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UK sets out plan to enable 'full fibre' and '5G' targets

A wide-ranging new vision for the future of the UK's telecoms infrastructure has been outlined by the UK government.

The Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR) sets out plans for new '5G' mobile technology to be available in "the majority" of the UK by 2027, and for homes and businesses "nationwide" in the UK to have access to 'full fibre' broadband networks by 2033 – 15 million by 2025.

The vision (90-page / 1.98MB PDF) was outlined by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) at the end of a cross government review. UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has already set out a package of measures (34-page / 532KB PDF) aimed at implementing some of the recommendations contained in the review.

Daryl Cox, a telecoms expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the FTIR is a critical guide post, "not only for the future of connectivity in the UK but also for the UK's productivity and for all the sectors that will be transformed by 5G and full fibre networks".

"The scope of the review is broad, but it recommends a focus on certain priority areas. This includes reducing the cost and barriers to deployment of fixed and wireless networks through legislation and non-legislative measures. Reforms and initiatives are also proposed to encourage competitive investment by existing and new players through stable, long-term regulation. Further, the review flags that no area of the UK should be left behind; a perennial issue with telecoms roll-outs which, left unchecked, cherry pick profitable or high profile areas for deployment with other areas, such as rural areas, left behind," he said.

"Convergence of fixed and wireless networks is also given a nod – this is especially important considering the large amounts of dense fibre that will be required to feed 5G deployments. The FTIR is clear that the progress and outcomes of legal separation of Openreach from BT Group will be closely monitored to ensure it supports the objectives of the Review," Cox said.

In the FTIR report, the government said "it is clear" that a mix of full fibre and 5G broadband networks are "the long-term answer" to the "speed, resilience and reliability" demands of consumers and businesses.

"These technologies have the potential to transform productivity, and to open up new business models," it said. "Full fibre networks are faster, more reliable, and more affordable to operate than their copper predecessors. 5G will deliver faster and better mobile broadband, and enable revolutionary uses in industry sectors like manufacturing, health and transport."

At the moment, copper wires often carry the data transmitted over broadband networks in the so-called 'last mile' of connectivity to properties. 'Full fibre' networks involve connecting those properties up to the network using fibre optic cables, but just 4% of premises in the UK are currently connected in this way, compared to 99% and 97% of premises in South Korea and Japan respectively. Fibre networks provide for far greater bandwidth than the copper wires. To deliver full fibre broadband connectivity in the UK is anticipated to cost around £30 billion, DCMS said.

The government has set out a package of measures aimed at achieving the full fibre and 5G broadband targets, including those that build on existing policies and regulation. It includes plans to increase the UK's 'full fibre' connectivity through Broadband UK's 'superfast' broadband rollout programme where £200 million has been made available for that purpose.

The government will also publish draft legislation after the summer recess in parliament to "ensure full fibre connections" are deployed in new housing developments, and to make it easier for telecoms operators to access property owned by others to install telecoms infrastructure through their 'wayleave' agreements.

DCMS also that it could use powers under the Electronic Communications Code to ensure full fibre networks are installed in areas of the country where no operator has indicated plans of their own to extend such coverage. It said additional funding could also be awarded to help incentivise the deployment of full fibre networks in areas where industry is unlikely otherwise to invest.

Other measures to support full fibre connectivity include giving telecoms operators enhanced rights to access ducts and poles owned by rivals, or the 'dark fibre' already in place, to develop their own networks.

DCMS also said it will seek to make "assets from utilities such as power, gas, water, and local authorities ... easier to access, and available for both fixed and mobile use". It said this "not only includes multi-utility ducts and poles, but also potentially pipes in the case of water, sewers and gas". A review of existing regulations in this area will be carried out by the government in 2019 "to assess if there are improvements that could be made to further boost investment in infrastructure", it said.

The government said the regulatory approach could influence the investment needed by telecoms operators to develop full fibre networks. It called on Ofcom to limit its interventions in the market and said there are local differences in the wholesale access market that should be reflected in the regulatory approach adopted to encourage industry investment in full fibre networks.

A new "fibre switchover strategy" will be developed with industry to encourage people to switch away from using "legacy copper networks" to full fibre networks, DCMS said. Broadband providers will be expected to "offer suitable ‘entry level’ products at prices close to those offered on copper networks" to incentivise switching, it said.

"The task of shifting from legacy copper products to fibre products should not be underestimated," Cox said. "For example, in other countries, tariff regulation encouraging low retail copper prices has made the shift difficult."

On delivering 5G coverage, the government said the national mobile network operators – EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three – would play a central role. DCMS said more spectrum would be released to support 5G services.

"The review recognises the potential limitations of existing spectrum licensing models for 5G," Cox said. "For example, as the higher frequency spectrum bands above 24 Ghz are cleared and used for 5G services, it is likely that services provided over those frequencies will be confined to tighter geographical areas that have very high capacity requirements, such as city centres. The review provides some useful recommendations to facilitate a shift away from rigid, national spectrum licences which may not be suitable for 5G, towards more flexible options."

DCMS confirmed that it would continue to fund "beneficial 5G-enabled use cases" through its 5G testbeds and trials programme. It said it would also consider further reforms to planning laws to support the deployment of infrastructure to support 5G connectivity.

"If the telecoms industry can demonstrate that there are further reforms that could support deployment which warrant changes to planning, and make a clear case for change, we will work swiftly to consider the proposals and consult more widely on appropriate reforms," DCMS said.

The government said it is likely different "infrastructure models" will emerge for 5G, including 'neutral host' models such as those where providers "supply passive mast and tower infrastructure", or "deploy their own active equipment" and transmit on behalf of mobile network operators.

Cox said: "Neutral host models are not new; they have been used for some time to share passive telecoms infrastructure in rural or lower capacity areas and also in-building equipment like distributed antennae systems. However, we are likely to see more innovative neutral host models emerging that also cover active equipment like transmitters and even spectrum. This is because of the increased scale of equipment required to support 5G deployment in built up areas. It could also be due to new 'sector-based' markets emerging around use cases like autonomous vehicles."

In its report, DCMS also predicted the future convergence of the full fibre and 5G markets and said a "flexible policy and regulatory framework" would be needed to reflect that.

As part of that, Ofcom should update its regulations to provide mobile network operators with greater rights of access to ducts and poles operated by Openreach to ensure they can "deploy cost-effective backhaul services that can scale to meet the demands of 5G networks", it said.

In a document setting out its approach to future regulation, Ofcom acknowledged that regulation "must reflect the effect of convergence at the network level" and said it plans to "introduce proposals that seek to provide unrestricted access to Openreach’s ducts and poles nationwide". It also said it would "consider access networks and services more holistically" more generally. It also said that 'downstream' regulation in the telecoms market "will need to vary geographically to reflect the local competitive intensity".

Ofcom also committed to assessing competition in telecoms markets over a five year period in future, instead of the current three year cycle, to encourage "major fibre investments".

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