Full fibre – is the UK’s rollout gathering pace?

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Full fibre is claimed by many to be the future of the UK's telecoms network. Also known as fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP), this technology is expected to become the standard way of connecting homes and businesses to the wider world over the course of the next decade or so.

At the moment, however, availability of this technology in the UK is very scarce, and usually limited to certain locations within the country's biggest cities. But why does this matter to UK businesses, and how long can we expect it to be before it will be available to every company, no matter where they are located?

Why full fibre matters

Currently, what most people refer to as 'fibre' broadband is based around what's known as fibre-to-the-cabinet. As the name suggests, this involves running fibre-optic cables as far as the local street-level telecoms cabinet. However, between this cabinet and a user's home to business, the connection still relies on the existing copper wires that have been in place for decades.

While this technology offers a significant improvement over ADSL, it does have its limitations. Download speeds for this technology tend to be between 30 and 60Mbps, while uploading offers just a fraction of this, and speeds can be inconsistent depending on time and distance from the cabinet.

With FTTP taking fibre technology right to a user's doorstep, however, much faster and more reliable connections are possible. Speeds of 1Gbps and beyond are within reach, while fully symmetric connection means there is no disparity between upload and download capabilities. Meanwhile, the reliability of the connection is much more consistent, with no dropoffs at peak times. 

The progress of rollouts

However, despite these clear advantages, the UK continues to lag behind when it comes to the deployment of this technology. A 2017 report from the European Commission put the UK at the bottom of the table for full fibe coverage, with just two per cent of homes and businesses able to access this. By comparison, the figures for Portugal and Latvia, which topped the table, were in excess of 80 per cent.

Although recent figures from Ofcom revealed the UK has since expanded its full fibre capability to five per cent of premises, it's clear there is still a lot of work to do, but several providers are looking to close this gap. Openreach, for example, has ambitious plans to reach three million homes and businesses with its network by 2020, and ten million by the middle of the next decade.

The firm recently added Coventry to its network with the West MIdlands city becoming the 11th location in the UK to be reached by its full fibre capabilities, along with the likes of Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh.

Chief executive of Openreach Clive Selley said: "We are making significant progress in the West Midlands as we get on with building the infrastructure Britain needs to stay ahead in the global digital economy … Despite the challenges of planning, street works and permissions, we’re reaching thousands of homes each week and we’re on track for our ambition of reaching 10 million premises by the mid-2020s."

Openreach is not the only company working on full fibre. Elsewhere, a partnership between Vodafone and CityFibre has also been extending its reach recently, with the firms adding Leeds, Cambridge and Southend-on-Sea to its network, indicating that it's not only the UK's biggest cities that are set to benefit from the technology. In total, the companies plan to reach one million UK homes and businesses by 2021.

What will the future hold?

Ultimately, the goal will be to switch off the UK's remaining copper networks and rely entirely on full fibre connectivity. However, this may still be a long way off. 

The government has set a target date of 2033 for complete, nationwide coverage of full fibre, with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport settling on a blueprint for achieving this earlier this year, which calls for the technology to be mandatory in all new-build properties, and for rural areas to receive priority when it comes to funding the rollout.

However, for some, this deadline is not ambitious enough. Business organisation the Institute of Directors (IoD), for example, has urged the government to begin the switchover from copper to fibre "as soon as possible" after 2025.

Dan Lewis, senior advisor on infrastructure at the IoD, said: "Firms are paying the price for the neglect of full fibre connectivity. We are jogging while the rest of the world is sprinting. We need a copper switch-off date of 2025 or soon after."

"The internet should be creating a more level playing field for businesses regardless of location, but uneven broadband coverage means the opposite is true. For many firms, particularly in rural areas, poor connections lead to lost business and missed opportunities."

It is not long since the government achieved its goal of connecting 95 per cent of UK premises to 'superfast' broadband, which was defined as at least 24Mbps, but it's now clear this will not be enough for the country to keep up as new developments demand faster, more reliable connectivity.

However, with the likes of Openreach, Vodafone and CityFibre extending their networks, and policymakers set to offer further support to this, it seems the UK is finally realising the importance of better connectivity, and millions more premises can expect to reap the benefits of it in the coming years.