The future of broadband

With an increasing need for high speed broadband to meet the demands of connectivity, Purvi Parekh considers the legal issues surrounding the rollout of superfast broadband across the UK

How has the government’s commitment to increasing broadband coverage affected the development of infrastructure?

Broadband and the increasing of broadband coverage has been on the UK government agenda for many years. In December 2010, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), in partnership with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, published a strategy document entitled ‘Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future’. The document set out the government’s ambition that the UK should have the best high speed broadband network in Europe by 2015.Broadband was also a key pillar in the coalition government’s policy objectives and more recently a key part of the Conservative Party manifesto. The March 2015 Budget set out the clear objective to secure ultrafast broadband of at least 100 Mbps to nearly all UK premises, with coverage reaching 95% of premises, and mobile operators achieving 4G coverage to 98% of premises.

Following on these heels came a government policy paper in May 2015 in which the DCMS committed to invest around £800m on stimulating commercial investment in broadband, bringing high speed broadband to rural areas and investing in super connected cities. Whether it has been as a reaction to government pressures to increase broadband coverage, or whether as a result of rollout of 4G and the necessity of keeping competitive to survive, the telecoms industry has committed to significantly improve broadband rollout at both a fixed and mobile level through private investment. The reason is probably a combination of government, competition and regulatory factors, with a greater bias towards survival. Coverage obligations in mobile licences have helped, as has the ability to enter into deeper sharing arrangements (input, passive and active based).

Certainly almost all of the big market players have embarked on network upgrade, improvement or rollout programmes. Liberty Global/Virgin Media’s Project Lightning announced one of the largest UK investments in February 2015 around £3bn in broadband digital infrastructure.

Broadband remains at the heart of the digital economy we live in and the supporting infrastructure is fundamental to achieve that.

What have been the key barriers to increasing broadband coverage?

The key barriers to increasing broadband coverage in the past have lain in inconsistency and unpredictability in the economic environment and in regulation. In a market where the telecoms operators have been subject to regulatory intervention on historically revenue generating services- call termination and roaming being key examples – the output has been a decline in telecoms revenue. Investing in the upgrading of networks is a costly and long term exercise and, to get buy-in, there has to be some balance.

Another key regulatory factor in the adoption of broadband has been the challenges that the operators face in obtaining rights of way or planning permissions for network rollout.

Proposed amendments to the Electronic Communications Code – the Code which facilitates the installation and maintenance of electronic communications networks on public and private land – are also designed to create a more modern and robust framework for the rollout of digital infrastructure.

How can telecoms companies partner with the government and local authorities to increase broadband availability?

Partnering works both ways – to be successful in increasing broadband availability government and local bodies should reach out to telecom companies to discuss means of facilitating rollout and minimising barriers. Telecom operators know the market factors, the technology limitations and opportunities and characteristics of broadband, better than most

government bodies and local authorities. They therefore have an important role to play

in the development of broadband policy in addition to the implementation of it.

Making investment attractive for telecom companies will also support increased broadband. More coordinated rollout at a local authority level is one way of achieving this and is a key factor in increasing rollout.

What could be done to speed the delivery of broadband across the UK? Is the current strategy sufficiently future proofing the UK?

A consistent and stable regulatory framework is key to the success of broadband delivery, and one that works not just for fixed line or 3G and 4G mobile technologies, but also embraces new services that are being driven by consumer demand, e.g. video and music streaming, TV and video download services, voice and video telephony services, and with 5G in mind. Moving faster on simplifying legislation to enable network rollout to be done more efficiently, without being hampered by private and public land red- tape or obstacles, is also key to such success. Financial support for operators investing in rural  areas is more easily available, but to sustain a competitive market government financial support across the whole of the UK would also serve to increase broadband delivery, as would devising appropriate tax breaks for broadband providers.

This article was first published in LexisNexis on 24 August 2015. To read the whole article, click here.