Can BT cure the UK's fibre deficiency?

By Dave Bailey
18 May 2010 View Comments
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BT has so far pledged to invest £2.5bn in high-speed broadband

BT announced an enhanced rollout of its optical fibre network infrastructure last week, in a move that is regarded by many commentators as limited in both geographical and technological ambition.

The firm will plough an additional £1bn into the existing £1.5bn already pledged to deliver access to optical fibre networks to 40 per cent of the UK by 2012. Most of this investment will be used to roll out fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC).

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BT chief executive Ian Livingstone said, “This offers the potential to roll out fibre to about two thirds of the UK by 2015.”

However, many experts are still underwhelmed by BT’s plans. “FTTC will deliver better broadband speeds than the current network, but we’re still way behind other countries in terms of the type of network we’re deploying,” said Independent Network Co-operative Association (INCA) CTO Adrian Wooster.

“FTTC is the last throw of the old dice. It is ekeing out as much as it can from the old copper infrastructure,” he added.

BT has said that there will be a 75/25 per cent split between FTTC and fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) connections respectively.

But it isn’t just the type of network being deployed that has received criticism. Some commentators argue that the scope of rollout is equally limited. “There will be a fair chunk of the country that still can’t get fibre services from BT, Virgin Media, or any major next-generation broadband network,” said Ovum principal analyst Michael Philpott.

So where should the government and industry go from here? Wooster argued that the problem could be solved by public and private sector bodies taking a more collaborative approach (see below).

“The government should make a statement saying that by 2020 the whole of the UK should have access to optical fibre, and then collaborate with local government, industry and the community to determine how that can be achieved,” said Wooster.

“Delivering 40Mbit/s to 66 per cent of the population means we’ve left base camp and are making good progress, but we must not lose sight of the summit.”

The summit, according to Wooster, is universal FTTH, but he warned the cost of getting there would be considerable, an order of magnitude greater than that for FTTC.

But once FTTH is deployed, increasing speed should just be a matter of replacing the optical transceivers at the end of the network, although investment in backhaul networks to carry increased traffic would be needed.

“FTTH is the optimum technology, but digging up the last 100 metres to residential premises is the most expensive part. Remember that BT is a private firm and shareholders will be expecting some return on investment,” said Philpott.

Two fast broadband initiatives that give cause for hope

A likely example of the collaborative model espoused by Wooster was announced last week after a deal was struck between Virgin Media and eight Lancashire NHS trusts. This deal could see the trusts act as an ISP to local councils who would piggyback on top of the network.

The new network construction started three months ago and will connect 200 buildings in every part of Lancashire, taking between two and three years to complete.

The £9m deal will give the trusts access to a 10Gbit/s backbone that could one day be used by other organisations such as local councils to deliver fast broadband services to previously unreachable parts of Lancashire – a model that could be easily copied by other regions.

“We have always worked with local councils, but in these economic times everyone is looking for the best way to share services and save themselves money,” said Lancashire NHS’s associate director for IT, Declan Hadley.

Meanwhile, i3 Group network arm Fibrecity has announced a four-year plan to connect more than one million homes and businesses using FTTH, delivering speeds of up to 100Mbit/s, and boosts of up to 1Gbit/s. Fibrecity is planning networks in Derby, Nottingham, Plymouth and York, with start dates staggered throughout 2010. The network provider will then move on to Belfast, Aberdeen, Ipswich and Bristol.

Elfed Thomas, i3 Group chief executive, said, “The antiquated copper ‘last mile’ is the biggest problem for connectivity speeds. Only a true FTTH connection will ensure we have a network that will see us through the next decades as opposed to being outdated in a few years.”

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