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Technology Trends in 2021: A changing world demands a change in Gigabit-speed broadband infrastructure

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In November, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, delivered the Spending Review 2020 – to Parliament. It included details of a £7.1 billion National Home Building Fund designed to help build the homes and the infrastructure communities need to succeed.

It followed on nicely from legislation announced by Oliver Dowden – the digital secretary – earlier in the year, which was designed to ensure that all new-build homes come with gigabit-speed broadband. Developers are required to ensure that high-quality digital infrastructure is installed from the outset, making it a priority as part of the build. The Internet Service Provider (ISP) supplying the broadband connectivity must also be on board before the first brick is laid.

Both announcements came as no surprise, homeowners are demanding more from developers in terms of amenities and utilities, as well as space and flexibility. More specifications for new builds include “baked in” smart home – whether that’s as simple as a few smart switches in the wall, or a full home system covering security, heating, entertainment, work and play. But the one thing that can stop a smart home in its tracks is unreliable internet. And perhaps more importantly, the government needs to ensure that the UK can recover – economically and socio-economically – from COVID-19. It’s a global pandemic that has fundamentally changed the way we all work and live and accelerated our increasing reliance on technology.

According to Gartner, Inc. 88% of global businesses mandated or encouraged all their employees to work from home as the virus started to spread at exponential rates. Nine months in, as the workforce adheres to the ever-changing nature of lockdown rules, and tiers, there’s been a continuous shift back and forth to ‘working from home’ and ‘work from anywhere’ (or ‘hybrid’) models. Home broadband is now being used to access a plethora of online work and productivity tools – not just email.  What’s more, research from the Centre for Economics & Business Research (CEBR), predicts that COVID-19 will change the landscape of the UK workforce forever, with three types of workers emerging: those who mainly work in a workplace (e.g. an office); those who mainly work at home; and those who do a bit of both. As a direct result, approximately 25% of the UK workforce (6 million people) will be working from home on any given day by 2025.  

Parents and students have also turned – in varying degrees – to innovative online educational tools to support remote learning and home-schooling (the EdTech market is predicted to be worth £3.4bn by 2021). And in an interview with Andrew Marr, health secretary Matt Hancock stated that during the height of the pandemic 50% of patients used video conferencing for GP appointments and/or accessed health services online. With this in mind a reliable, secure and high-speed Internet connection is no longer a ‘nice to have’, it’s an essential utility.

The construction industry has a number of options when it comes to the choice of digital infrastructure and connectivity it can provide. But if it is serious about future-proofing properties, the only viable option is ensuring that all new build homes have access to full fibre infrastructure, providing every property with a Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) connection.  This means deploying fibre-optic cabling into every property within a development, providing gigabit-symmetric connectivity and bandwidth. The term ‘fibre’ is often misused. Most fibre broadband is offered as Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC), meaning that during the ‘last mile’ into the home, that speedy data is sent over slow and unreliable copper wires.  Most of these were installed in the 1950s and carrying internet data is not what they were designed to do. Plus, this ageing infrastructure has a nasty habit of going wrong.

FTTP is also likely to outlive the building, whereby hybrid networks will need replacing in the near future either out of performance or regulatory necessity.

Taking on the deployment of FTTP networks across all new build homes may seem like a daunting and potentially expensive task. It’s fair to say that some housebuilders have been supporting and installing FTTP connectivity, but this has often been for higher specification homes. It can no longer be considered as just a gold standard, FTTP should be seen as an essential part of the value proposition of all new builds.  The solution is for housebuilders and/or developers to partner with a digital infrastructure specialist.

Developing and deploying full fibre infrastructure isn’t about expanding a single network of its own. This is where an active Open Access approach comes into play, a model based on a proven operating concept in Sweden, one that Swedish digital infrastructure specialist VX Fiber has a long heritage – over 20 years’ experience in partnering with fibre owners and operating networks on an open access basis. This approach has played a key role in enhancing Sweden’s gigabit full fibre connectivity – a country where over 70% of homes and businesses are now passed by fibre, with over 60% of those fully connected.

A digital infrastructure specialist will work closely with a developer and/or housebuilder to create a bespoke network which can be tailored to its specific needs or circumstances. VX Fiber uses an open access model to operate the full fibre infrastructure and engage third party Service Providers to provide services to the end-user subscriber (homeowner/tenant).  “Open Access” typically means the access granted to multiple Service Providers to wholesale service over one physical network infrastructure.  This enables Service Providers to reach the subscriber without the need to deploy a new fibre access network themselves.  Developers are then free to monetise the resulting service for the benefit of their owners and tenants. All products and services are made available through a web portal via carefully selected Service Provider partners, making it easy to sell, provision and maintain the network with minimal system administration.

For the developer or housebuilder, this means the only choice is whether to own and install the fibre i.e.  they can retain ownership of the full fibre infrastructure and decide on timing/phasing of the physical installation to each property without having to worry about service provision. For homeowners/tenants, the model offers real freedom of choice – they can switch providers without barriers instantly, try new services as they are developed, and enjoy greater transparency into the cost and quality of Service Provider’s offerings. The property itself benefits from an increase in marketability and an increase in sale/rental value. And for developers and/or estate managers this brings exceptional operational efficiency and high utilisation of the fibre networks, a direct revenue from the fibre asset which means higher financial returns for the fibre owner (developer or estate manager).

This is why FTTP is the technology trend that the UK construction industry cannot afford to ignore in 2021. Homes that aren’t kitted out with high speed internet and data connections offering full fibre coverage, at the fastest speeds alongside the exponential capacity it brings, quite simply are no longer fit for purpose. And FTTP has – perhaps most importantly – a positive impact on the happiness of those who make a new build house their home.