Labour’s Free Broadband pledge: How do the Conservative, Lib Dem, and SNP Internet plans compare?

This week, the Labour Party sparked debate by announcing policy details on a different B-word subject. British Broadband is Labour’s ambitious plan to bring free Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) broadband to every UK home and business by 2030. 

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also said a new public Internet service provider, dubbed the British Broadband Service, would offer “the fastest broadband free to everyone” and a Labour government would achieve this mass FTTP rollout by nationalising Openreach – the access network arm of BT – as well as other parts of the BT Group.

The new publicly-owned network would be rechristened British Digital Infrastructure, and £230m of annual operational costs for this would be covered by taxes on “multinationals”.

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Roughly £15.3bn from Labour’s Green Transformation Fund, plus the £5bn already earmarked for FTTP by this government, would cover the cost of building FTTP out to all corners of the UK, and nationalisation of BT’s assets would be paid for by swapping government bonds for shares.

Feted/mocked (you decide) as ‘broadband communism’, Labour’s free broadband policy raises more questions than it gives answers, namely, exactly how much of the BT Group would be nationalised, would BT accept a bonds-for-shares swap, and would the state take on liability for the pensions of Openreach’s 32,000-odd staff.

The British Broadband Service would have to abide by the rules of the Investigatory Powers Act, and store a year’s worth subscriber’s of connection logs, but would it filter content by default, like the main ISPs currently do?

Then there are questions about the effects this would have on competition – would the likes of Virgin Media, CityFibre, Gigaclear, Hyperoptic, and B4RN continue to invest in their own FTTP networks? Would Hull’s Kingston Communications be allowed to continue as an independent local incumbent? Would ISPs using Openreach, the likes of Zen, AAISP, Fuel, Direct Save Telecom, as well as more well-known names like TalkTalk and Sky, even bother competing with the BBS offering the fastest service for free?

Perhaps most importantly, is £20.3bn and £230m a year really enough to build and run a nationwide FTTP network?

It’s likely that we’ll have answers to at least some of these questions soon – Labour has only sketched out its policy and will surely announce more details are the election date looms.

In the meantime, this article will compare the various pledges and promises made by the UK’s political parties, and will be updated as and when policies and updates are announced.

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What are The Conservatives 2019 election plans for broadband?

During the Conservative leadership campaign, Boris Johnson announced that under his watch, £5bn of public money would be invested in bringing FTTP broadband to the hardest to reach parts of the UK.

Previous government targets had 2033 pegged as the date for when universal coverage might be achieved if the private sector continued at its current pace – the more remote and harder to reach an area is, the more expensive (and therefore less profitable) that work becomes.

What’s less clear is exactly how a Conservative government would implement this – BT could be handed a new USO (Universal Service Obligation), or this cash could be ringfenced for rural providers like Gigaclear or B4RN.

Johnson said at the time that the 2033 target was “laughably unambitious,” but since he’s become leader, precious little else about FTTP has been mentioned – possibly because Johnson had his hands full with Brexit, the Jennifer Acuri rumours, the inquiry into Russian interference, amongst other things.

It’s likely that CCHQ will announce revised plans in the coming weeks, especially in the wake of Labour’s Britsh Broadband broadside.

  • The plan: To make FTTP available to every UK address by 2025.
  • The budget: £5bn.
  • How it would work: Currently unclear – either through a new universal service mandate for BT, or by invitations to tender for altnet providers.

What are Labour’s 2019 election plans for broadband?

Labour’s British Broadband plan matches that of the government’s current ambitions, in the sense that it would see everyone in the UK able to access FTTP-based broadband services within the next decade.

But while Labour’s plan would see that target hit five years later than the Conservatives plan, it’s also more ambitious in that it would create a nationwide, publicly owned network, and offer a free service to anyone who wanted it.

  • The plan: To make FTTP available to every UK address by 2030, and offer a free service to all, called British Broadband Service.
  • The budget: £15.3bn, plus the £5bn already allocated by the current government to build the network, plus £230m a year to run the new British Digital Infrastructure network.
  • How it would work: Nationalising part of the BT Group, including the access network Openreach, and raising funds through a mixture of bonds and corporate taxes.

What are the Liberal Democrats 2019 election plans for broadband?

So far, the Liberal Democrats have yet to announce any broadband-related plans for the 2019 election.

That’s surprising, because in 2017, Lib Dems manifesto contained a pledge to deliver universal FTTP by 2020, with 2Gbps and unlimited usage as the basic speed.

If the Liberal Democrats have any similar plans for this election, they’ve yet to announce them.

So far, party leader Jo Swinson has pledged to tackle carbon emissions – allowing more people to work from home thanks to improved telecoms could form a part of this green pledge.

What are the SNP’s 2019 election plans for broadband?

The Scottish Government is due to award the final contract for its R100 plan by the end of the year.

The £600m R100 (Reaching 100%) scheme aims to see superfast broadband services – defined as 30Mbps or faster – made available to every address in Scotland.

In October 2019, it was announced that BT had won two of the three R100 contracts – for the Central and South areas – with details to be published by the end of the year.

It’s currently unclear if Nicola Sturgeon’s party has any plans to build on R100.

What is FTTP and why is it important?

Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) is a type of telecoms technology which sees a customer’s property connected to an exchange or network by an optical fibre connection, allowing for download and upload speeds in excess of 1Gbps (1000Mbps).

For context, the latest figures from Ofcom show that on average, UK subscribers currently enjoy download speeds of 54.2Mbps and average upload speeds of 7.2 Mbps.

Most domestic broadband services in the UK use Openreach’s VDSL (also known as FTTC, short for ‘Fibre to the Cabinet’) technology, or Virgin Media’s DOCSIS cable broadband tech, where the so-called ‘last mile’ of the connection is made up from either a pair of twisted copper wires (called ‘loops’), or in the case of Virgin, coaxial cable. In either case, neither of these technologies are the same as FTTP.

FTTC can’t deliver download speeds higher than 80Mbps, and, like creaky old ADSL, the top speeds you’ll get depend greatly on your location, specifically, your proximity to the green Openreach street cabinets. BT lists the average speed you can get from its Superfast Fibre 2 service as 67Mbps, for example.

Virgin Media’s fastest cable broadband services give users average download speeds of 362Mbps and average uploads of 36Mbps – and as the new Gig1 services becomes more widely available, customers will soon be able to enjoy download speeds of 1104Mbps.

Both Openreach and Virgin Media have invested heavily in growing their FTTP footprints.

Openreach’s Blueprint for a Full Fibre Future report from October 2019 stated that the network has passed 1.8m properties, and engineering teams pass roughly 23,000 premises a week.

Preliminary Q3 2019 notes from Virgin Media state that its network grew by 119,000 in the last quarter – but it’s not clear how many of those new connections were FTTP and how many were cable.

Openreach has also invested in technology called G.fast, which sees optical fibre taken even closer to a customer’s home than with FTTC.

Partially because the final copper loop is much shorts (tens of metres versus kilometers), G.fast services can offer download in excess of 100Mbps, but it still isn’t future-proof in the way FTTP is. Openreach currently plans to have passed around 2.73m properties with G.fast by March 2020.

What is Openreach?

Openreach is the division of BT which builds and maintains a network of telephone exchanges, cable ducts, telegraph poles and street cabinets which provides phone and Internet services to almost every home and business across the country – it covers approximately 30 million addresses.

In 2017, telecoms regulator Ofcom and BT agreed that Openreach should be ‘functionally separate’ from the wider BT Group, to address competition concerns.

This means that Openreach now sets its own targets and strategies with regards to rollout of FTTP, but its budget is set by the BT Group.

Who else is rolling out FTTP?

Aside from Virgin Media, whose network spans roughly 14.7 million properties, a number of alternative network providers – ‘altnets’ in industry-speak – have either built or are building their own FTTP networks.

Hyperoptic, which serves urban customers living in large apartment blocks, new build complexes, and social housing, has made FTTP broadband available to roughly 400,000 addresses, and plans to pass 5 million by 2024.

CityFibre has already installed fibre networks in towns and cities up and down the country, and has joined forces with Vodafone as part of a joint venture which aims to pass 5 million UK premises with FTTP by 2025.

TalkTalk is also spending £8m on building its own FibreNation network, and as of September 2019, had passed 43,000 premises across York, as part of a trial.

Gigaclear, which predominantly serves rural communities, has over 20,000 customers, and claims to run the UK’s largest FTTP network, recently adding thousands of new premises to its footprint in Devon, Somerset, and Essex.

Self-starter community project and altnet heroes B4RN (Broadband For the Rural North), was initially based in rural Lancashire, but since forming in 2011 has seen sibling networks spring up in East Anglia and Cheshire.

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