It was one of the biggest battlegrounds of 2019's bitter general election, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tussled over ways to narrow the digital divide caused by slow or non-existent internet speeds in rural areas of the United Kingdom.
Mr Johnson pledged to roll out full fibre broadband to all homes across the country, which would boast speeds of up to one gigabit. The Conservative leader committed £5bn of public funds to aid in the roll out.
Mr Corbyn, meanwhile, proposed a plan that would have nationalised parts of BT, owners of the Openreach network, and imposed a tax on internet giants to fund free broadband for all. Mr Corbyn said the service would have become a “treasured public institution for the 21st century”.
In response, Mr Johnson described the Labour party’s ambitions as a “crazed communist scheme” during a campaign event in Oldham in November.
Now, Ofcom’s publication of its review of the wholesale fixed telecoms market hints at what the UK’s fibre network may actually look like, spelling an end to the skirmish and setting out plans to overhaul the UK's ageing copper broadband network and make fibre broadband available to all.
The telecoms watchdog unveiled four major proposals that will change the way in which BT’s Openreach network is regulated. They include differing wholesale prices for urban and rural areas as well as a green light for Openreach to shut its copper network, heavily reducing a cost burden on the company.
The Ofcom changes suggest that a forced switchover from copper to fibre could happen within two years of 75pc of premises being passed.
The proposed amendments will please BT, which seems to have gotten most of what it was seeking with regards to regulatory changes of its network. In a statement, a spokesman for the company regarded the proposals as a “significant step forward”.
However, as pointed out by Jefferies International analyst Jerry Dellis, the company stopped short of committing to a formal 2025 fibre to the premises (FTTP) build target.
Instead Openreach said that it was “getting on with the job” and that it was building out to 26,000 premises per week and that it was on track to reach 4 million homes by the end of March of 2021.
“We’ll consider the range of proposals carefully and will continue to work with Ofcom and industry on getting the conditions right to help achieve the Government’s ambition of rolling out gigabit capable broadband across the UK as soon as possible,” the spokesman said.
Speaking to the Telegraph, uSwitch head of regulation Richard Neudegg said the Ofcom publication was positive for consumers but warned there is much more to do to make the national rollout a reality.
“Mostly what Ofcom is looking at is the incentives for rolling out networks to make sure they’re profitable,” Mr Neudegg said.
“They don’t necessarily address the speed with which they can do that. Boris has made public comments about connecting fibre broadband everywhere but this does not change anything about the fundamentals of the speed you can put it in the ground even if it is possible.”
Mr Neudegg said that it “remained challenging” to achieve the network penetration sought by the government.
Mobile network Three's general counsel Stephen Lerner welcomed the Ofcom proposals.
"This will be instrumental in both enabling the widespread rollout of true 5G networks capable of offering gigabit speeds and providing consumers with a choice of providers which offer the residential broadband services that they demand," he said.
What will please the Prime Minister is Ofcom’s consultation deadline of 1 April, which points to an urgency in the regulator to get the proposals introduced.
The news has been received positively among investors too, where the company’s share price jumped to a 2.8pc high this morning to £1.98.
Ofcom’s proposals have a heavy focus on profitability and ensuring that the Government’s pledges on broadband are viable. The regulator has also comprehensively put Labour’s “free internet for all” proposals to an end.