Boris Johnson pledged that every home in Britain would have access to ultrafast full fibre broadband by 2025, eight years earlier than the Government has currently targeted.
Writing in The Telegraph, Johnson slammed the current timeline as “laughably unambitious.”
Johnson is currently the frontrunner in the Tory leadership contest and is widely expected to succeed Theresa May as Prime Minister in July.
He’s made delivering full fibre and connecting rural communities a centrepiece in his campaign, devoting his Sunday column to promising a “turbo-charged broadband revolution.”
“[It’s] a disgrace that this country should suffer from a deep digital divide, so that many rural areas and towns are simply left behind,” he wrote.
“We will have to step up very substantially the rate at which we install full fibre – currently running at about 20,000 premises per week. But this is not only a huge economic opportunity – it is part of our moral mission to unite Brexit Britain.”
“This will cost some public money, but the productivity gains are immense,” he added.
However, broadband infrastructure providers say his plans need more detail, would require not just investment but also regulatory changes, and ultimately aren’t realistic.
“Building full-fibre technology to the whole of the UK isn’t quick or easy,” said a spokesperson for Openreach, an arm of BT which owns most of Britain’s physical broadband infrastructure.
“It requires £30 billion and a physical build to more than 30 million front doors, from suburban terraces to remote crofts.”
The Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) said: “Boris Johnson’s ambitious commitment to achieve full fibre coverage by 2025 is welcome, but needs to be matched with ambitious regulatory change, including reform of the fibre tax.”
The fibre tax refers to the policy, by the government’s Valuation Office Agency (VOA), of treating fibre infrastructure as commercial property and thus applying business rates to it. The taxation disincentives investment in fibre networks, the industry has said.
The ISPA also slated “outdated planning laws” for holding back fibre roll out plans.
Fibre network developer VX Fibre said Johnson’s pledge was “admirable” but cautioned that the UK lacks the infrastructure to carry out such a fast rollout.
It noted that Sweden has set a similar 2025 deadline for universal full fibre access, but that they have spent 15 years building the infrastructure and currently have 90% full fibre coverage.
Full fibre connections can deliver speeds exceeding 1 Gigabyte per second, without losing speed over distance, but currently they’re available to around 2 million properties, around 7%.
Rural areas are especially underserved by full fibre and they can benefit the most from the connections.
Due to the expense and difficulty of laying fibre wires, rural areas often have slow standard or FTTC (fibre to the cabinet) connections, both of which lose speed over distance. Homes and businesses far from telephone exchanges often cope with inadequate or even untenably slow broadband speeds, contributing to social and economic isolation.
Ofcom found that 2% of British households are currently cannot access a decent fixed broadband service, defined as one that delivers a download speed of at least 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speed of at least 1Mbps.
Last summer the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced plans to bring full fibre connections to 10 million premises by 2022 and 15 million premises by 2025, with the aim of achieving universal full fibre access by 2033. The rollout will mostly be achieved by galvanising private investment in the infrastructure. However, the government has acknowledged that the market is unlikely to deliver fast connections to remote areas and has projected reaching the last 10% of premises will require public investment of £3 to £5 billion.
The government has already committed £200 million to the Rural Gigabyte Connectivity (RGC) programme to build full fibre networks out of hubs located in public sector and community buildings in rural areas.