Infrastructure wonks: Tear up Britain's copper phone networks by 2025

Full-fibre diet to cost $33bn over 30 years

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has told UK.gov it should allow for copper-based phone networks to be switched off by 2025, as well as recommending a host of other expensive broadband-based ideas.

The commission, which is a government body that tells it what to build, also called for the rollout of full fibre to the entire UK by 2033.

"The Commission's judgement is that a national full fibre rollout programme should be put in place. This will provide fast, reliable broadband, improve connectivity in rural areas, and support 4G and 5G mobile coverage. However, it will take at least a decade to build," the NIC said its latest report.

Reg readers may note with interest BT's plans to close its Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) by 2025, shifting all customers to VoIP instead. Openreach has started consultation with comms providers.

The NIC advised UK government to set out its full fibre diet by spring next year, including proposals to connect rural and remote communities. It said full fibre should be accessible to 15 million homes in seven years, to 25 million by 2030 and full coverage by 2033.

The cost of this wheeze - building and maintaining a full fibre network across the UK - would be a cool £33.4bn over 30 years. "This is estimated to be approximately £11.5 billion more than incrementally upgrading the existing infrastructure," the NIC said.

UK.gov should partly subsidise the roll out to rural and remote communities, beginning 2020. And government should promote network competition to underpin the commercial roll-out by deregulating the sector to guarrantee "a fair bet on risky investments before regulating any uncompetitive areas."

Just for good measure, the commission admitted: "It is not clear when, or if, bandwidth demand will outstrip the capacity of the existing copper network," before insisting that it is "possible" demand will outstrip the capacity of the copper network.

The NIC advised a copper switch-off because running it alongside a fibre network "will add significantly to overall costs"

"Switching off the copper network is ultimately a commercial decision for Openreach, the existing operator, but does require some government intervention to allow them to make the decision," it added.

Openreach also came in for implied criticism. "Without infrastructure competition, the existing provider has poor incentives to build new fibre networks, as this undermines its existing copper based services."

Rural areas should receive full-fibre connections as a priority, said the report, which noted that "long copper lines" cause signal degradation over great distances and "effectively render full fibre as the only viable infrastructure upgrade option for most rural areas".

To square this circle, the commission recommended a "taxpayer-subsidised infrastructure delivery scheme to uncommercial areas" along the lines of the "successful" Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme, partly subsidising the roll out to rural or remote communities.

As previously reported, the BDUK project was late and over-budget, in part due to an intervention from Brussels which questioned UK.gov's decision to hand BT hundreds of millions of pounds for the roll-out.

The National Infrastructure Commission's latest assessment is available on its website as a 163-page PDF file. ®

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