It was truly exciting to attend Connected Britain in London this month, where the biggest players in UK connectivity gathered to share network stories…and to network. VETRO FiberMap met with numerous customers who are designing and deploying fiber in Britain using our platform, and we were introduced to dozens of ISPs, local councils, and others on the connectivity investment journey. Coming to the UK from the US where substantial state and federal funds are being deployed to support broadband expansion, it was interesting to dive deeper into broadband incentives and support in the UK vs US, and our respective progress toward the goal of ubiquitous connectivity. One thing is clear—there is a connectivity gap in both countries and a lot of focus on bridging it with fiber!
Bandwidth and Broadband Incentives: how fast is “high speed”?
The UK and the US are both subsidizing broadband infrastructure builds with substantial broadband incentives. Areas unserved by broadband, or underserved with current networks, are targeted, and minimum speed thresholds are required to be delivered by grant recipients. The UK Government defines super fast broadband as download speeds of 24 megabits per second (Mbps). Subsidies in the US only required providers to meet 10Mbps download as recently as 2015, however current US (FCC) programs set the bar at 25Mbps as the “high speed” broadband definition. Upload minimums remain low at only 3 Mbps up in the US for a 25/3 definition of broadband. It is worth noting that the fiber network providers we work with are typically delivering 100/100 and higher tier options, which is decidedly more in line with bandwidth needs that continue to skyrocket. Symmetrical gigabit (1,000/1,000) service is already the norm in some markets.
Both US and UK Governments are investing heavily in supporting fiber build outs with broadband incentives, although the two are going about it differently.
The UK recently launched a nationwide Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme (GBVS), which is funded by a pot of £67m. The program is managed by Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) and will provide vouchers worth up to £3,000 for businesses (SME) or £500 to residents to help with the costs of connecting to “full fiber” (FTTX) broadband. The funds flow directly to the consumers who then spend the money (vouchers) on getting connected, essentially placing the path to build a bit more into the hands of the customer, and ‘pulling’ network buildout rather than ‘pushing’.
Quite the contrary is the Connect America Fund in the US. First introduced in 2014, it has set aside billions of dollars subsidizing the expansion of broadband in mostly rural underserved areas. The bulk of the funding in the first rounds went to large incumbents with a long term window to deliver just 10/1 speeds. Some argue this approach has led to only incremental improvements with little benefit to those rural areas with the greatest need. As of early 2018, nearly 31 percent of the 43.6 million Americans in rural areas still do not have access to home Internet service with speeds of at least 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up, according to the FCC. There are new programs with more funds rolling in behind to keep after the ‘gap’, including CAF2, ACAM, ReConnect, and many State level funds.
Progress toward Policy Goals
As of mid-2018, the UK ranked 35th and the US 20th out of 200 Countries for Average Broadband Speeds according to M-Lab. Consider Romania, with virtually the same land area as the UK, coming in at number 5 with an average speed nationwide of 38.6Mbps download speed more than doubling the UK’s 18.6 Mbps. Both the US and the UK are holding steady in the world rankings, despite considerable funding efforts on the part of both governments.
In early 2019, The White House released the American Broadband Initiative Milestones Report. The Trump Administration’s signature inter-agency (roughly 20!) strategy to stimulate increased private investment in broadband infrastructure and services to fill broadband connectivity gaps in America. Support for broadband investment is deep across the political spectrum in the US.
Boris Johnson has proclaimed the goal of “100% FTTH penetration by 2025” in the UK. Experts declared £15bn-£20bn is needed to deliver on Boris Johnson’s declaration. In May of this year, current leadership announced a £200million 2 year Rural Gigabit Connectivity program. It appears that differing political interests share the ‘full-fibre’ goal in the UK as well.
How do the two countries conquer the digital divide and the overall connectivity gap in 2019 and beyond? There are advocates for adopting higher (and symmetrical) speeds as thresholds for funding eligibility – raising the bar or definition of what constitutes broadband. Opening or requiring access to available shared infrastructure (ducts and poles) to network builders is another strategy. This is currently in play under Ofcom rules in the UK as of late 2018. Openreach, which maintains the UK’s main broadband network, is required to let competing providers use its telegraph poles and underground ducts to lay their own fibre cables. With the ability to upgrade electronics and continue to increase speeds over fiber, a well-designed Fiber To The Premise (FTTP) deployment essentially “future proofs” baseline network investments for decades to come.
We appreciated the opportunity to engage with our friends in the UK. It was a great show! And we look forward to continuing to enable Fiber network designers, builders, and operators in the US, the UK, and around the globe.