We are in a Golden Era of Connectivity, The Explosion in Traffic Paves The Way For a Gigabit Society

Paolo Pescatore, a thought leader in the telecoms, media and technology industries offers his expert viewpoint around the current landscape, consumers’ sentiment and opportunities for UK providers.

COVID-19 is having a significant impact across all industries and is changing the way we live, behave and engage with each other. Understandingly, most if not all providers have cited a rise in usage of both voice and data services on both fixed and mobile networks.

With the new social distancing rules, more people are at home and are accessing the Internet for a wide range of use cases. For sure, subscriptions and access to video streaming services should be going through the roof. Video is a bigger killer, given the huge amount of bandwidth required. However, it’s not all about video streaming, other applications include playing games, e-learning, remote video conferences as well home remote working and schooling. 

In recent days we’ve seen the UK telco industry unite to create the Stay Connected campaign. Also, measures with the Government to ensure an agreed set of important commitments to support and protect vulnerable consumers and those who may become vulnerable due to circumstances arising from COVID-19.

All of this underlines the growing importance of connectivity. Sometimes we take this for granted. Hence why a few months back we saw a fibre frenzy in the UK. Everyone was jumping on the bandwagon in the race to deploy fibre broadband at scale.

We saw some bold claims around full fibre, free broadband for all from different camps. More importantly, the Queen during her October speech made a pledge for the roll out of gigabit capable broadband to achieve nationwide coverage as soon as possible. In order to support this pledge, the government announced £5 billion funding in the remote parts of the country to execute this pledge effectively.

It is apparent that the initial full fibre claim was an ambitious target, but certainly a positive one in terms of progression. But, in reality there are too many hurdles to overcome. Gaining approval from local councils, to major disruption caused by closing streets for weeks to dig up the roads, right through to installation.

This hadn’t stopped a flurry of announcements from providers expanding their own fibre broadband and gigabit connectivity rollout plans. For example, Virgin Media’s plans of rolling out gigabit connectivity to approximately 15 million homes by the end of 2021. Southampton was the first city to benefit from this latest move. Another example is Openreach, with 227 locations across the UK as part of its multi-billion pound ‘Fibre First’ programme, making full fibre technology available to more than 26,000 homes and businesses every week; 2.2m FTTP premises passed to date. Its aim is to reach four million premises by the end of March 2021; and to pass 15 million premises by the mid-2020s, subject to what the company calls the right (regulatory) conditions.

This is great news for UK plc and for the country’s digital infrastructure. It was about time that the traditional providers accelerated their own plans to keep up with the altnets like CityFibre, WightFibre, Gigaclear, Pure Broadband, and the many others emerging from out of the blue.

It is apparent that these and other targets need to be revisited as rollout will slow down over the next few weeks and maybe months. While this is unfortunate, it is unsurprising given the new social distancing measures. Let’s not forget the impact the virus is having on the supply chain (obtaining parts, obtaining permits etc). Though telecommunications is designated under the key worker category, focus must be on critical repairs and ensuring the networks are operational rather than new fibre rollout.

Once things settle down, expect all providers to steadily ramp up roll-up efforts. More so given the growing reliance on telecom networks. Also, the need to differentiate in a rapidly converged landscape. With this in mind they need to offer a range of services including TV, as reinforced by the recent growing trend to access and watch more videos online. This can prove to be an effective strategy in subscriber acquisition and more importantly retaining users through engagement.

This is something that the altnets need to strongly consider. They are competing with established providers who offer a range of services beyond connectivity. While there are many independent fibre broadband providers making good headway like toob and KCOM they need to strongly consider bundles including TV & other services to differentiate over rivals in a crowded landscape.

People’s insatiable appetite for data services, especially TV and video, shows no sign of slowing down, meaning more and new emerging devices in the home will need to be connected all the time; requiring better connections throughout the home; something that is quickly emerging as an important area for households. 

Over the next few weeks, usage will proliferate as more people work at home and kids’ study at home. Overall, I am pretty confident that the most, if not all networks, are up to the challenge to handle mass-scale working while entertaining users in homes at the same time. I applaud all telecom providers who are currently doing a sterling job in serving society and providing critical communication services to all.

The UK will continue to thrive with significant investment in next generation networks. It feels like we are in a golden era of connectivity which promises to transform the way we interact and engage with devices in the future, we just need to be smart with this approach first.