Published:

Cllr Aaron Jacob is a District Councillor in St Albans representing Stephen’s Ward. He used to work in the telecommunications industry and is now training to be a solicitor.

We’ve all experienced it. That frisson of horror as you try to conduct calls via Zoom or Teams but your internet continues to fail you. Or when you’re trying to work from home but your family wish to watch the latest Netflix series and a battle ensues as to who should have digital priority. These aren’t tales from the distant past. They are the all too frequent experiences of people across the UK.

The Government has rightly recognised that connecting people and businesses is critical to future growth and prosperity. Indeed, ‘connectivity’ is perhaps the defining policy behind the idea of ‘levelling up’. The Government has sought to give practical expression to this idea with much-needed investment in infrastructure, and in particular, transport infrastructure. Investment in transport infrastructure is important, of course; a key determinant of supply-side reform and future growth. But, as alluded to above, if the pandemic has shown us anything (and it ought to have, by now), it is that seamless internet connection is critical for households and businesses in twenty-first century Britain.

Most of us, understandably, do not bother to think about how we connect to the internet when we’re at home. All we want is a fast, reliable, seamless connection to work, shop, talk to friends and game without disturbance. And yet the infrastructure which sits behind our broadband connection is incredibly important; it determines whether we do, in fact, get that fast, reliable, seamless connection. The UK is actually a digital laggard when it comes to home broadband. The overwhelming majority of household connectivity is still only of the superfast variety.

Whilst this may sound acceptable, or even impressive, it is far from it. A good deal of superfast connectivity across the country is provided by legacy ‘fibre-to-the-cabinet’ (‘FTTC’) infrastructure. To put it simply: a substantial amount of home broadband is still provided by copper cables, mostly owned by BT’s infrastructure arm, Openreach. At the last count, only around eight million households in the UK had access to full-fibre broadband, so-called ‘Fibre-to-the-premises’ (‘FTTP’).

This means that there are vast swathes of us still living antediluvian existences, trying to rely on ageing copper infrastructure. Providing a full-fibre connection, from the telephone exchange to our homes, is the principal means by which we future-proof our communications infrastructure. There are applications and services yet to be invented which will run on full-fibre. At present, it is like trying to kickstart the Industrial Revolution without steam power.

Not only does this feel and look bad. It is objectively bad, too. This is evidenced when the UK is compared with its peers. In 2021, it was reported that Spain had an FTTP coverage rate of 85 per cent, which could rise to 95 per cnet coverage in 2022. This performance, of course, has taken place in a country so scarred by the Eurozone crisis of the early 2010s. Even France, whose economy is not particularly known for dynamism or innovation, has over 28 million households able to access a full-fibre connection, as of September 2021. The UK continues to trail its European neighbours.

The Government’s ambitions seem, prima facie, to be, well, ambitious. The Government’s target is for at least 85 per cent of UK premises to have access to gigabit-broadband by 2025. It said it will ‘seek to accelerate roll-out further to get as close to a hundred per cent as possible’. The Government said in August 2021 that it was ‘increasingly confident’ that the 85 per cent target could be exceeded. Look at the detail, though, and there’s more that can be done.

This is for two reasons. Firstly, even if one accepts that the stated target is met, it still means that 15 per cent of UK homes will be without ultrafast broadband by the middle of this decade. Many of these areas will be rural communities who, ironically, rely on seamless connectivity the most. This, too, is on the assumption that deployment goes smoothly, by no means given, because of seemingly intractable worldwide supply chain issues. Secondly, the nomenclature is important. Whilst ‘gigabit-capable’ may see us through the 2020s, full-fibre connectivity will be key in spurring industries of the future.

‘Levelling up’ requires a more rounded approach to connectivity. More utilitarianism will be needed to ensure that no community is left behind. Given that private industry will fund much of this digital infrastructure investment, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) will need to evince that much more dirigisme and fund the rest, quickly. If we really do want that inclusive growth, which is critical for equality of opportunity, then we need Government and industry working in concert to achieve full-fibre infrastructure across the UK as soon as possible. It is only when we fully ‘fi(b)re up’ that we will be on our way to levelling up.