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, and the other parties, will surely reveal more details as 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 new policies, costings, and other details are announced.

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What are The Conservatives 2019 election plans for broadband?

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

The Conservative 2019 manifesto promises “full fibre and gigabit-capable broadband for every home and business” which would be delivered by 2025, echoing Boris Johnson’s pledge from the Tory leadership race.

Sadly, details on the money side of things remain slim, but the costings document reveals that £100 billion is to be invested in “transforming the UK’s infrastructure”. This fund will include cash for roads and railway hubs as well as gigabit-capable broadband to every home. It’s unclear how much of this will be set aside for broadband – that would be revealed in a National Infrastructure Strategy document, released after the next Budget is announced. Assuming, of course, that the Conservatives are still in Number 10 by then.

It’s still unclear 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.

Previous government targets had 2033 pegged as the date for when universal FTTP 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.

Johnson said at the time that the 2033 target was “laughably unambitious.”

What are Labour’s 2019 election plans for broadband?

  • 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, plus an extra £1.2bn for costs in 2023-24.
  • 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.

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.

Since the free broadband policy was announced, the Labour Party has detailed more costings estimates in its Funding Real Change document, the so-called ‘Grey Book’.

Labour has clarified that the £20.3bn it would spend on building a nationwide FTTP network would cover staff costs for the rollout, and related ongoing costs.

Labour points to the 2017 Tactis/Prism Costs for Digital Communications Infrastructures report, which estimates operational costs of a nationwide FTTP network to be £579m – however, this figure assumes that every piece of infrastructure has yet to be built. Labour correctly points out that BT has already laid a lot of optical fibre, so the figure for operational expenses will likely be less, hence the lower £230m a year estimate.

Nevertheless, the Labour costings document says that “a further £1,200m in 2023-24 in addition to the (inflation adjusted) £579m to err on the side of caution” would be set aside.

What are the Liberal Democrats 2019 election plans for broadband?

  • The plan: To make superfast broadband available everywhere, adopt a businesses-first approach to ultrafast broadband rollout.
  • The budget: Not explicitly costed.
  • How it would work: Currently unclear. An upgraded USO for BT to provide 30Mbps fixed-line services everywhere seems likely. A proposed increase of Digital Services Tax from 2% to 6% could help fund ultrafast broadband

Targets for broadband outlined in the Lib Dem manifesto are markedly less ambitious than what both Labour and the Tories are promising, but are arguably more realistic.

A Lib Dem government would push for greater rollout of “hyper-fast broadband”, but would see small and medium-sized businesses first in line for this.

Alongside that, the Lib Dems plan to “ensure that all households and businesses have access to superfast broadband”, which the party defines as any technology which can give users 30Mbps download and 6Mbps upload speeds.

Roughly translated, this could mean that BT’s Universal Service Obligation (USO) would get another update.

From March 2020, BT will be required to make a ‘fast’ 10Mbps service available anywhere in the UK – the Lib Dems could revise this to ensure that BT eventually offers a superfast service everywhere by a fixed date.

To aid in the rollout of future-proofed connections, the Lib Dem manifesto also promises to change building regulations, to that all new homes built from 2022 onwards “have full connectivity to ultra-fast broadband and are designed to enable the use of smart technologies.”

The Lib Dem manifesto also touches on a “Lovelace Code of Ethics” – presumably named after early computer programmer Ada Lovelace. This would emphasise the safeguarding of personally identifiable data, the teaching of data ethics, and more powers for the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.

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

  • The plan: Finish R100 and prioritise FTTP rollout for the hardest to reach areas.
  • The budget: A portion of the UK government’s £5bn fund.
  • How it would work: Currently unclear. As with R100, the Scottish Government would likely invite companies to bid for contracts for FTTP rollout. A new UK-wide USO for BT could also see superfast targets met, alongside R100.

The SNP’s 2019 manifesto repeats the promise of the £600m R100 (Reaching 100%) plan, which aims to put superfast broadband (defined as something delivering download speeds in excess of 30Mbps) to every address in Scotland by 2021.

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.

Aside from R100, the SNP says it will haggle for a fair share of the £5bn already set aside for FTTP rollout by the UK government, and it would use this cash to target the hardest to reach areas – in other words, the parts of Scotland unlikely to be passed by commercial providers in the near future, due to the low return on investment.

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 the Universal Service Obligation (USO)?

The Universal Service Obligation (USO) is a long-standing policy which requires BT to make basic telecoms services – i.e. a phone line capable of delivering voice calls and dial-up Internet services – available to any address in the UK.

In 2017, BT had reached an agreement with the government to revise and update the USO for the 21st Century. From March 2020 onwards, BT would have to provide a fixed-line connection capable of delivering at least 10Mbps download speeds to any UK resident who requested it.

Depending on the results of the election, the USO could be revised again, scrapped, or left as it currently is.

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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