Digital infrastructure challengers flourish with sustained investment in 2020


Despite Covid19 and the economic downturn private investment in the digital infrastructure sector has continued apace. This is doubly impressive given uncertainty over government funding for hard-to-reach areas, recent changes to the overall policy target and long-running debate about Ofcom’s regulation of the market.

A recent Point Topic report commissioned by INCA showed that investment announcements in the challenger networks have reached £7.7bn in the period to 2025 with another £1.2bn of investment announced since the report was published. This is in addition to investment announced by BT/Openreach and Virgin Media.
Growth in the independent network sector in 2020, represented by strong investment and a growing number of predicted and achieved fibre rollouts in the UK, has been welcomed by INCA, the body representing challenger networks as a signal of the sector’s contribution towards a ‘Gigabit Britain’ and bridging the digital divide.

“The billions of pounds that have been pumped into the rollout plans of challenger networks to revitalise rural and urban communities with full fibre and wireless broadband – during a year of immense difficulty – is quite remarkable and a clear statement of the sector’s strength and ambition to play a substantial role in the UK’s digital landscape”, said Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA) CEO Malcolm Corbett.

Government is supportive of the sector, though the recent change in policy announced in the Spending Review and National Infrastructure Strategy caught industry, commentators and Parliamentarians by surprise. The change in the coverage target to 85% (officials stress this is a ‘floor’) and the spending profile for hard-to-reach areas led the Parliamentary Culture Media and Sport Committee to call on government to assess the likelihood of reaching the target, what it means for the ‘Outside-In’ programme and to provide more detail on timing of the funding support. These calls are supported by many in the industry.

Private investment in digital infrastructure will lead the UK to rise up the European league table for fibre coverage with one of the highest growth rates – +548% according to recent figures from FTTH Council Europe for the number of homes passed by FTTH/B in a 2020-26 forecast.

“The figures from FFTH Council Europe are incredibly promising for the country. The pandemic has emphasised the importance of a future-proofed digital infrastructure and the contribution of the challenger networks should not be underestimated. They are making palpable improvements to broadband landscapes and fostering a competitive broadband industry. Recent announcements from INCA members take the total investment in the non-incumbent sector to almost £9bn,” added Corbett.

INCA members have been at the forefront of recent investment announcements. G.Network recently announced a £1bn investment plan for fibre rollout in London. Over the next five years, G.Network plans to dig around 4,500km of streets, reaching approximately 1.4 million London premises, including many in underserved areas.

Cardiff-based Spectrum plans to reach over 150,000 Welsh homes and businesses as part of an initial phase of work backed by a landmark investment. “I'm excited to lead Spectrum to take on such an important challenge. The recent investment in the company highlights an exciting opportunity to provide Welsh residents with a far faster, greener and more reliable fibre service than the traditional companies - and become Wales' best homegrown broadband service provider," said Spectrum’s CEO, Ben Allwright.

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