Why is fibre such a politicised issue?

As the December 12th election approaches, all the parties are out pushing their agenda on the campaign trail. Among the well-trodden battle grounds of Brexit, the NHS and immigration, the UK’s fibre network (or lack of it) has become a key issue. 

Why has fibre become such a politicised issue now? We turned to Digital Infrastructure Strategist, Shaun Fensom to get his insight. 

Shaun Fensom

Shaun has over 30 years’ experience in computing and the internet and was co-founder of Poptel, the pioneering on-line services provider that became one of the UK’s first ISPs. As the chair of the Community Broadband Network, he advocates for collaboration in the building of a public, full-fibre broadband network.

 

The fibre network hasn’t been a priority for years and yet both major parties are heavily featuring fibre in their election pledges. Why has fibre become such a politicised issue now?

 

Well, I think the government would say that broadband has been a priority for some years. Three years ago when Matt Hancock became digital minister the priority changed from ’superfast broadband’ to ‘full-fibre and 5G’. That’s a bit like a change from ‘better train services’ (difficult for government to bring about) to ‘better railways’ (something government can play a big role in). That was a very good shift. More recently the government seems to have lost that focus. I think that the parties have realised that it’s a big issue “on the doorstep”. It’s not a nice-to-have any more, it’s a necessity.

 

Is there a postcode lottery when it comes to who gets what level of connection? What role do cooperatives play in filling the gaps?

 

Yes and you can predict to some degree. The places with the worst connections tend to be rural, business areas (yes, I know, crazy!) and poor urban areas. Coops like CNI mean that ISPs can share common bits of infrastructure with each other and with the public sector, instead of ‘overbuilding’. They can also allow people to club together and fund their own connections. This is the B4RN model.

 

What are your biggest frustrations/ barriers to success? 

 

The assumption that only very large companies can do full fibre and that it’s a choice between ‘infrastructure competition’ (apparently current Conservative policy) and ‘infrastructure monopoly’ (apparently current Labour policy).

a) False: not only was the internet built by SMEs and the public sector, SMEs are doing full fibre now.

b) There’s another option: infrastructure collaboration

Success would be comprehensive, ubiquitous, dense fibre infrastructure that is open to SMEs and public sector at really low prices. The fibre, not the services. They’d make the services.

 

What do you think is the best model for securing the full fibre roll out?

 

Infrastructure collaboration by sharing the costly backbone fibre and exchange points, and so enabling investment by public sector, SMEs and communities. Good Internet access is a necessity. Everyone should be able to access – if they live in the middle of nowhere, but also if they are poor.

Aiming for Gigabit connectivity is missing the point. We need full fibre. That can go way beyond Gigabit. The Superfast ambition set us back years. We should have gone straight to fibre.

I don’t think a monopoly approach will work. We will miss the opportunity to grow our tech sector. None of the parties are saying those things.

 

Much of the country has access to adequate broadband which allows streaming TV/working from home etc. What difference would a full fibre network make to these communities? Does FTTP really matter to them?

 

What is adequate now very soon won’t be. Access speeds need to increase by 50% a year (Nielsen’s law). Only fibre can keep up. Copper hybrid services have a physical limit on the bandwidth they can support. It’s amazing what they can squeeze out of copper now. But we are near the point where it won’t – physically can’t – go any faster. Because of Maxwell’s equations.

We are *nowhere near* the physical limit for fibre.

Stockholm started building their full fibre in 1992. We should have done the same. They are miles ahead of us now.

Access to fibre means that smaller businesses can innovate and create new products and services. With full fibre, challenger ISPs can offer really fast, consistently fast, ultra-reliable services at very low cost. But they can do a lot of other things too that I haven’t even thought of – and they will think of.

 

How have you seen the industry change over the course of your career? What does the future of fibre look like and how dependent is that on the current political climate?

 

Ha! Showing my age here. When a company I helped create started offering on-line services, e-mail etc, not only did our customers need to dial-up, their data moved at 300 bits per second.

At that speed to download an HD film would have taken 9 years.

My Virgin connection here moves data at 300 million bits per second. A million times as fast.

Back then we said that one day you’d be able to access almost any information you want from your desk. People found that difficult to accept.

The current trajectory of government policy seems to be back towards handing out subsidies to big telecoms companies. That failed before and will fail again. Full fibre deployment is being driven by private investment at the moment, but by itself this will take too long and leave people out. If the government – either party – adopted the collaborative approach, we could get it done much more quickly, and grow our tech sector in the process.

 

Continue the conversation…


As with many of the key issues, the future of fibre hangs in the balance with the result of the upcoming election. What do you think the best course of action is? Drop us a message to 
hello@pickr.works and let us know! 

Huge thank you to Shaun for sharing his insight. You can learn more about Shaun and the work he does on his website or give him a follow on LinkedIn.