The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has today published the first ever National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA), a forward look at UK infrastructure requirements over the next 10-30 years. This blog looks at the first chapter of the NIA on digital infrastructure.
EEF was a strong proponent of the creation of a NIC and today’s NIA is a major step in ensuring we have a long-term approach to delivering the infrastructure that a growing and more productive economy will need.
Importantly, the NIA backs full fibre digital infrastructure, cementing the shift announced by government a few years ago. And it provides new independent assessment of the reasons why such a shift is important.
In response the NIC calls for a nationwide government strategy for roll-out, alongside the removal of policy barriers to support this.
Full fibre matters
The backing for full fibre by the NIC is important. Beyond EEF’s arguments about why full fibre is important (reliability being key among them), the NIA notes that full fibre will have lower operational costs over the long-term compared against incremental improvements in copper broadband – i.e. consumers and businesses will be paying more unless we go big now.
The Government will have to formally respond in Parliament within 6 months to the NIC proposals which should help to focus minds on the task at hand. Given the political focus on Brexit, the provision of a ready-made set of policy proposals from the NIC should be well received by government.
The NIC’s policy recommendations on digital infrastructure
A detailed look at the NIA shows that it is a welcome addition to the debate on full fibre, adding voice to key areas including around the challenge of ‘wayleaves’ (a legal consent to access private land for the installation or maintenance of infrastructure) and the need for a national strategy to address geographic areas that are not commercially viable.
The Government’s Local Full Fibre Networks programme seeks to tackle the issue of noncommercial areas by marrying public sector anchor tenants in remote areas with a voucher scheme for businesses. The ambition behind the programme is to build out the full fibre networks but this needs to form part of an overall long term strategy.
The NIC’s recommendations add to this by calling for a taxpayer funded scheme that focuses initially on areas that are least likely to receive full-fibre broadband commercially. This supports our call for the focus of voucher schemes to be restricted initially to businesses that are the furthest away from fibre nodes, to ensure funding delivers the biggest impact.
The NIC also highlights the need for an eventual copper switch off. With the network mostly owned by heavily regulated Openreach this may be a simple job, but it is still unclear what that looks like. The NIC will be looking separately at economic regulation more generally and reporting in spring 2019.
Do we need a National Policy Statement for Digital Infrastructure?
The NIA recommendations offer a good policy base to build on, but the NIA could have gone further on how the planning system could be improved.
Some of the major challenges with rolling out digital infrastructure include the fragmented nature of the planning system - i.e. differing approaches between local authorities to granting approval leading to differing timescales. Better strategic planning is needed for rolling out digital infrastructure programmes more rapidly, particularly as these will cross local authority boundaries.
In this area government could take action and look at moving decisions around planning for digital infrastructure to the functional economy level through Mayors, Combined Authorities or Unitary Authorities.
More fundamentally building on the NIC's recommendation that government should 'give digital infrastructure operators the same rights as utilities' – we’re exploring whether or not there needs to be a National Policy Statement for Digital Infrastructure.
The Nationally Significant Infrastructure regime is now well established and is used to give planning permission to infrastructure construction of significant scale or national importance.
Under such a scheme major digital infrastructure deployments would then be decided at the national level, speeding up the process. The NIA notes as part of its recommendations for 5G 'the UK will not get the mobile infrastructure it needs if each individual [5G] cell requires separate planning permission'.
A Digital Infrastructure National Policy Statement could also include 5G deployment, helping to ensure the UK does not become a laggard in this area.