‘Too many hurdles’ for 2025 full-fibre pledge despite fresh £5bn injection

Fibre cables

The government's pledge to implement universal full-fibre coverage in the UK will be handed a 5 billion funding boost in the form of private-sector subsidies.

After dismissing the previous Conservative government's original target of universal full-fibre by 2033 as "laughably unambitious", Boris Johnson in June pledged to accelerate the push by eight years to 2025. The industry as well as MPs, however, have since questioned whether this would be realistic.

To coincide with the Conservative Party Conference, the chancellor Sajid Javid and digital secretary Nicky Morgan announced an additional 5bn would be earmarked towards achieving this fresh target.

The government has added a caveat, however, that "some" areas will instead be given gigabit connections as a stepping-stone to achieving full-fibre. This has opened the door to accusations the promise is being watered down.

"We're not intending to scale back on anything," the chancellor insisted, speaking with Sky News. "When you talk about lower-grade gigabit broadband, that is some of the fastest broadband speeds in the world, and it's a huge improvement on what's called superfast broadband now.

"We want to get as much done as we can by 2025, and much of the country as we move towards that date will be full-fibre. In some parts of the country, it might be gigabit first and then full-fibre."

The network regulator Ofcom had previously signed up to support Theresa May's government in its pledge to roll out full-fibre by 2033. This was first proposed by the National Infrastructure Commission last year, with the government at the time expected to devise and implement a plan towards achieving the target.

The industry has subsequently cast doubt on whether Boris Johnson's accelerated target of 2025 is achievable, with BT, for example, suggesting it would require an additional 30,000 workers and 30 billion in extra money.

Beyond resources, the barriers for rolling out next-gen networking infrastructure span logistical considerations such as the process of digging up and installing the right cabling. The disruption to day-to-day life and to businesses that this would cause, too, needs to be factored in.

"It is good to aim high with an ambitious target but this might be a stretch," tech, media and telco analyst with PP Foresight Paolo Pescatore told IT Pro.

"In reality, there are too many hurdles to overcome. Gaining approval from local councils, closing streets for weeks to dig up the roads will cause major disruption. Everyone in the UK should go on holiday for the year and come back to a fully connected fibre Britain."

Signalling from the government that gigabit connections may be necessary for some locations instead of full-fibre suggests the government is beginning to reckon with the sheer ambition of full-scale rollout by 2025.

The latest statistics show that full-fibre coverage in the UK stands at just 8%, meaning efforts have to be ramped up considerably over the next five years to meet this.

The money being allocated will target hard-to-reach parts of the country, the government says, in efforts to close the divide between the quality of rural and urban networking infrastructure, namely 5G and broadband.

A report produced by parliament's Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee questioned whether the government is giving as much support to boosting rural networking as the rhetoric suggests.

Several announcements, including efforts to boost rural 5G through a 30 million investment package, have been made in recent years to plug the widening gap.

The committee, however, found that such efforts haven't kept pace with demand, and that the government hasn't collected information regarding how many businesses are affected, nor the wider cost to the rural economy before feeding this data into policy-making.

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.