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UK fibre rollout lags considerably behind developed nations, needs 'more ambition' to compete globally

52 countries outranked the UK for fibre development, according to a report, including Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and the United States

A new index by Omdia has ranked the UK just 53rd in the world for fibre development, with the US far ahead at 23rd overall.

UK network infrastructure was ranked lower than other countries in the report due to the inconsistency of 'full fibre' coverage across the country, as well as through other metrics such as lower overall speeds.

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The index benchmarked countries against metrics such as fibre to the premises (FFTP) coverage, fibre to the business, and household penetration, as well as mobile site penetration and tech investment.

Additionally, Ookla Speedtest data was used to rank the broadband experience in countries, taking their median upload speeds, download speeds, latency, and jitter into account.

Leading country Singapore already claims that it has achieved full FTTP coverage and ranked top in seven of nine metrics measured. This is a setup in which the fibre optic cable runs all the way from its exchange directly to the end user’s property, rather than running first into a street cabinet, which is known as fibre to the cabinet (FTTC)

South Korea, China, the UAE, Qatar, and Japan comprised the other leading countries and each of which were identified as having robust broadband targets in the report. Omdia's assessment was that the UK could do more to improve its targets.

“Fibre investment is an essential metric for government institutions and other stakeholders to track,” said Michael Philpott, research director at Omdia. "As a broadband-access technology, optical fibre provides an optimised, highly sustainable, and future-proof quality service.

“This superior level of quality is essential for the development of future digital services and applications across all verticals. With increased efficiency stimulating greater innovation, high-speed broadband has been proven to drive not just consumer satisfaction but national economic indicators such as GDP and productivity.”

As companies increasingly look to embark on digital transformation journeys, which can involve enabling their employees to work remotely, reliable and high-speed internet has become more of a business necessity.

Rural businesses argue that they are least prepared for these demands, with the non-profit research organisation Rural CIC pointing to the ‘digital exclusion’ caused by a poor rollout in rural areas.

Although the UK Government’s manifesto commitment was to deliver nationwide FTTP broadband by 2025, this was changed in February 2022 to a target for nationwide gigabit broadband to be made available by 2030.

In comparison, Singapore is already claiming full FTTP coverage, where it is treated as ‘strategic infrastructure'.

While superfast broadband is available to 96% of the UK, only 33% of premises are currently able to access ‘full fibre’ broadband, often used to refer to FTTP networks.

However, the rollout of fibre broadband has been accelerating in the UK compared to that of 5G. The government’s mandate that BT removes all Huawei devices from its core UK network for national security purposes has slowed the next generation of mobile networking.

“There is at least one provider last year that was deploying 50km of rural fibre per week, and that’s gone up to nearly 70,” said Dave Happy, security lead for rural campaign group 5G RuralDorset.

Key figures in private companies have also suggested that there needs to be a more concerted campaign to explain what ‘full fibre’ actually means.

At the UK networking conference Connected Britain 2022, Vodafone UK CEO Ahmed Essam said: “Nobody gets what new fibre is in the market. And I think there is a point here about making it easy for customers to decide what’s the right technology for them, being more transparent.

"I think when it comes to broadband it’s very difficult, even for people in our business, to know the difference in some of the offers between what is called fibre,” he added.

In response, Lutz Schüler, CEO at Virgin Media O2, said consumers don't care about the technology itself, just about the quality of the product they receive. 

“You see what actually matters is not the technology, it’s the speed,” he said. “So if you look at Switzerland, it has fibre coverage of 90%. But still, customers are not sitting 100% on the fibre network - actually the minority are - because there’s also a cable network. So I think what customers want is speed, latency, and reliability.”

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