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Time to pull together

If the UK is to gain maximum benefit from new Government investment in the roll-out of full fibre and gigabit digital networks, everyone has to play their part, says telecoms law expert Sharon McDermott, including the general public

In early March, before Rishi Sunak became consumed with the financial fall-out of COVID-19, the Government reiterated its plan to invest £5bn to help spread gigabit-capable broadband networks across the UK by the end of 2025.

Not wishing to state the obvious, but this is extremely well timed, as the nation’s need for connectivity is now more pressing than ever.

Entire workforces are trying to maintain ‘business as usual’ from home; the future of the traditional office is in doubt; friends and family have found new ways to stay in touch despite the physical distance between them; online shopping has spiked; and box-set binging looks like it’s here to stay.

In short, bandwidth matters.

However, this second wave of digital growth will not be without its challenges – not least because only 22% of UK premises can currently access a gigabit-capable service, according recent figures1.

The industry is already debating how the numbers will be achieved. The indications are that Virgin Media’s Hybrid Fibre Coax (HFC) and Full Fibre network upgrades, as well as Openreach’s Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) plans, and the ever increasing surge in alternative network providers’ projects will all play a part in making the nation gigabit-ready. We need to see a diverse approach to feeding the country’s connectivity hunger.

Tentative plans to help those in the hardest-to-reach areas have also been published. These appear to be based on a three-tiered, technology-agnostic Gigabit Broadband Framework (F20 project), comprising general demand side interventions, a voucher scheme for premises and a direct supplier side intervention.

Upfront investment
The next five years will certainly be demanding. And the upfront investment required to make all necessary roll-outs a reality cannot be underestimated.

In addition to the cost of the infrastructure itself, there are many wider ‘hidden’ costs. Usually 20-30% of properties in a build project require wayleave consents, for example, and these can be notoriously complex to navigate. Thankfully, emerging case law is proving helpful for operators and slowly changing the landscape for the better. But the process remains complicated.

Even though full fibre broadband increases the value of a property, landlords commonly ask for consideration to ‘wire up’ their premises. Throw in exorbitant legal fees – which in traditional law firms can be anything from £1,200-£1,500 per wayleave – along with surveyor rates, which vary from £750 to £950, and the costs soon build up. Furthermore, in many cases, these costs apply per unit in an MDU (Multiple Dwelling Unit), when a managing agent doesn’t permit the wayleave for the whole building. And that’s before work can even begin!

Add to that the costs and resource constraints associated with planning, surveying and the civils element of the works and it’s clear these are not projects for the fainthearted. There are daily fines associated with unreasonably prolonged highway works, too, as well as penalties for not complying with noticing requirements, amongst other things.

So, while it’s reassuring that the roll-out of gigabit-ready networks has multi-billion-pound Government backing, it still won’t be easy, and stalls seem likely without industry collaboration and suitably skilled project teams in place.

Adding value
This is a shame considering the value that such projects bring both to the national economy and to communities on an ultra-local level.

Earlier this year, the Centre for Economics & Business Research (CEBR) revealed that the Full Fibre roll-out, coupled with 25% of UK labour working from home by 2025, could create 1.2 million jobs. The economic impact of this employment uplift would be astronomical.

The speed and agility with which organisations – particularly in the digital sectors – could work, if empowered with faster connectivity, would also unlock vast growth potential for the nation. Innovations based on the Internet of Things (IoT) often require vast bandwidth, which would no longer be hampered by unreliable connectivity; the UK could push ahead with its ambition to be the digital centre of Europe; and, as already alluded to, the value of properties would surely rise.

It’s no wonder so many people from the world of telecommunications were granted key worker status when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Reliance on the UK’s digital infrastructure has rocketed and will probably rise further still.

So, from laying those all-important cables in the ground to recommending the best-fit connectivity solutions for businesses and homes throughout the UK, everyone has a role to play in ensuring the 2025 aspiration is not just a pipedream – even the general public.

Sharon McDermott is founder of Trenches Law, a specialist provider of legal support for the telecoms industry.

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