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UK government invests £1b in fibre and 5G

The UK government hopes its £1 billion investment in 5G and fibre broadband will 'catalyse' industry to invest more in the new network technologies.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The British government has announced that it will be investing over £1 billion to encourage the rollout of a full fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) network and become a "world leader" in 5G.

Chancellor Philip Hammond used the Autumn Statement on Wednesday to announce the spending, which the government hopes will kickstart private investment in the sector in order to conduct further 5G trials and roll out fibre broadband to every home and business across the United Kingdom.

The FttP broadband would replace the predominantly fibre-to-the-node (FttN) network currently being rolled out across the UK by BT.

"Our future transport, business, and lifestyle needs will require world-class digital infrastructure to underpin them. So my ambition is for the UK to be a world leader in 5G," Hammond said on Wednesday.

"That means a full-fibre network; a step-change in speed, security, and reliability.

"So we will invest over £1 billion in our digital infrastructure to catalyse private investment in fibre networks and to support 5G trials."

To further incentivise industry investment in connectivity, the government will also be introducing 100 percent business rates relief on new fibre infrastructure for a five-year period.

"We have chosen to borrow to kickstart a transformation in infrastructure and innovation investment," Hammond explained.

"But we must sustain this effort over the long term if we are to make a lasting difference to the UK's productivity performance."

The announcement followed reports earlier this week that Hammond would be announcing a £400 million kickstart investment for a full-fibre rollout and £740 million towards the development of 5G, with Vodafone UK welcoming the investments.

Calling FttN and similar technologies making use of both legacy copper and fibre for connectivity "much slower and less reliable", Vodafone UK -- which has been undertaking 5G field tests with Chinese networking giant Huawei since July, attaining speeds of 20Gbps -- said it recently commissioned independent research showing that BT's broadband rollout would provide just 6.5 percent of premises in the UK with 1Gbps fibre services by 2020.

"We welcome the government's move to focus on providing full fibre, and we call upon BT to be upfront with the British public about its rollout plans and acknowledge that G.fast will do nothing to help those stranded on archaic and woefully inadequate broadband today," Vodafone UK director of External Affairs Helen Lamprell said.

"BT is pushing a muddled compromise rooted in the past, while the rest of the world is focused on building the gigabit society at light speed over fibre."

The research also showed that BT's G.fast network technology would increase coverage by less than 5 percent, as it would likely be available only to those living a few hundred metres from the cabinet or node, as well as being duplicated in areas where high-speed broadband is already available.

Vodafone UK said it commissioned the research due to "the absence of clear plans from BT for the rollout of either G.fast or FttP by region or constituency".

BT last month commissioned a report of its own on the benefits of G.fast across the globe, with BT's Openreach division expected to launch the first commercial G.fast services next year. An extension to its current pilot of the technology will see another 140,000 premises obtain access to G.fast by March 2017.

"Our aim is to make ultra-fast broadband available to 12 million homes and businesses in the UK by the end of 2020, and we're embracing a mix of technologies with G.fast and FttP to achieve that," said Openreach CEO Clive Selley.

BT's field trials have seen average speeds of 330Mbps delivered, with 10 million premises planned to be connected by G.fast by 2020; the remaining 2 million UK premises will be connected with FttP. BT has also been testing XG-FAST in lab trials, attaining speeds of 5.8Gbps over a 35-metre copper line.

While the UK government pushes industry towards co-investing in a full-fibre rollout, the Australian government remains steadfast in its decision to continue relying on copper for connectivity.

Australia's National Broadband Network's (NBN) 2017 Corporate Plan showed a base case of 2 million or 17 percent of premises to be covered by FttP; 6.1 million premises or 51 percent by FttN, fibre to the basement, or fibre to the distribution point (FttDP); 2.8 million or 24 percent by hybrid fibre-coaxial; and 1 million or 8 percent by fixed-wireless or satellite.

NBN's new FttDP network covering 700,000 premises in Australia will also be launched without the G.fast network technology promised by BT in the UK for FttN "in order to make it simpler for our retail service providers to offer services to end-user premises".

The absence of G.fast will mean speeds will be capped at around the 100Mbps mark currently attained on FttN.

The Australian government has said its decision not to roll out FttP across the country is rooted in reasons of the high costs associated, as well as the time it would take to connect fibre to all premises nationwide.

Last month, Google Fiber halted its rollout of FttP across the United States due to the costs inherent in funding the project.

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