Fibre to the home: real impact or lavish green & social washing?

There are very significant costs to rolling fibre networks out across the country. The monetary cost is clear with BT, Virgin and the altnets collectively planning to spend £35bln over the next four to five years. There are social costs, as people are held up as roads are dug up. Manufacturing the fibre, digging the trenches, filling the trenches and transporting work crews up and down the country all come with an environmental cost. Add to this the expectation that in many areas there will be two or even three parallel networks generating excess capacity which will not be used. Can fibre to the home (FTTH) more than offset these social and environmental costs?

Looking first at the social impact. Wildanet (an altnet based in the Southwest that we helped raise capital for in 2020) have commissioned a study into the value of improved connectivity. This put a value on improved household wellbeing as a result of gigabit capable broadband of £222.25 per annum. It points to very tangible items like digital education and remote health and social care – two areas most of us expect to grow significantly as technological innovations become mainstream and pressure on public spending inevitably increases. It identifies improvements in leisure time, presumably from both more leisure time at the expense of travel and improved leisure with more to do online. Finally, there are three overlapping categories of a Social Dividend, Wellbeing and Digital Inclusion – within these we would expect social networking combatting social isolation as well as employment benefits (noting employment benefits will be skewed to white collar roles).

It would be interesting to see a detailed study into what gigabit connectivity does to the strength of local communities. Do local pubs become deserted as residents are glued to the latest Netflix offering or do local Facebook groups draw a wider section of residents into the community and encourage offline interaction.

On the environmental side, a 2022 report by the Royal Society concluded that digital technology could deliver nearly one third of the carbon emission reductions required by 2030. There is the oft-cited reduced travel as a result of WFH, local satellite offices, fewer doctors’ appointments and MOOCs. In addition, they suggest smart meters – by allowing a flexible, decentralised and decarbonised energy system – could enable a 25% emissions saving from UK homes by 2035. The Climate Change Committee estimated that without a flexible energy system, unlocked by smart meters and digital technology, the costs of delivering net zero emissions by 2050 could be up to £16bn per annum higher. Smart home technology also enables behaviour change and more accurate control of the home environment. Not all of this digital technology needs the bandwidth offered by FTTH, but it does generally need the reliability it provides and collectively you can see why bandwidth requirements are expected to keep growing exponentially.

However, with increased bandwidth comes increased processing requirements and therefore increased energy consumption. Datacentres currently use 1-1.5% of the world’s electricity. The argument here is nuanced, with FTTH connectivity encouraging more data processing needs but optical fibre requires significantly less energy to transmit data than copper or mobile data transmission.

We have not yet attempted to incorporate the wide range of both benefits and costs into an environmental and social impact model. As much as we love a spreadsheet, this is a herculean exercise if it is to produce a credible result (if people are interested in collaborating on this, do get in touch). However, on a qualitative basis, it seems clear to us that the environmental and social benefits that high-speed reliable connectivity bring are going to increase significantly over the coming years as a result of technological innovation, increased adoption of current technology, pressure on the public purse and necessary steps to combat climate change.