructure for 20 years," Mesch continued, adding that "disruptive thinking" would be required to break the status quo and loosen BT's hold on Britain's infrastructure.
However, as things stand, Britain lags most of its European counterparts in full-fiber connectivity, which covers around 4% of homes, or 1.2 million premises, according to the most recent Ofcom estimates.
Latvia leads the market with 50.6% coverage, compared with 43.4% in Sweden, 37.9% in Russia and 33.9% in Spain, according to the Fiber to the Home Council Europe, or FTTH Council Europe.
This makes it a pivotal time for the market, according to TalkTalk CEO Tristia Harrison. With the volume of data expanding more 40% year over year, according to Harrison, the need for scaled infrastructure in the U.K. is "enormous."
TalkTalk plans to bring full fiber to three million premises in the country through a joint venture with infrastructure investor Infracapital, which has pledged a total investment of about £1.5 billion in the next five to six years.
Separately, TalkTalk is reportedly also in discussions with Liberty Global PLC's Virgin Media unit about a broadband sharing deal.
As more infrastructure investors look to invest in the U.K. telecoms market, Harrison said the industry would need to find ways to make sure scaled competition can "properly thrive" in order to get Britain up to speed with the rest of Europe and the world.
But while some operators race ahead to dig up pavements to connect homes to fiber-optic cables, some believe a degree of caution needs to be exercised.
"We need to remember that much of our network is overhead, which means that we do not need to dig, and also that we have an existing infrastructure [with] open access," according to Kim Mears, managing director of strategic infrastructure development at Openreach, adding that "[whatever] we do dig needs to be our last resort."
Openreach, which has the largest fiber broadband network in Britain and works with over 590 communications providers in the country, is aiming to deliver fiber broadband to 3 million U.K. homes and businesses before the end of 2020, which is up 50% on its previous goal.
So Mears concluded that, while Openreach welcomes the competition from rivals such as CityFibre, there was "no doubt" it would be able to execute its own rival fiber broadband strategy.
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