Speech by Sharon White, Chief Executive, Ofcom at the Building a Full-Fibre Future conference, London, Thursday 26 April
Thank you so much for coming today.
The presence of major investors, Chief Executives, Secretary of State and officials here today speaks to the fact that modernising the UK’s infrastructure is a pressing priority.
We have seen growing momentum in recent months, with a slew of new announcements. City Fibre’s statement this week that it will build to half a million premises is the latest example.
Two years ago, Ofcom produced our Digital Communications Review.
In that, we set out plans to help facilitate a material increase in full-fibre investment through more intensive competition.
Our vision, shared by many of you, is to move the UK decisively away from a Victorian-era copper network to a modern, full-fibre network fitting for an advanced economy.
We have put our weight behind opening up Openreach’s telegraph poles and underground ducts, making it quicker and cheaper for other operators to build networks.
This reform could transform the economics of full-fibre investment. It is, in my view, Ofcom’s single, most important intervention.
It could halve the upfront cost of building a fibre network and has already powered a substantial upgrading of networks in Spain and Portugal.
Companies in the room today have started to trial ‘duct and pole access’, and interest is growing.
We have also given companies the freedom to make a fair return for the highest-speed broadband.
You look to the regulator for consistency, stability, and rules that encourage, rather than inhibit, investment.
We understand that we are relying on the private sector to make the investment. Drills and diggers in the ground that mean we all have the networks we need to access the next must-have Apple product or Netflix-style streaming service.
And I’m very conscious that you have a choice as to where you put your money.
The global funds represented today manage hundreds of billions-worth of assets dedicated to infrastructure investments.
And there is a compelling business case for investing in full fibre.
Competition is growing.
If incumbents who rely on copper don’t change course, they risk losing swathes of customers to full- fibre rivals.
Incumbents face a choice in my view – fibre-up, or risk fading away.
History is strewn with once-successful companies that failed to anticipate and act on shifts in customer demands and to innovate.
Think Kodak, Polaroid, Palm and Blockbuster.
The UK cannot afford for BT to be added to that list.
Which is why it was so reassuring to hear comments from Clive Selley that Openreach is fibre-first.
Importantly, we have also heard today how the Government is supporting the drive for full fibre.
They are already providing funding for local fibre networks and taking action to remove planning and other barriers.
The Government’s upcoming Future Infrastructure Review will set out new proposals to boost investment.
We welcome and fully support that review.
Ofcom is also looking ahead to how our regulation can provide the consistency and coherence needed to support long-term investment.
Our approach will continue to be anchored in the principle of the ‘fair bet’.
In other words, the certainty that risky investments will earn a fair return.
We will also be looking to extend the time between our big regulatory interventions – or ‘market reviews’ – from three years to five.
We are also considering giving more coherence to the business and residential markets.
I am an optimist by nature.
Even the most pessimistic among us should be cheered by the wave of new investments now planned.
Over the next few years, the number of homes and businesses able to benefit from full fibre is set to rise from one to six million.
That is one fifth of homes and businesses – good progress.
But some way short of the ambition that full-fibre is available nationwide.
So we must build on the early momentum.