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Alt Networks Insist Rollout of Full Fibre Must Continue During Lockdown

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The Independent Networks Co-operative Association (INCA) has said the delivery of ultrafast broadband infrastructure must continue despite the coronavirus lockdown.

Providers are permitted to continue to maintain, repair and upgrade broadband networks as essential services during the lockdown. To enable this, telecoms workers, including the field engineers who install networks, as well as staff working in network operations, call centres and IT and data infrastructure, have been designated “key workers” by the government.

Reduced traffic and empty roads should enable faster installation of broadband infrastructure. However, many network providers have had to scale back operations in order to protect the health of their staff and as a result of disrupted supply chains. Notably, Openreach, a mainstream provider not represented by INCA and owner of much of the UK’s broadband infrastructure, has dialled back installations to prioritise “essential work.” 

However, INCA, trade body for the UK’s alternative broadband networks, has said progress must continue—especially to preserve people’s connections to the outside world during the lockdown.

CEO Malcolm Corbett said: “With lockdown conditions unlikely to be lifted completely for some time to come, people across the country are getting used to working from home and are relying more than ever on the internet for keeping in touch and to provide entertainment as they observe social distancing guidelines.

“Network resilience has been good during the crisis but sharing best practise on the way networks are operated and managed has taken on even greater importance.”

Alternative full-fibre networks, which include B4RN, Cityfibre, Gigaclear and Hyperoptic, expanded their reach by 50% in 2019 and have ambitious plans for 2020. Currently covering 1.22 million households, they aim to connect 2.42 million by the end of the year, with the long-term goal of connecting 15.73 million premises by 2025.

However, broadband engineers have faced verbal and physical attacks from members of the public who believe the baseless theory that 5G technology is linked to COVID-19. 

Earlier this month BT chief executive Philip Jansen revealed that 39 BT engineers had been threatened on the job.

“These are Government-designated key workers, out—with no small risk to their own health—to ensure that broadband and mobile networks keep working. Without these engineers fixing faults, adding capacity, and installing new lines, people lose their connection,” he wrote in the Mail on Sunday over Easter weekend.

Some BT Openreach engineers have taken to 5G conspiracy Facebook groups pleading to be spared abuse while working on the street as they’re not involved in installing mobile networks.

Although the rollout may be delayed by lockdown disruption and scaremongers, the UK is finally making progress in installing full-fibre internet, creeping up from the lowest tiers of FTTH Council Europe’s annual rankings. The Council estimated that full-fibre coverage in the UK hit 15% in September 2019—which is above the 10% Ofcom counted for that month but would make the UK the fourth fastest-growing market for FTTH in Europe.

With an 18% take-up rate, full-fibre penetration stands at 2.8% in the UK, by the Council’s calculations, putting it third from last among European countries—up from dead last in 2019.

Lauren Smith
Lauren Smith

Lauren Smith has worked as a journalist and copywriter for most of the last decade, covering technology, energy, and consumer rights, in the US and UK.

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