The Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, has written to the UK Chancellor in order to encourage the Government to “bring forward” their roll-out of “gigabit broadband” – particularly for towns and cities outside the South East of England – and to support this via a new National Infrastructure Bank.
At present the government has already launched several investment schemes (e.g. vouchers, towns fund) to support builders of broadband ISP networks (summary). On top of that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has committed £5bn – focused on the final 20% of hardest to reach UK premises – to help extend “gigabit-capable broadband” to every home by the end of 2025 (here), as well as extra funding to boost 4G and 5G mobile (here).
Despite this Sir John has previously criticised the Government’s approach as merely offering “vague promises” (here), while also pointing toward the absence of their long-awaited National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS). Admittedly we can forgive some of the delays no the latter issue due to COVID-19 and last year’s snap General Election.
Similarly today’s letter to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak MP, is aimed at reinforcing the “need for long-term infrastructure planning alongside short term stimulus measures” to help re-build confidence in the economy, following the devastation caused by COVID-19.
As part of that letter Sir John recommends, among other things, “bringing forward … [the] gigabit broadband rollout” and creating a domestic replacement for the European Investment Bank, albeit with an explicit focus on infrastructure.
The idea of supporting longer term projects via a National Infrastructure Bank is not a new one and has been raised before. At present a lot of broadband projects outside of urban areas tend to harness a mix of public and private investment, which is something (i.e. the private investment side) that could conceivably be further encouraged by such a bank, although much would depend upon the detail.
Sir John Armitt said:
“While significant public investment will be necessary, private capital is critical to infrastructure in many sectors. Clear guidance on the direction of policy and regulation, supported appropriately with public money for R&D and pilot projects, will stimulate private infrastructure investment. A domestic replacement for the European Investment Bank, with an explicit focus on infrastructure, could also play a major financing role and crowd-in private capital.
More broadly, there is a need to boost the connectivity of towns and cities outside the south east of England, to reduce regional inequalities. I know this is a key objective of the government, and that much work – including planning an integrated rail plan for the North and Midlands – is underway.
The current crisis is only likely to sharpen economic disadvantage in long struggling communities, and upgrading transport and broadband connections (alongside skills) has the potential to improve economic opportunities.”
Admittedly the NIC is often quick to criticise, but they can also be equally bad at testing the viability of what they recommend, such as the idea of bringing forward the gigabit broadband roll-out. As usual it’s an easy thing to recommend, but quite another to deliver (sadly the NIC don’t say how they think this could be achieved), particularly considering the significant difficulty of actually hitting the existing 2025 target on time (many in this industry regard the likelihood of that as being overly optimistic).
The catch is that the Government have yet to detail their framework for the gigabit broadband plan, which leaves plenty of room for the policy to be watered down again in the detail. In any case the procurement and contract award process won’t be completed until sometime in late 2021, which leaves precious little time for the build phase to cover several million premises (assuming that process even goes according to plan; delays do happen).
On the other hand there’s never anything wrong with lighting a fire under the Government’s feet to encourage faster movement (Guy Fawkes pun not intended), even if right now COVID-19 seems to be doing everything it possibly can to screw up the normal workings.