You can’t run autonomous vehicles over copper

This week we had the pleasure of attending a UK Fibre Connectivity Forum event at the Houses of Parliament, where politicians together with the great and good of the telecoms industry met to debate the question: Can the UK catch-up with the global full fibre connectivity race? 

The answer? Yes, but we have a long way to go and it’s going to take a lot of ambition and collaboration.

The first challenge is that the UK is a long way behind in this race. As Erzsébet Fitori, the director general of the FTTH Council Europe and one of the panellists at the event, explained, with less than one percent penetration of FTTH, the UK doesn’t even qualify to be listed on the league table for the best national providers.

I guess that makes us non-league.

Other attendees vented their frustration. Gary Thompson, managing director of Between Spaces Limited – an economic development company – explained how, while it’s economical to lay fibre in cities, the satellite towns and villages that surround them are stuck with legacy networks, which reinforces their position of disadvantage. After all, you can’t run autonomous vehicles on copper infrastructures.

We also heard about gas suppliers not allowing network operators to share their infrastructures, and property developers ignoring the need to lay fibre as part of their new build projects. And while fibre might be available in cities, not all buildings can access it as landlords have little incentive to make those investments.

Of course, a number of initiatives are underway that should help the nation up its game.  Justin Leese of the DCMS was on hand to explain the numerous programmes and voucher schemes that are stimulating the roll-out of full fibre, but there was definitely a feeling in the room that network providers are waiting for customer demand before investing in their upgrades. Richard Jones of Ventura Next explained the problem of waiting in this era of rapid digital innovation: “if they wait, the lag will frustrate the hell out of people.”

The solution is to be more ambitious. Full fibre networks will attract businesses and innovation in a way that will stimulate growth, but the industry is going to have to collaborate (rather than just compete) to make this happen. Let’s see if they can make it happen.