The newly minted UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has doubled down on his campaign promise to ensure all UK households can get full fibre broadband connections by 2025. During his first round of Prime Minister Questions (PMQs), Mr Johnson committed to “accelerat[ing] the programme of full fibre broadband by eight years, so that every household in this country gets full fibre broadband within the next five years.”
Although such a commitment may be taken with a grain of salt given the other problems facing the UK at the moment, this statement highlights that high quality broadband remains a political issue in those countries that are falling behind in global broadband rankings.
The genesis of this policy appears to have been some Lincolnshire farmers who “smote their weatherbeaten hands together and roared their assent” when they heard of proposal from Mr Johnson. In his article advocating a reboot of “left behind” Britain by a turbo-charged broadband revolution, Mr Johnson contrasted the UK’s seven percent full fibre coverage with Spain’s 85% coverage.
Australia has seen this all before with Labor promising a National Broadband Network (NBN) rollout of full fibre to 93% of Australian households back in 2009 (yes – 10 years ago). If the policy had been kept by the incoming Coalition government in 2013 it would be highly likely that Australia would now be in the closing stages of having a full fibre network that was ahead of not only Spain, but also comparable to many modern broadband economies in Asia such as South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong.
However, the Coalition government, after many years of criticising the Labor NBN project, decided instead to follow the UK broadband model of the time and put most of the investment in Fibre to the Node (FTTN) technology. Malcolm Turnbull, speaking as the Opposition Communications spokesman at the time in June 2013, articulated this most clearly in his usual combative style in an interview with the ABC which he recounts on his blog site:
And I asked, for the umpteenth time again, why the ABC with all of its global news gathering resources continued NOT to examine the broadband experiences in other comparable countries. The approach we are taking is the same, essentially, as that taken by BT in the UK. They speak English, the ABC has an office there, they have upgraded around 19 million premises with very fast broadband for a cost of 2.5 billion pounds and in about 3 1/2 years. They have done 90% fibre to the node, 10% fibre to the premise. Very relevant you would think. Very interesting too and useful for the Australian public to know about.
But the UK has since changed its broadband plans dramatically.
In July 2018, the Conservative Government announced a target of 15 million households (about 50% of the UK) to have full fibre by 2025 with nationwide coverage by 2033. British Telecom’s fixed network subsidiary, Openreach, driven by competition from other broadband providers and active government pressure, announced in February 2018 a rollout of full fibre to 10 million households by the mid 2020s.
The UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, has developed a pro-competition, pro-private investment policy framework to drive these full fibre targets. At the centre of this policy is network based competition and shared access to duct and pole infrastructure.
It is clear that the British Telecom FTTN project that Mr Turnbull copied for the Coalition’s Australian NBN was only a stop-gap and is now being over-built by the future proof full fibre network that dominates fixed broadband network rollouts worldwide. This is best illustrated by the surge in full fibre connections that has occurred in the last five years on a global basis.
The UK has recognised that full fibre broadband is a necessary investment for the network economy that now dominates innovations and growth opportunities. Mr Johnson articulated this superbly in his article announcing the accelerated target :
A fast internet connection is not some metropolitan luxury. It is an indispensable tool of modern life. You need it for your medical prescription, for paying your car tax, for keeping up with the news and with your family and friends. It is becoming the single giant ecosystem in which all economic activity takes place. It is the place you find bargains. It is the place you find customers. It is not only the place you can find a job. It is the means by which you can be interviewed, and your talents uncovered, without incurring the cost of a rail ticket. If your area has a truly fast broadband connection, that area will be a better place to live, to invest, to set up a business; and that area will have a better chance of retaining talented young people, and allowing them to start up businesses and bring up their families.
The Australian conservatives (ie. the Liberal/National Coalition) need to take a long hard look at the UK’s broadband policy development under the UK Conservative Party in the last five years. Mr Turnbull may have thought the “old dart” had a smarter broadband back in 2013 but the UK and the rest of the world have moved on to a full fibre future.
Will Australia be able to make the change soon enough to limit the damage?