ISPA Survey Claims Using Poles for UK Broadband is Less Divisive Than Thought

The UK Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) has conducted a new Censuswide survey of 2,563 UK respondents to assess public attitude towards using poles for overhead full fibre broadband delivery, which found that 75% of respondents “clearly recognise the benefits of having access to faster and more reliable broadband even if that is delivered via poles.”

Hopefully, by now, most of our readers will already be familiar with the debate around poles, which has become somewhat of a polarising topic. Network operators like poles because they’re quick and cost-effective to build (i.e. allowing their networks to extend into otherwise economically challenging areas), can be deployed in areas where there may be no space or access to safely put new underground cables, are less disruptive (avoiding the noise, access restrictions and damage to pavements of street works) and can be built under Permitted Development (PD) rights with only minimal prior notice.

NOTE: Telecoms poles have been around for many decades, much like street lights and electricity poles, and millions have been built across the UK. For many people, they have long been a common sight.

However, over the past couple of years’ there has been a notable rise in complaints about new poles, particularly from places like East Yorkshire and Greater Manchester. Such gripes typically highlight their negative visual appearance, as well as concerns about exposure to damage from major storms, the lack of effective prior consultation, the duplication of existing infrastructure or engineers that fail to follow safety rules while building etc.

The gripes are often particularly vocal when poles are deployed into areas that have not previously had them. The issue has become such a hot topic that even the UK government has now called on network operators to “limit installation of telegraph poles” when deploying new fibre broadband networks, due to the risk of upsetting communities by “inappropriately or unnecessarily throwing up new infrastructure” (here).

New New Survey

The latest survey, which is admittedly from an industry trade group (vested interest), appears to suggest that the reality of wider public perception around poles may not fit with the often very localised gripes of anti-pole campaigners. For example, it finds that less than 20% of respondents actually ever frequently notice a pole when they are out and about.

Survey Highlights

➤ Three quarters (75%) of British adults surveyed accept having telephone poles in their street if they deliver great broadband.

➤ Almost 7 in 10 (69%) surveyed would accept a new telephone pole in their street today if it delivered better broadband to their house and community.

➤ Less than 1 in 5 (17%) Brits surveyed would not accept a new telephone pole in their street today if it delivered better broadband to their house and community.

➤ Nearly double the amount of respondents rarely or never notice telecoms poles when out and about (37%) compared to only those that frequently or always notice poles when out and about (19%). Just over 2 in 5 (41%) sometimes notice telephone poles when out and about.

➤ Only a small minority (less than 20%) actually ever frequently notice a pole when they are out and about.

➤ Just over 3 in 5 (61%) of those surveyed would not be willing to contribute to paying towards putting poles underground.

➤ Only 3 in 10 (30%) of those surveyed would be willing to contribute towards the added cost of hiding broadband cables underground in their street.

➤ Those who would be willing to contribute to the added cost of hiding broadband cables underground in their street would be willing to contribute, on average, £179 towards the cost of doing so. “The actual cost to hide cables underground in someone’s street would be ten times this per household” (we think the word “could” works better here, since cost does depend and vary based on a lot of different factors).

Steve Leighton, Chair of ISPA, said:

“Upgrading the broadband network to full fibre gigabit broadband is a national priority, one that will deliver significant economic and social benefits across the UK. Poles have always been a historic feature of the UK telecommunications network and the new data clearly shows that the vast majority of the UK population is fine with that.

Our members will avoid erecting new poles but that is not always possible, and in those cases our members try their best to accommodate local concerns, However, the data clearly shows that the public does not want to pay more to hide cables underground.

We will continue to engage proactively with the Government to ensure that local concerns are reflected appropriately but we need to avoid a situation where objections from a minority lead to higher prices for everybody.”

The survey does however miss a trick by seeming to overlook situations where poles are deployed into areas that already have competitive gigabit-capable broadband networks, such as those that are run via underground infrastructure. The focus above seems to be more on locations where poles can deliver “better broadband“, which is naturally an easier argument to make.

At the end of the day, poles remain an important part of helping the UK to build a truly national and competitive gigabit broadband infrastructure, which should be able to reach almost universal coverage by around 2030. As such, the government is currently walking a very thin line, since if they were to clampdown too hard (so far, they haven’t) then the economic models for deploying affordable full fibre networks to such a level begin to fall apart.

Finding the right balance here remains difficult, hence why the government’s recent industry warning was more about firming up existing guidance than implementing any harder restrictions.

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