The government wants every home in the country to have high-speed broadband within five years, but an Inside Housing and Community Fibre survey finds that 30% of landlords have no plans to upgrade
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It may have gone under the radar given the ongoing coronavirus crisis, but the UK government is planning a broadband revolution. Prime minister Boris Johnson has committed to bringing “gigabit-capable” broadband to every home in the UK by the end of 2025. Although this capability can be delivered via several technologies, the majority is expected to come through full-fibre broadband, also known as fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP).
With social landlords owning around a fifth of all housing stock in the UK, these businesses will clearly play a key role in helping the government reach its target. Inside Housing, in partnership with FTTP supplier Community Fibre, has carried out a survey to find out how prepared housing associations and councils are for the roll-out, what the perceived barriers to installation are, and how much of an opportunity this coming revolution represents.
First the good news: of the 137 respondents (70% of whom were from housing associations, and a further 17% from local authorities), 91% agree that the full-fibre roll-out is an opportunity for them to improve services for tenants and residents. However, other results suggest that not all landlords are in a position to seize this opportunity. Only 14% of respondents say that either all or most of their homes have full-fibre capability, while nearly 15% say that none of their homes do. That 14% figure is also in line with the national picture, as shown by Ofcom’s latest report. Given this, it is hardly surprising that only 16% of respondents say their residents are happy with the quality of their broadband either “almost always” or “most of the time”. As Graeme Oxby, chief executive of Community Fibre, points out, this is close to the same proportion of households in the UK with full-fibre access.
“Landlords like Notting Hill Genesis, Poplar Harca, L&Q and Wandsworth Council have already discovered how quickly their property stock can be enabled with 100% full-fibre broadband and it is likely that these digital leaders will find that their residents are happy with their broadband services,” he adds.
Despite the need for change, there seems to be a danger that social landlords are not yet responding to the government’s challenge. Asked whether they intend to help telecommunications providers upgrade their broadband offering to tenants, three in 10 reveal they have no plans, while a similar amount don’t know. Only 14% have plans to do so in the next 12 months, with 11% saying they will do in the next two years.
Mr Oxby expresses concern that only one in four landlords intends to help their telecoms partners upgrade their broadband in the next 24 months.
“If the UK is to remain competitive on the global stage, and enable increased homeworking and socialising at a distance, then it is vital that every property has a new 100% full-fibre-optic connection as soon as possible,” he says.
Anecdotally, there is evidence that social landlords and broadband providers are not always in tune with one another when it comes to installing full-fibre.
“The sector perhaps isn’t pushing the fibre roll-out to providers, but when there is engagement it feels like an uphill struggle,” says Stephen Thorlby-Coy, head of ICT at Yorkshire Housing.
He gives an example of a project earlier this year in which Yorkshire Housing was seeking to provide an internet service in communal areas.
The provider that the association worked with had a roll-out schedule “but of the 45 locations where we were looking to install services, only one already had fibre nearby and only 15 others were proposed to be even surveyed. The remaining two-thirds would be waiting at least 18 months based on current plans”.
When it comes to other barriers to providing full-fibre, the responses from landlords were illuminating. More than three-quarters of respondents (77%) cited cost as one of the main business barriers, while 55% said installation complexities pose a problem, and half pointed to resources, which include labour, management and knowledge.
Mr Oxby believes that these results may show some confusion over full-fibre in the housing sector.
“It still seems that many landlords do not fully appreciate that they can have 100% full-fibre installed at their properties at no cost to them and that the legislation allows them to do this without having to go through a complex procurement process,” he explains. “Landlords do not need to be telecommunications experts to attract 100% full-fibre investment to their properties, they just need to work with trusted partners who will do a high-quality installation.”
However, Peter Butler, a business development manager at Origin Housing, argues that even if they do not have to pay for the installation itself, social landlords still expend resource when upgrading residents’ broadband.
“I think the key issue is that, while the installations are free, the project management is critical and there is a greater cost in staff time than might initially be imagined,” he says. “In my view, resourcing is key –
you need a project lead rather than an add-on to an existing role who can bring others into the project as needed and retain an overview and is the key contact with the fibre provider.”
Mr Oxby stresses that some new suppliers, including Community Fibre, will also foot the project management bill. And while some issues remain, Inside Housing’s research suggests that there is plenty of scope for housing associations – and other landlords – to seize the initiative when it comes to helping achieve the 2025 full-fibre target.
For Mr Oxby, encouragement can be found in the level of engagement shown in the survey.
“The high level of responses received from the survey does indicate that there is a large interest from landlords in providing better digital connectivity to their residents,” he concludes.
For now, the challenge is turning that interest into action.