By Comms Dealer Editor Stuart Gilroy: Labour's policy on free fibre broadband must rank the most senseless in political history. Its objectives are not plausible and will lead to the partial demolition of what is considered to be one of the UK's most invested in and thriving entrepreneurial sectors – our much loved comms industry – specifically the altnet and connectivity segment and associated ecosystems.
The significance of this atom bomb of a proposal transcends politics by an unmeasurable stretch, yet Ofcom, despite the unprecedented nature of this explosive assault, told Comms Dealer: "We cannot comment on party political pledges during an election period."
What Ofcom thinks about Labour's free broadband proposal and pledge to nationalise Openreach will not be known for many weeks, as it is under a convenient gagging order. Nor will we find out if it was consulted for expert advice on this blinder of an idea.
For now, the action Ofcom will take, if any, to offset the impact of Labour's devastating gem on the UK's comms provider sector will also be a mystery, along with its view on whether Labour is right to blame the private sector for Britain's lack of full fibre roll out – when the opposite is true.
To say that the panacea to the UK's fibre deficit – namely the trail blazing private tech sector – is the cause of the problem is nonsensical, edging towards madness some might say.
This crass populism could pull the rug from under our sector and hand the fibre market to the monopoly – which is overwhelmingly blamed as the root cause of our digital infrastructure predicament – but now a knight in shining armour.
Brilliant. Our evolved industry ecosystem, which supports end users, will be rocked to the core. Many ICT provider businesses may go under, jobs would be at risk, UK plc and vital public sector organisations and their critical functions could be left stranded as a central component of their ICT support mechanism is fatally weakened. This is a house of cards.
With a cynical hat on, could this proposal, unleashed at this time, be a desperate tactic to divert attention from Labour's position on Brexit?That makes more sense to many. Meanwhile, in related news the sale of TalkTalk's altnet business FibreNation to CityFibre has stalled.
Should warped political thinking on UK comms infrastructure be allowed to shove a thriving sector out of sync, bulldozed by interventionism with no hesitancy for strategic thought? And with all this wisdom on display barely a mention of 5G, a potential fibre replacement. When that penny drops, what next? Nationalise the operators and dole out 5G gratis?
Common sense dictates that this farce can only end with Labour in a red-faced backtracking exercise to save its face. But we cannot ignore that the industry could face its greatest ever battle should the conditions arise that enable this fancy to go ahead, even when the numbers don't add up. BT has conceded that the roll out would cost double the estimate coming in at circa £40bn.
In reality-check mode however, we all must see that this rabid pledge will most certainly end up biting its architects on the rear end. Let us hope these bums won't be on seats in Parliament come Christmas.
More industry reaction on this story shortly...
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Labour's free broadband pledge cans Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review
According to Government figures the UK has up to 10% full fibre connections and lags behind many of our key competitors Spain (71%), Portugal (89%) and France (28%).
The Conservative Government's view was that without change full fibre broadband networks will at best only ever reach three quarters of the country, and it would take more than 20 years to do so.
So the Government launched its Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR) published on July 23rd 2018 (part of the Government’s modern Industrial Strategy) which detailed measures to catalyse the demise of copper while broadening access to spectrum for 5G services, slashing the cost of rolling out fibre broadband and prioritising remote rural areas for funding.
The Government said that running copper and fibre networks in parallel is both 'costly and inefficient' and a fibre switchover strategy will be necessary to stimulate demand for fibre and enable new networks to achieve scale quicker.
The Government said that the switchover will be industry-led with competition between private firms driving growth, and could happen in the majority of the country by 2030. It also said the timing will ultimately be dependent on the pace of fibre roll out and on the subsequent take-up of fibre products.
The crux of the matter is that the FTIR is designed to drive competition and commercial investment in full fibre networks across as much of the UK as possible.
But Labour's free broadband pledge flies in the face of Tory strategy and could not be more different, putting the task into public hands in the belief that private infrastructure firms and a competitive fibre market are not up to the job of delivering world class connectivity across the country.