Broadband is no longer a luxury good, but flows through households and businesses as freely as running water. Quality broadband allows us to live better and more fulfilling lives, and it is a lifeline for businesses to connect with the rest of the world.
In the thirty years since the launch of the world wide web, the world has gone from sceptically regarding the internet as a niche invention to being totally dependent on it. If you look at how broadband speeds have become faster and faster over the last few years, it is clear that technology is improving at a quicker rate than ever. This makes you think, if broadband already plays such a big part in our lives, then how much more dependent are we going to be on broadband over the next thirty years?
Encouragingly, the UK Government understands the positive economic value of broadband, and has rightly set out its ambitions to provide full fibre broadband nationwide by 2033. ISPA fully supports this ambition, and our members have been working tirelessly to design, build and fund broadband rollout to make this vision a reality.
However, the simple truth is that unless the Government takes a more active role in facilitating the rollout of broadband, it runs the risk of not achieving its ambition of full fibre availability by 2033. As I will outline, this vision is still achievable, but it will require direct action from the Government to mitigate a series of barriers prohibiting the efficient rollout and delivery of broadband.
The first hurdle the Government ought to look at is whether its commitment to funding this project actually matches the lofty ambitions it has set out for itself? To be clear, broadband investment is primarily funded through private investment with some public support through the various Government initiatives (e.g. Digital Investment Fund and LFFN).
In order to be cost effective, the focus of ISPs is often on prioritising the rollout and delivery of broadband in areas where it is economically viable. This conflicts with the Government’s ambition, which is to provide nationwide full fibre access. There are firms willing to address these areas, but they need to have a regulatory framework that is both ‘light touch’ and supportive.
ISPs are constantly criticised by rural communities and their MPs about insufficient broadband access in these areas. Considering it is the Government’s ambition to provide nationwide access to full fibre broadband, surely it is right that they put their hand in their pocket to do more to fund the rollout and delivery of broadband in these rural areas?
Of all the projects that the Government has committed to in recent years, which will deliver the most benefits for greater connectivity and for the UK economy in the long term? It is not hard to come to the conclusion that nationwide broadband rollout tops this list. So, the Government should be far more willing to match its lofty ambitions with the necessary funding to provide broadband access for these hardest to reach areas.
Barriers to broadband rollout
Although insufficient Government funding will impact the long-term vision of broadband availability, there are a set of immediate challenges that are preventing ISPs from rolling out broadband effectively, and urgently need addressing. These barriers divert resources, waste time and ultimately hinder the progress of delivering broadband infrastructure.
Burdensome business rates are a significant barrier because they limit how much ISPs can invest into rollout and takes away the very funding that Government provides elsewhere. ISPA believes that if these rates are relaxed – or at the very least reformed to be equitable, transparent and simpler – then ISPs would be allowed to focus more of their funds and attention on delivering broadband infrastructure.
Additionally, there are several more physical barriers that have proven detrimental to our mission. Instead of focusing on the task at hand, ISPs are often forced to devote time and resources to navigating layers of red tape. Whilst the Government have begun work to ease these pressures with upcoming legislation around granting access to buildings, there is a still a need to engage with and upskill local authorities to ensure that these infrastructure projects are properly prioritised, and implemented consistently, across the country. The administrative burden of complying with these barriers inevitably causes delays, impacts operational efficiency and increases costs. ISPs should be building networks, not jumping through hoops.
There is also an unnecessary obsession from Ofcom and consumer groups such as Which? about the price of broadband. This culture of price obsession has encouraged a race to the bottom for the broadband market, where value for money takes precedence over the quality of service, and the provider who offers the lowest prices is often seen as the most appealing. This is counterproductive to the rollout and delivery of broadband, as it simply means that ISPs have less revenue to invest in our mission.
It is important to highlight that in addition to rolling out and delivering broadband, ISPs also have a responsibility to ensure online safety. This is a responsibility that ISPs take extremely seriously, and our members have continually worked with Government and other stakeholders to help make the internet a safer place. There are also technical changes such as DNS over HTTPS that could bind the hands of ISPs to tackle online safety effectively.
The recently published Online Harms White Paper was significant because the only proposal relevant to our members was for ISPs to block non-compliant websites and apps. The Government has recognised the good work that our members are doing in this area, and it is clear that the onus is now on social media sites and other parts of the internet value chain to step up and take more responsibility for the content on their platforms.
We believe that this is a positive step to combat online harms, but one that should be handled carefully. ISPs already have to divert enough resources and funding to tackle the administrative burden that is created by the ‘regulatory spaghetti’ of multiple regulators and government departments making demands of our members.
By highlighting that additional measures to tackle online safety must be implemented by online platforms instead of ISPs, it allows ISPs to focus on the rollout and deliver of broadband nationwide.
To conclude, the message here is simple. If the Government wants to achieve its ambition of providing nationwide full fibre coverage by 2033, then ISPs desperately need a more accommodating framework to work under. The challenges that we face are serious, and urgent action is needed to mitigate the barriers that prevent the nationwide rollout of full fibre broadband. It is encouraging that the Government did not target ISPs for extensive further responsibilities in the Online Harms White Paper, but it needs to go much further to create a regulatory and practical framework that will unleash broadband rollout.
We should not underestimate the value of this project. It is perhaps the single most important infrastructure project that the UK will undertake in our lifetime to guarantee the long-term economic health of the UK. Failure to achieve this vision risks the UK falling behind other countries that have prioritised innovation and technology as the foundation of their economies. Our industry is united in our call to the Government to work with us to get on with the job of rolling out full fibre and 5G for all.
– Andrew Glover, Chair of UK Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA).