Delivering digital with DCMS

There’s no denying the UK’s full fibre roll out is a project of unprecedented proportions. The progress and tangibility of meeting the governments ambitious full fibre targets has been brought into question by industry leaders, particularly since the newly appointed Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, intends to bring those forward to 2025. 

To get to the bottom of these full fibre issues, we went straight to the top. Justin Leese was appointed the Programme Director of Building Digital UK two years ago, after three decades working at the heart of Fixed and Mobile Internet deployment. 

He has since overseen several initiatives which have cost millions of pounds, connecting millions of homes and businesses across the UK. Despite being incredibly busy as a result of recent political events, Justin was kind enough to answer us a few questions about the industry and the government’s role deploying fibre across the UK. 

 

What are the biggest hurdles that Britain faces in it’s fibre roll out? 

It is a huge Civil Engineering undertaking. Whereas our £1.8bn Superfast Programme involved laying fibre to circa 120,000 street cabinets (and then re-using existing telephone lines) we are now talking about running fibre to every single home and business in the UK. This will mean significant streetworks to lay fibre in existing ducts, lay new ducts or run fibre overhead on the telephone poles.  

 

“Whilst the UK lags terribly in full fibre coverage it is one of the leading counties in terms of overall Superfast coverage.” 

As much of this work is in the public highway it involves giving notice of intended work to get permits from the local council along with approval to put in place traffic management such as cones, barriers and temporary traffic signals. Crossing public or private land with duct/fibre requires legal permissions  – called wayleaves – which take time to negotiate between the lawyers. Then you need sufficient resources, with the right skillset to do the work. 

At the end of the day this is a huge national building project, and anybody who has ever had building work done at home will know that building projects seldom complete on time and on budget. 

Why are we so far behind other nations? 

The UK Superfast Programme commenced in 2010/2011 and, rightly or wrongly (hindsight being a wonderful thing) we decided to take an approach which would maximise coverage of at least 24Mbps. Some other countries – many with ‘second mover advantage’ – elected to jump straight to a full fibre rollout. What’s interesting to see in the statistics now is that whilst the UK lags terribly in full fibre coverage it is one of the leading counties in terms of overall Superfast coverage. Therefore if you look at some of the countries with a high % of full fibre they still have a high % of their population without decent broadband. Therefore our strategy has paid off in terms of maximising coverage with the available funding but arguably has led to an infrastructure that is less future-proof. 

 

“Brexit may add further pressure on these resources as today there are many overseas workers involved across the telecoms industry.

 

All is not lost though because the investment in fibre-to-the-cabinet infrastructure has at least pushed fibre spine infrastructure out into the networks and closer to homes and businesses. Since it was a requirement for these networks to be open access, and combined with regulatory pressure to provide easier access to the Openreach physical infrastructure, there is the possibility for assets to be re-used as we now push for full fibre. 

Another factor in the full fibre progress of other nations is demographics – where relative to the UK we see a higher proportion of the population living in multi-dwelling accommodation rather than single dwellings. Delivering fibre to the basement of these multi-dwelling apartments allows all of the occupants to easily access fibre. 

How much does DCMS factor workforce supply when pushing for the fibre roll-out? Is there lots of consideration to whether sufficient skilled fibre engineers exist? Or is it taken that Openreach and the network providers will ensure they train and recruit sufficiently on their own?
 

This is a particular area of focus for our Barrier Busting team. We know there is going to be huge demand for not just skilled fibre engineers but also Civil Engineering contractors to do the streetworks. Depending on the regime for EU Nationals working in the UK, Brexit may add further pressure on these resources as today there are many overseas workers involved across the telecoms industry. 

We are delighted to see the huge investment Openreach is making in training facilities, recruitment, apprentice schemes and on-boarding ex-service personnel. We are starting to see other Operators following suit. 

Meanwhile DCMS is considering what other steps we might take to help increase the supply of resources. This includes identifying a standard set of qualifications and competencies required and looking at how training of these might be delivered at scale. This could include T-Levels, Further Education Colleges and Apprentice Schemes. 

 

Huge thank you to Justin for giving us an insight into planning the UK’s full fibre roll out and look out for the next instalment of this interview soon. Checkout Justin’s LinkedIn to learn about some of the projects he’s overseen in his time as Programme Director. 

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