Possible Broadband Boost as New UK Gov Looks to Unblock Planning

The new UK Government is off to a rapid start this week and has already appointed Peter Kyle (MP) to be the new Secretary of State at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), which oversees many of the country’s public broadband and mobile infrastructure projects. But bigger news on planning is expected from the chancellor, Rachel Reeves, today.

Just to recap. The Labour Party’s 2024 General Election Manifesto (here) stated that the previous (Conservative) government’s “investment in 5G [was] falling behind other countries and the rollout of gigabit broadband [had] been slow“, but they also made clear that the party would be making a “renewed push to fulfil the ambition of full gigabit and national 5G coverage by 2030.

PICTURED: Peter Kyle MP, the UK’s new Secretary of State for tech and digital infrastructure.

In fairness, the private sector’s rollout of gigabit broadband (currently covering 83%+ of the UK), which has driven the lion’s share of deployments, has been fairly rapid given the huge costs and complexity involved. But you could certainly argue that the £5bn (state aid) Project Gigabit broadband scheme (i.e. aiming for 85% gigabit coverage by 2025 and “nationwide” [c.99%] by 2030) has been slow to award some major subsidised deployment contracts (e.g. Wales, Scotland etc.). Likewise, the deployment of 5G could have been better, but did suffer early on from weak coverage targets and the sudden U-turn to ban Huawei’s kit.

Suffice to say that the new government are clearly looking to build on what already exists, rather than risk huge delays by ripping up the existing programmes. The first signs of this new approach are expected to surface today when the new Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, declares economic growth to be their “national mission” and moves to announce reform of the planning laws to help “unblock” key infrastructure projects, as well as investment.

The comments echo Labour’s manifesto, which similarly stated: “We will also update national planning policy to ensure the planning system meets the needs of a modern economy, making it easier to build laboratories, digital infrastructure, and gigafactories.

Rachel Reeves, New UK Chancellor, will say:

“We face the legacy of 14 years of chaos and economic irresponsibility. New Treasury analysis I requested over the weekend exposed the opportunities lost from this failure.

Had the UK economy grown at the average rate of OECD economies since 2010, it would have been over £140bn larger. This could have brought in an additional £58bn in tax revenues last year alone to sustain our public services. It falls to this new government to fix the foundations.

Where governments have been unwilling to take the difficult decisions to deliver growth – or have waited too long to act – I will deliver. It is now a national mission. There is no time to waste.”

At present we still know very little about what kind of changes the new government will be looking to make, although network operators have not been shy about producing their own wish lists (here), which often echo a strong desire for the full embracement of flexi-permits and cancelling plans for street works charging. Not to mention those that seek easier access to large residential buildings (MDUs).

The party has also previously spoken of working with Ofcom to try and encourage greater infrastructure sharing or co-operative build between network operators, which would have to be very carefully balanced to avoid any unintended damage to competition.

The existing Access to Infrastructure (ATI) Regulations 2016, which applies to all operators, does already include provisions on the exchange of information about existing infrastructure, and the right to access that infrastructure on fair and reasonable commercial terms etc. But this doesn’t matter much if a commercially viable deal cannot be reached.

The previous government did attempt to update the ATI Regulations (2016) to improve infrastructure sharing, but some smaller and more vulnerable alternative networks (altnets) said they were concerned about the risk of “unintended consequences” if changes to those rules ended up undermining the investment case for new networks (here).

Likewise, operators expressed “limited interest in using non-Openreach or non-telecoms infrastructure,” due to a general preference for telecoms infrastructure, as well as the “availability of a more stringent regulated product on a near ubiquitous nationwide network.” Suffice to say, infrastructure sharing alone may not be a magic fix. In the end, the previous government opted to merely clarify the existing rules, which did little to move the dial.

The new government will also have to tread carefully, given the current and somewhat growing opposition – at the local level – to the deployment of new poles (telegraph poles) for running fibre optic lines, which is a matter that has been raised by a fair few Labour MPs too. Before the election, the previous government was already in the process of developing clearer guidance and oversight for pole deployments (here and here).

Finally, Labour indicated in 2023 that it would aim to foster an “industry-wide social tariff for low-income families” and do more to tackle mid-contract price hikes and loyalty penalties etc. But since then Ofcom has already done quite a lot to tackle these areas, so it remains to be seen what new approaches the government might now direct Ofcom to take, if any.

In any case, we don’t expect to get a lot of detail on the new planning reforms today, but we will update this article if the announcement includes something more than the usual political sound bites. Any detail that does get released will probably come in a very generalised form, which may be open to different interpretations.

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