TechnologyTelecommunications

Does the UK need full-fibre broadband? Just ask the lucky few who have it

Labour’s plan to offer free full fibre broadband to every home and business is an eye-catching offer to potential voters. But while the scheme has been labelled “fantasy economics” by critics, people who already enjoy ultra-fast broadband view it as invaluable.

Like the roll-out of 5G for mobile phones, full-fibre broadband is the much-hyped next big thing for internet connectivity to homes and businesses. Full-fibre will mean speeds of more than one gigabit per second, letting users download an HD movie in under 50 seconds.

The government calls full-fibre the gold standard of broadband, yet the UK is far behind much of the world with only 8% of homes able to get it, compared with 89% of homes in Portugal and 71% in Spain. However, those that do have it tend to rave about the service – especially those who struggled with poor connectivity beforehand.

“Speeds have gone from a cart horse to a bullet train,” says David Pippett, who runs the PR business ProServe from home in the small village of Avoncliff in Wiltshire. “I once had to drive to the Sainsbury’s in Bradford upon Avon, which has 4G coverage, to send a story and attached file to about 70 publications. The internet connection at home couldn’t do it, and the village mobile phone coverage is poor too.”

Pippett says that before the upgrade, which was managed through a scheme involving support from Openreach and the government to get broadband into rural areas, “everyone in the village used to complain of video buffering [pausing] watching programmes on the BBC’s iPlayer”. His nine-year-old son, an avid cricket fan, now uses Sky’s Now TV streaming service without any glitches.

Janelle Scialla, who runs the Rebel Angel crystal shop and website, says the difference between her old internet connection and full-fibre has been like “night and day”.

“I do videos as part of my work with crystals and one time it took a full day to upload a five-minute video,” she says. “I used to go back and forth making cups of tea while I waited, so full fibre has raised my productivity no end. For me as a business it has been worth every penny; I think it would be amazing for people to have for free.”

Labour has said it will make full-fibre free by part-nationalising BT, primarily its subsidiary Openreach which runs the UK’s broadband network, with annual running costs paid for by some form of tax on multinationals including Facebook and Google.

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The prospect of moving Openreach to state ownership is fraught with difficulty, if in reality it will be possible to pull off at all. Analysts say rivals such as Virgin Media will be dis-incentivised to compete with what is effectively a new government monopoly. Boris Johnson, who has called the Labour plan a “crazed communist scheme”, also made fibre roll-out a top priority for his Conservative government.

While delivering the roll-out comes with a hefty price tag of £35bn, making it the UK’s biggest infrastructure project after the HS2 rail project, the small proportion of the population who already have full-fibre view it as a necessity.

Durham-based Chris Kirby, a technical director for Nottingham-headquartered games developer The Multiplayer Guys, says that without the extra internet firepower of full-fibre broadband he would not be able to manage a team of a dozen programmers who work remotely, from Australia to the Canary Islands and Spain.

“I was using a normal internet connection but it was too slow with the vast amounts of data I have to send around the world,” he says. “If I didn’t have full-fibre here I would have had to have moved.”