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Budget 2018: funding announced for rural 'full fibre' pilots

The UK government is to fund pilot initiatives aimed at finding new ways to deliver 'full fibre' broadband networks to rural areas of the country, according to an announcement made in the chancellor's Budget on Monday.31 Oct 2018

The government has allocated £200 million to "pilot innovative approaches to deploying full fibre internet in rural locations", according to the Budget paper (106-page / 2.74MB PDF).

The money will come from the government's National Productivity Investment Fund and represents an extension of the government's existing Local Full Fibre Networks programme.

The first wave of funding will be used in areas straddling the border between England and Scotland, Cornwall, and the Welsh Valleys and the pilots will be aimed at boosting the connectivity of primary schools, the government said. Businesses and home owners "nearby" to those schools will also be able to benefit too through a voucher scheme, it said.

The funding announcement comes after the government outlined its plans to deliver a nationwide 'full fibre' network by 2033 in its Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review report published in July this year.

In that 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. It announced at the time that £200m from its 'superfast' broadband rollout programme would be used to help deliver 'full fibre' networks in rural areas. The new announcement of a further £200m from the NPIF appears to be an additional allocation of funds.

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. The government has estimated that it will cost around £30 billion to deliver full fibre broadband connectivity in the UK.

The government has described 'full fibre' networks as "much faster, more reliable, and cheaper to operate than their copper predecessors".

Alongside its Budget announcement, the government also published plans to require developers and network operators to "provide gigabit-capable connections to new homes". The developers and network operators would share the cost associated with this, according to the proposals. 'Gigabit-capable' connections are broadband networks that can deliver download speeds of 1,000 Mbp/s.

The government has set out plans (29-page / 577KB PDF) to update building regulations and introduce a new 'duty to connect' on network operators to deliver on its plans. It said it wants 15 million premises to have access to gigabit-capable networks by 2025, and for there to be "nationwide coverage" by 2033. The consultation is open until 21 December.

"We believe that the construction of new homes is an opportunity for building developers and telecoms operators to deliver excellent connectivity," the government said in its consultation paper. "When homes are built without thought given to connectivity, new owners often experience delays, additional costs and frustration, at a time (having just moved) when access to online services is critical."

"Industry has the ability to ensure that consumers’ needs are met and for high quality connections to be available from the first day that a resident owns a new home. Government is proposing to intervene in order to ensure that NBDs have guaranteed access to high quality, reliable digital connections, allowing people to work from home, connect with family and friends and use internet services. Future-proof connections can best be delivered by gigabit-capable networks," it said.

In its interim response (22-page / 713KB PDF) to the National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) published by the National Infrastructure Commission earlier this year, the government outlined the existing funding it has given to delivering new broadband and mobile communications networks.

"We have already committed over £1 billion to developing the next generation of digital networks, including a £200 million Local Full Fibre Networks programme, the £67 million Gigabit Voucher Scheme, the £400 million Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund, and £200 million for trialling new 5G technology," it said. "At the Budget, the government is committing £200 million from the NPIF to pilot new approaches to deploying full fibre connectivity to rural locations to ensure no region is left behind when it comes to connectivity."