There is huge uncertainty over the extent to which full-fibre broadband – also known as Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) or ‘gigabit-capable broadband’ – will be rolled out in the coming years, particularly in rural areas. However, with the recent improvements in the Government’s Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme and the introduction of ‘top ups’ by local authorities, there’s never been a better time for communities to take proactive action to bring FTTP to their areas. There is an increasing number of suppliers willing to work with communities to deploy FTTP networks. Given sufficient take-up, we show that vouchers can cover the full cost of bringing FTTP to a community, often with modest sign-up rate requirements. This guide is aimed at those who want to take action now to bring the fastest and most future-proof broadband technology to their own community. This guide will be developed over time, and is based on the real experience and lessons from bringing FTTP to a rural community in Cambridgeshire.
The Government’s election pledge of full-fibre broadband to everyone by 2025 is now being watered down, putting rural areas at risk of being in the ‘slow lane’
Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) – also known as ‘full fibre’ or ‘gigabit broadband’ – is the future of broadband, delivered using a fibre-optic cable link all the way from homes and businesses to the exchange. The key question for rural communities is, “Will FTTP eventually come if we wait, or should we do something”?
We believe that, in the current climate, proactive action could bring forward FTTP deployment by many years for some areas.
During the last election, the momentum towards rapid, nationwide roll-out of full-fibre broadband seemed to be building with an ambitious £5 billion pledge from the Conservative Party to bring full-fibre to all UK homes and businesses by 2025, although this was greeted by skepticism by experts and industry players.
By July 2020, this pledge had clearly been watered down. In a question raised about the lack of progress with broadband in the House of Commons, Minister for Digital Infrastructure Matt Warman said that the Government is aiming “to go as far as we possibly can”. More recently, the CEO of the BT Group Philip Jansen warned MPs that, at the current pace, it will take until 2033 to achieve universal UK coverage of gigabit-capable broadband.
Analsys Mason recently analysed all 1.7 million postcodes across the UK. Based on the current trajectory with fibre deployment, full-fibre coverage could reach only 70% of UK homes and businesses by 2025. This would potentially leave rural areas in the broadband ‘slow lane’.
While plans for nationwide full-fibre broadband may become more tangible in future, rural communities have an opportunity to bring certainty to their own area by being one of the first to deploy full-fibre broadband, using government vouchers and local authority funding that are available now.
FTTP is a superior, more future-proof technology than Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC), which has now seen widespread deployment
Over the last few years, there has been rapid roll-out of ‘superfast’ broadband in rural areas, offering download speeds over 30 Mbps. The UK Government had a target of achieving speeds of 30 Mbps or above for 95% of premises by December 2017 and, currently, superfast broadband is available to about 96% of UK premises.
A technology called Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC) was chosen to deliver most of these superfast broadband connections. This is generally much cheaper to deploy than the technically-superior Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP). At the time, budgets were insufficient to deploy FTTP on a widespread basis. Widespread FTTC deployment maximised the number of households with ‘superfast’ speeds (more than 30 Mbps) for the available budget.
Unfortunately, FTTC is not perfect. With FTTC, a fibre-optic cable is used to connect the green BT street cabinet to the BT exchange. However, FTTC still relies on existing copper cables to connect the street cabinet to homes and businesses. As a result, FTTC has two main weaknesses:
- only households close to the street cabinet achieve the highest speeds (and even these are limited)
- copper cables between the street cabinet and premises are susceptible to interference and cable problems.
Speeds for FTTC fibre broadband diminish the further away you are located from the green BT street cabinet, as shown in Figure 1, below.
Figure 1: Download Connection Speeds For Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC) Broadband
FTTC can create a ‘postcode lottery’. In our rural village, the street cabinet is located at one side of the village – a situation shared by many other villages across the UK. This means that, while homes and businesses at one side of the village are able to achieve the fastest speeds, many households at the opposite site of the village struggle with slower speeds (well below 30 Mbps). By delivering broadband via fibre-optic cables all the way to homes and businesses, FTTP allows everyone to get the same speeds, independent of where they live. Furthermore, speeds achieved are much higher with FTTP, with consumer services already offering download speeds up to 910 Mbps.
There are many benefits for FTTP, even if your community already has FTTC
For rural communities already provided with FTTC, there are significant benefits from migration to FTTP. The case for FTTP is strengthening day-by-day particularly with (a) the rapid adoption of streamed TV services, such as Netflix, Disney Plus, Apple Plus, YouTube, Amazon Prime and BBC iPlayer in Ultra HD 4k quality, (b) the accelerated trend towards home working as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and (c) the increasing number of Internet-enabled devices in the home.
When the 30 Mbps target for ‘superfast’ broadband was originally defined, it was deemed as being more than ample for most households. However, with a single Ultra HD live TV stream on BBC iPlayer currently requiring a download speed of 40 Mbps, it is easy to see how multi-device households could quickly require much higher data rates – and this is for TV services alone.
On our page Ten Reasons to Opt for Ultrafast FTTP Broadband, we detail some of the main reasons for migrating to FTTP services. In brief, these are:
- Ultrafast FTTP is needed to support a rapidly-increasing number of devices in the home (including smart TVs, mobile phones, media players and tablets).
- Without ultrafast broadband, households can miss out on bandwidth-intensive services such as streamed TV and video services offering the best picture and sound quality. Ultra HD programmes from the BBC will only be available via iPlayer online and will not be available via Freeview through a conventional TV aerial.
- Ultrafast broadband provides substantially improved performance for delay-sensitive services, such as online gaming and voice and video telephony (e.g. Zoom and Skype).
- Ultrafast FTTP broadband delivers a more responsive experience for many applications (due to its ultra-low latency).
- With much bigger upload speeds, online back-up and file sharing is much quicker than standard or fibre broadband.
- Ultrafast FTTP broadband better enables home working and can improve work-life balance.
- Ultrafast FTTP broadband is more reliable than standard ADSL broadband and fibre broadband, suffering from fewer faults due to the use of fibre-optic cables all the way from the exchange to households and businesses.
- Ultrafast FTTP broadband could increase your house price, or decrease it if you don’t have it. Many of those looking to move regard the availability of high-speed broadband to be as important as the availability of good schools and transport links.
- Ultrafast broadband is affordable, and cheaper than you may think. Particularly if you are out-of-contract (which many people are), you may well save money by moving from fibre broadband to ultrafast FTTP broadband.
In our own rural community, we have found that different people have been drawn to different benefits of FTTP. While some people express strong demand for higher speeds, others have been attracted to the future-proofing aspect of FTTP, where speeds can be increased over time to fit demand. Some have seen FTTP as a home improvement that adds value to their home, akin to a new kitchen or extension, making a home more saleable. Interestingly, homes that have been receiving the fastest download connection speeds with fibre broadband (80 Mbps) have showed very strong demand for FTTP.
FTTP is more affordable than some may fear, particularly if there is a wide range of providers
Some people fear that FTTP services are significantly more expensive or restrictive than FTTC services. To overcome this barrier, it is important to understand the availability and pricing of FTTP services from the network operator in your area and how these compare with existing FTTC services.
The availability of services depends critically on which operator deploys FTTP in your area, so it is important that you consider this aspect if you have a choice of network operator. Of all operators, Openreach – through its Community Fibre Partnerships – currently offers the broadest range of providers, which include BT, TalkTalk, Sky, EE and Zen and many highly-regarded business ISPs.
This means many people will be able to freely upgrade from FTTC services while keeping their existing provider. Over time, the presence of many providers encourages price and service competition in rural areas. For Openreach FTTP deployments, FTTP pricing is affordable, as shown in Table 1, below.
|Provider||Average download speed (Mbps)||Average upload speed (Mbps)||Monthly price|
Table 1: Examples of FTTP pricing on Openreach networks
As discussed further below, other FTTP network operators may have a more limited number of provider options and, in some cases, may be the only provider of services. Communities need to carefully consider the risks of committing to such services in the long-term even if initial pricing may be tempting (to encourage sign-ups).
Government vouchers and local authority top-ups can cover the cost of FTTP deployment
Many rural communities now have to opportunity to have FTTP installed and paid for entirely by aggregating together Government Gigabit Broadband Vouchers, supplemented by top-ups available from local authorities. Over the last year, there have been substantial improvements in funding making it an excellent time for communities to ‘go for it’.
Two relatively recent developments have been key to improving the financial viability of deploying FTTP:
- the extension of the Rural Gigabit Voucher Scheme (giving £1500 to households and £3500 to businesses for FTTP installation) to households with speeds below 100 Mbps (rather than 30 Mbps previously) meaning that all premises with FTTC would receive these amounts rather than just those with slower speeds
- local authorities offering top-ups to significantly boost the value of Government vouchers. As discussed below, there is a substantial difference between local authorities in how generous these top-ups are.
We will show that the combination of Rural Gigabit Vouchers and generous top-ups can make FTTP viable with surprising low sign-up rates.
Government vouchers are worth £1500 per home and £3500 per business
Find out if you/your area is eligible for Gigabit Broadband Vouchers using the postcode checker here:
Rural premises in the UK with broadband speeds currently below 100 Mbps can use vouchers worth £1500 per home and £3500 for each small to medium-sized business (SME). It is important to note that the definition of business includes the self-employed and/or sole traders. This means that if someone in a household is a sole trader, for example, running a small business (even on a part-time basis), that household can pledge a business voucher. We believe it is really important to the success of community FTTP projects that the number of business vouchers is maximised as their value is so much higher than ‘standard’ residential vouchers. Many people may not realise that they are eligible for a business voucher.
Those pledging business vouchers will be asked to self-certify that they meet the European Commission definition of a Small or Medium-sized Enterprise (SME) and that:
- they have fewer than 250 employees
- turnover is no greater than EUR50 million per annum
- they have a balance sheet of no more than EUR43 million
- they have received less than EUR200k in public grants in the last three years.
For those pledging a voucher, they must commit to subscribing to an FTTP service, which must be installed within 12 months from the issue of a voucher. This service should deliver at least a doubling of speeds compared with the service currently being consumed. This is for a 12-month period and they are free to take any service with any speed after this.
For the avoidance of doubt, here are some examples:
Those who are located very close to the FTTC street cabinet, and currently achieve the maximum real download speeds (e.g. throughputs measured by online speed tests) of about 70-74 Mbps, can subscribe to a 150 Mbps FTTP service (or any service with speeds higher than this).
Those with standard ADSL broadband can subscribe to any FTTP service offering a download speed in excess of 30 Mbps.
Those achieving the highest possible speeds on packages that have been often referred to as ‘up to 40 Mbps’ (which actually achieve real throughputs of about 35-37 Mbps) can subscribe to FTTP packages with a speed of 74 Mbps or above.
We have been informed by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport that voucher holders can measure their current download speeds using an online speed test, and choose an FTTP service that delivers at least a doubling in speeds.
Top-ups vary significantly between local authorities
In addition to the Government Gigabit Broadband Vouchers (described above), some local authorities are providing top-ups to increase the total value of vouchers than can be used in community FTTP projects. At present, there are huge variations in these top-ups across England, as shown in Table 2, below. In Scotland, top-ups are £5,000 for residential premises and £5,000 for businesses. In Wales, top-ups are £1,500 for residential premises and £3,500 for businesses.
|County||Residential top-up||Business top-up||Available for speeds below|
|East Sussex||£1,000||£1,000||100 Mbps|
|West Sussex||£2,500||£500||100 Mbps|
|Cambridgeshire & Peterborough||£1,500||£1,500||30 Mbps|
|County Durham||£1,500||£3,500||30 Mbps|
|East Riding of Yorkshire||£1,500||£3,500||30 Mbps|
Table 2: Top-ups provided by local authorities in England
The huge differences currently produce a postcode lottery with no clear national strategy, which we hope will not last for long as it is not fair. Communities living in certain areas of England – where top-ups are limited to households with low speeds (<30 Mbps) or with low top-up amounts – are at a clear disadvantage compared with areas with much more attractive top-up schemes.
Most authorities provide top-ups for speeds below 100 Mbps i.e. all premises within an FTTC area. Of these, Oxfordshire provides the most attractive scheme, with top-ups of £5,500 for residential premises and £3,500 for businesses. Some local authorities are clearly prioritising residential premises over businesses (e.g. Hampshire, Warwickshire and West Sussex) while others are providing attractive business top-ups (e.g. Buckinghamshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire).
Some authorities are limiting top-ups to only those premises with slow speeds (below 30 Mbps). We think the previously-defined 30 Mbps threshold for ‘superfast’ broadband is already outdated and limiting vouchers in this way acts to discourage communities from upgrading to FTTP. Of those authorities limiting vouchers to premises with slow speeds, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough currently has the least attractive top-up scheme, with top-ups of £1,500 for residential premises and £1,500 for businesses.
The financial case for FTTP deployment depends on where you live
The financial case for the deployment of FTTP will be specific to your location so it is important that you work with an FTTP supplier to understand the deployment costs and the availability of funding (e.g. vouchers and top-ups) in your area. Below, we model a representative example of a rural village with about 200 premises seeking to upgrade from FTTC to FTTP.
In our example, the cost of providing FTTP to all 200 premises is £140,000 – equating to a cost per premise of £700. It is important for communities to establish their own costs as these may be significantly different to our example. To pay for the cost of FTTP, Gigabit Broadband Vouchers and local authority top-ups can be used. Table 3, below, shows the required voucher sign-up rate required to cover the cost of FTTP installation for a number of scenarios and locations.
|Scenario||Proportion of businesses||Proportion of premises with speeds below 30 Mbps||Local authority top-ups||Sign-up rate required (proportion of premises)|
|1||10%||0 - 100%||None||41%|
|2||20%||0 - 100%||None||37%|
|3||20%||10%||Cambridgeshire & Peterborough||34%|
|4||20%||30%||Cambridgeshire & Peterborough||30%|
|5||20%||0 - 100%||East Sussex||24%|
|6||20%||0 - 100%||Shropshire||15%|
|7||20%||0 - 100%||Oxfordshire||10%|
Table 3: Voucher sign-up rates required for a number of FTTP deployment scenarios
Scenarios 1 and 2 show the case when no local authority top-up vouchers are used, with the scenario 2 achieving a greater number of business voucher sign-ups. The reduction in total required voucher sign-ups (from 41% to 37% of premises) by increasing the proportion of businesses from 10% to 20% clearly demonstrates the importance of making sure that as many households that can legitimately claim higher-value business vouchers do so (for example, if they include self-employed people running a business from the property).
Scenarios 3 and 4 are for an area where local authority top-ups only apply to premises with speeds below 30 Mbps (Cambridgeshire and Peterborough). The sign-up rate required reduces significantly as the proportion of households with the slower speeds increases. For example, if 30% of premises suffer with speeds below 30 Mbps (scenario 4), the required sign-up rate (30%) is 4 and 7 percentage points lower than if the proportion with lower speeds was 10% (scenario 3) and 0% (scenario 2), respectively.
The huge differences in top-ups between local authorities produce very different sign-up rate requirements. Most local authorities provide top-ups when speeds are below 100 Mbps, i.e. potentially to everyone with an existing FTTC connection. Of these, there are significant differences in top-up amounts, and scenarios 5-7 demonstrate the impact of these differences on the required sign-up. At the one extreme (scenario 7: Oxfordshire), the high top-up amounts mean that the costs of FTTP provision would be completely covered with a voucher sign-up rate of only 10%. This is at most only a third of the number of sign-ups required in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
These huge differences are a cause for concern. Currently, rural areas in some areas will be substantially advantaged, and other areas will be relatively disadvantaged, due to the policies being adopted by their local authorities. Some rural communities may struggle to achieve the sign-up rates required, particularly when top-ups are restricted to premises with speeds less than 30 Mbps. Furthermore, suppliers may be much more motivated to proactively prioritise and target FTTP deployments in areas where more attractive top-ups are offered, deprioritising more challenging areas (where higher sign-up rates would be necessary).
We will monitor the voucher scheme as it progresses and we hope to see, over time, a more consistent, national approach to be fair to all rural communities.
Communities should choose the best FTTP operator to partner with
On a national basis, there are many operators deploying FTTP networks and making use of the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme. For a full list of suppliers, enter your postcode here:
While this will provide a long list, not all suppliers operate in all locations, so you will need to identify potential suppliers in your area (which may be time consuming). Suppliers differ significantly in terms of the FTTP services provided, so we recommend that you carefully consider the pros and cons of each potential supplier. To demonstrate the differences between suppliers and offerings, we will consider two different suppliers operating in our own area.
Openreach Community Fibre Partnerships
The main supplier of community FTTP solutions on a national basis is, unsurprisingly, Openreach. Of all suppliers, Openreach has the broadest national reach and is, perhaps, the best known. It offers its Community Fibre Partnership where it contributes some of the costs to install FTTP while the community funds the rest (for example, using vouchers). To date, about 1330 communities have established Community Fibre Partnerships, with 122,000 premises benefiting from the scheme. Communities can register on the site:
Openreach follows a set process, as shown below, from registration through to final delivery. Openreach will work with community representatives to navigate each phase to achieve a successful outcome. Through strong community involvement in the project (helped by proactive community representatives), it may be possible to fund the complete project using vouchers and top-ups alone rather than requiring additional funding.
Openreach has recently announced “unprecedented interest and a surge in registrations” for its scheme.
A huge advantage of the Openreach Community Fibre Partnership model is that broadband users can subscribe to a broad range of FTTP services and providers, including BT, TalkTalk, Sky, Zen and EE. This means that many users will be able to easily upgrade from FTTC to FTTP services without changing their broadband provider. Furthermore, competition among a wide range of mainstream providers should ensure strong service and price competition beyond any initial deals (to encourage initial sign-up). Also, the wide range of mainstream services on offer should encourage strong voucher sign-up rates in the community.
With the wide range of mainstream providers on offer and the fact that Openreach is a well-funded national organisation, risks for communities opting for an Community Fibre Partnership are very low.
County Broadband is a regional provider offering its own FTTP services
County Broadband is an example of a smaller, regional player. It is aiming to invest £46 million to bring FTTP (which it calls ‘hyperfast fibre broadband’) to more than 150 villages across the East of England. It estimates that 20,000 homes will have access to its ‘Hyperfast Network’ by the end of 2020, with 53 villages being built with FTTP during the year.
County Broadband has been taking a more supply-driven approach by identifying target villages (presumably based on its own cost modelling) rather than the demand-led approach of Openreach (for example, seeking interest/support from local communities). Having said this, while County Broadband has defined a list of target villages, it requires that a certain percentage (30%) of villagers sign-up and commit to take their service before committing to FTTP roll-out.
Communities need to check what FTTP services will be available from the supplier providing FTTP services. For example, in the case of County Broadband, the organisation itself is the sole provider of residential and business services. This means that broadband users will not be able to keep their existing broadband provider (or move to any other mainstream provider) and will have to commit to a broadband contract directly with County Broadband. This is an example of how the introduction of competition at the network level (increasing competition to Openreach) can substantially reduce competition at the ISP level for FTTP services.
While County Broadband’s initial pricing of its FTTP services is aimed at encouraging sign-ups, it remains to be seen how the absence of price and service competition from multiple providers (present with the Openreach model) will affect services in the longer term. Over time, smaller operators could potentially offer a broader range of FTTP services and providers and we believe that this is critical to small providers flourishing in rural areas.
Communities need to be aware that the presence of the first FTTP provider in a rural area (which will use up available Gigabit Broadband Vouchers and local authority top-ups) may act as a huge disincentive for further providers entering (since they would not have the substantial financial benefit of vouchers and top-ups). So, communities need to choose the initial provider with care.
Community engagement can make a huge difference
While there are a number of strategies being followed by FTTP operators (demand-led or supply/cost-driven approaches), effective community engagement can always make a huge difference to the outcome of a project. Particularly for smaller suppliers with relatively unknown brands, traditional marketing methods (such as direct mail) can often be ineffective in raising interest and awareness sufficiently to achieve challenging sign-up targets.
With the roll-out of FTTC in rural areas, local enthusiasts or ‘Broadband Champions’ were key to achieving rapid take-up of services in a number of areas, and the importance of such people is even greater for FTTP projects where significant numbers of voucher sign-ups are required for project viability. For suppliers, local, engaged enthusiasts are effectively a free resource, with the potential of spreading interest and awareness within a community far more effectively than a company ‘at a distance’. County Broadband, discussed above, now actively seeks what it terms ‘Broadband Ambassadors’, who work with the company’s community liaison teams to help “raise awareness”. Not only can local enthusiasts be key to achieving initial voucher sign-up targets but they can also help stimulate very high take-up of FTTP services once they become live. Local enthusiasts could make FTTP deployments in some communities viable that would not be viable without their help and energy.
We have seen how leveraging community communications including:
- community Facebook pages and groups
- information on local websites
- community email lists and WhatsApp groups
- local magazine coverage
- word-of-mouth communications
can dramatically increase voucher sign-up rates and service take-up.
Communities should take proactive action now!
It’s all too easy to sit back and assume that great broadband will come our way without doing anything. However, history shows us that in rural areas, doing nothing and waiting are risky strategies. Despite early election pledges of Gigabit Broadband for every home, the reality is that widespread deployment of ultrafast broadband will realistically take many years and there’s no certainty that all rural communities will eventually be covered.
With the recent improvement in the Government’s Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme and the introduction of local authority top-ups, there’s never been a better time for rural communities to take proactive action to bring FTTP to their area. In many cases, the full cost of FTTP deployment can be covered by vouchers and top-ups provided that the required number of sign-ups is achieved through effective community engagement. Go for it!
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