Matthew Evans is CEO of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, an advisory group to the UK government. He discusses fibre technology and deployment, plus the impact of Brexit
Eurocomms.com: It was reported last month that Vodafone was in talks with Openreach re co-investing on FTTH. What kind of impact do you think such an initiative will have on the UK's broadband infrastructure?
Matthew Evans: Co-investment could be an important tool in driving fibre further and faster across the UK, but it brings its own challenges in terms of regulation.
It is unlikely to change the fundamental business case for where fibre is built so isn’t a silver bullet.
BT recently added 26 locations to its G.fast roll-out. Do you agree with them that a mix of pure fibre and FTTC-based tech is the best solution to deliver the UK's broadband needs?
In the long term, we all want to see more fibre in our network but rolling this out on a national scale is at least a decade-long project.
In the interim, we must make use of the technology which is available to us – and is often pioneered in the UK – to drive better quality connections to the greatest number of people as soon as possible.
What needs to happen for operators to roll out broadband to the “last 5 percent” more quickly?
Superfast broadband coverage in the UK is currently somewhere around 93 percent of households with both private and public (in the form of BDUK deployments) due to take that to 97 percent by the end of next year.
There is public investment to do this is because companies aren’t able to make a return from investing in areas which are particularly hard to reach and often have sparse populations – i.e. there aren’t that many customers.
Changing this requires action to lower the costs of deploying infrastructure, such as around permits and noticing, as well as stimulating either demand or helping tip the scales towards a positive business case.
We are working on both aspects of this to ensure that everyone can benefit from good quality broadband.
An August report by Cable.co.uk found that the UK is 31st worldwide for broadband speeds. How serious a problem is this for the country?
Whilst speed tests can be useful they should be considered in a wider context – and sometimes with a pinch of salt.
Ofcom statistics show the UK’s download speed is over 36MBps which is over double that reported in this report.
The wider context includes price, take-up and overall quality of connection.
Generally, the UK’s digital infrastructure is well regarded although we face challenges as we move from good to a great connectivity as ultrafast and 5G technologies come online.
Your April report suggested that Brexit might damage broadband in the UK. Are you seeing any evidence that is happening now negotiations with the EU are underway?
The uncertainty that Brexit brings to the telecoms sector is real.
Although it is a mammoth task, Government is engaging positively in this area and a lot of work is underway to minimise the risks.
The sector depends on attracting the very best talent from around the world to research and engineer our networks as well as the construction sector to deliver these networks.
Securing skilled labour is already a challenge for operators and this will only become worse as we enter a more intensive period of network deployment in parallel to a potentially reduced supply.
What is the single most important thing you would like to see from government and regulators over the next 12 months to improve the UK's broadband infrastructure?
The most important thing is to bake in an ambitious and detailed strategy for our digital infrastructure acknowledging the role that it plays in underpinning the wider economy.
At the moment, we have a number of welcome initiatives and aspirations which this would help steer this.
This strategy would be helpful in itself but would also drive action in reducing the barriers to deployment, from permit schemes to business rates, as well as provide industry with greater certainty.