Openreach explains why FTTP is such a great idea

A new report commissioned by fixed line infrastructure provider Openreach has concluded the UK would be £59 billion better off with full FTTP.

The report is called ‘Full fibre broadband: A platform for growth’ and was compiled by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, which likes to think it’s good at this sort of thing. The headline conclusion is that if we achieve ubiquitous fibre to the premises by 2025, UK productivity would increase by almost £59 billion, thanks to smarter ways of working and better public services.

It’s fairly common practice for analyst firms to use clever Excel models to extrapolate current trends and make forecasts and this is no exception. It seems the CEBR had a look at the effect FTTP has had in places where it’s already available and scaled that up to the whole country. It also tried to factor in other disruptive technological events such as mass ICT and even railways to get a sense of the transformative effect of everyone having faster broadband than they currently do.

As ever with commissioned research, Openreach wasn’t about to shell out for a report that concluded the whole reason for its existence is unimportant, but that doesn’t mean the conclusions should be ignored either. World class broadband does have the potential to transform society, especially when it comes to things like working from home and revitalising neglected parts of the country.

“Full fibre is a vehicle to turbocharge our economy post-Brexit, with the power to renew towns and communities across the UK,” said Openreach CEO Clive Selley. “We’re proud to be leading the way with over 1.8 million homes and businesses already having access to our full fibre network. We’re currently building full fibre to around 22,000 premises a week– which is one every 28 seconds. But we want to go even faster and further – to 15 million premises and beyond if we can get the right conditions to invest.

“Through our Fibre First programme, Openreach is now building to 103 locations across the UK and we’re on track to build to four million premises by March 2021. With the right policies and regulation, we can build a better, more reliable broadband network faster than any other country in the world and unlock the benefits for the whole UK. If that doesn’t happen, then many people will be locked out of a more connected future and the UK could lose its status as a global digital leader.”

As ever when it comes to telecoms infrastructure, the government and regulators are called on to help out with the roll-out. Openreach reckons the telecoms sector should be exempt from paying business rates for the foreseeable future, be granted better access to blocks of flats and other such buildings and get a regulatory environment more conducive to investment.

If you want to read the full report as well as Openreach’s thoughts on how the roll-out of full FTTP can be sped up then click here. To some extent Openreach is pushing at an open door here, since no one thinks faster broadband is a bad idea. This report is just part of the ongoing lobbying campaign to get the UK state to be a bit more helpful when it comes to fibre infrastructure and, presumably, to maintain the momentum created by Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm for fibre.

All Modes Lead to Home: The New Broadband Access Boom

Mobile broadband in the form of 4G and now 5G may have been grabbing the headlines for the past few years, but in the background the fixed line broadband market has been growing steadily, driven by both regulatory imperatives and operator expansion ambitions on the supply side, and the increasing use of bandwidth-hungry applications on the demand side.

Here we are sharing the opening section of this Telecoms.com Intelligence special briefing to look at the status of the broadband market and explores how stakeholders can best capture the opportunities and overcome the challeges.

The full version of the report is available for free to download here

Introduction: The Many Flavours of Broadband

Although demand for ever higher-capacity broadband connections are often associated with entertainment services, for example high-definition video streaming or connected gaming, much of the demand for fixed line broadband connectivity is linked to the pervasiveness of digital lifestyles, as growing numbers of people require reliable Internet connectivity to support an ever broader range of applications — remote working, financial services, medical care services, e-commerce and more – and an increasing number of devices.

Ovum, the research firm, reported that by Q1 2018, 1 billion consumers worldwide had been connected to broadband access networks. The firm forecast that the total number of broadband subscribers would top 1.1 billion by the end of this year. More than 20 million broadband subscribers per quarter have been added during the past two years.

Broadband access is an encompassing concept. Competing technologies have flourished during the past two decades. Some ride on the legacy copper PSTN networks – the various iterations of DSL technology and, most recently, Gfast – while others deliver fast Internet connections via cable networks, especially in North America. Satellite connections have also played a (limited) role.

In recent years, fibre connections running all the way to homes or buildings – collectively, fibre-to-thepremises
(FTTP) — has evolved from a niche, high-end solution to becoming a mass market proposition, though this varies wildly from country to country. This medium promises the fastest broadband access speeds to support the most demanding of applications and, as will be evident at the Broadband World Forum in Amsterdam (October 15-17), it is
still witnessing ongoing technological innovation as various flavours of passive optical networking (PON) technologies, such as XGS-PON and NG-PON2, come to market.

Meanwhile, thanks to the ascendency of 4G cellular technologies — primarily LTE, but also WiMax – and the arrival of 5G, fixed-wireless access (FWA) is also gaining increasing, albeit still limited, traction. This option is usually associated with rural and/or underserved areas but is now becoming a viable option in urban areas where the deployment of fibre is challenging or deemed uneconomic.

In addition to the differences between technologies, what qualifies as ‘broadband’ has also been evolving. In 2010, when Finland became the first country to set out the national policy to define access to broadband Internet as a basic right, the threshold was set at 1 Mbps downlink.

The FCC has been using 25 Mbps/3 Mbps (downlink/uplink) as the benchmark to evaluate how well fixed broadband has been deployed. By way of contrast, the US regulator has adopted 5 Mbps/1 Mbps as the benchmark for mobile (LTE) data service coverage.

At the beginning of September 2019, the Norwegian government started the consultation process to make broadband access a statuary obligation by the operators, becoming the latest country to elevate or aim to elevate broadband access to the status of a legal right. Here the government proposed two sets of metrics on which to gather comments: 20 Mbps/2Mbps and 10 Mbps/2 Mbps.

In its policy paper, titled ‘Connectivity for a Competitive Digital Single Market – Towards a European Gigabit Society’, published in 2016, the European Union’s vision included Internet access downlink speeds for all European households of at least 100 Mbps.

Sweden is the most aggressive country when setting its broadband targets. The country’s ‘Broadband Strategy’, published in 2016, defined a ‘completely connected Sweden by 2025’ in three tiers: 98% of all households and businesses should have access to a downlink speed of at least 1 Gbps; 1.9% should have access to 100 Mbps; and the remaining 0.1% should have access to at least 30 Mbps.

For any deployment of broadband connectivity to succeed, a number of factors need to be in place: There must be market demand that can be met by broadband connectivity; the technologies being used should be tried, tested and future-proof; the broadband service providers must be able to achieve a positive return on investment; and there should be a favourable regulatory environment.

Given the current market conditions impacting the suitability of the different technologies (see the next section), projected potential service uptake, and the drivers on the supply and demand sides, this report will focus on developments related to two key technologies: FTTP and 5G-based FWA.

The rest of this briefing includes sections on:

  • The Winners and the Others
  • It’s the Economics: When Fibre Makes More Sense than 5G, and Vice Versa
  • How the Public and Private Sectors Can Help
  • An interview with Nick Green, 5G Business Lead and Marketing Director, Three UK

To access the full briefing please click here

Openreach maps out fibre plans for the next 18 months

BT’s fixed line wholesale division has created a new website that allows everyone to see how its fibre roll-out is going.

The website devoted to banging on about Openreach’s Fibre First programme features a map showing every bit of the US that either already has FTTP, is in the process of acquiring it, or is in Openreach’s immediate plans. 29 more places have today been added to those immediate plans, taking the total over 100.

“Full-fibre broadband provides a reliable, future-proof, consistent and dependable service that will be a platform for economic growth and prosperity throughout the UK for decades to come,” said Openreach Chief Exec Clive Selley.

“We’re now building at a massive scale. Every 28 seconds we pass a home or business with our new future-proofed full fibre network. This has given us ever greater confidence in the level and accuracy of whatever we announce – which is why we’ve now laid out our build plans right up to the target delivery date of four million premises by March 2021.

“We also want to ensure we give our stakeholders – like council leaders, planners and MPs – the best view of where and when we intend to build so we can work together to build as rapidly as possible and help encourage people to take up the technology when it arrives.”

You can see the site, with its handy map, here. One possible reason Openreach has decided to be more transparent about its plans and progress is the political elevation of fibre under the Johnson premiership. Better broadband for everyone seems to be one of his key bits of propaganda and the company will want to be seen to be entering into the spirit of it all. Openreach expects to have connected four million homes and businesses to full-fat fibre by April 2021.

Openreach dares to contemplate retiring its copper network

UK fixed-line wholesaler Openreach has launched an industry consultation into the switch to ‘full fibre’, which would involve retiring the legacy copper one.

There’s not a lot of point shelling out for a fibre network covering the whole country if a bunch of people don’t use it. Furthermore the cost of maintaining two parallel networks would be prohibitive, so Openreach seems to be saying full fibre will only happen if everyone is fully committed to it. The purpose of this consultation seems to be to chuck that idea out there and see what the rest of the industry, including the government and Ofcom, has to say about it.

“…we’re consulting with broadband providers to decide how and when we upgrade customers to even faster, more reliable and future-proof, full fibre broadband,” said Katie Milligan, MD for Customer, Commercial and Propositions at Openreach. “We believe this consultation is crucial to that process, and it will support further investment from across the industry. We’re really ambitious about upgrading the UK to the fastest, most reliable broadband there is.”

These are the three main areas Openreach wants feedback from UK CSPs on:

  1. How it builds the new network
  2. How the industry should migrate customers smoothly onto the new network
  3. How Openreach should eventually retire the existing copper network

Getting buy-in from the CSPs is vital, of course, because they and their customers are ultimately the ones that will pay for this network. The above points are all essentially about money: how are we going to pay for this network and make everyone use it? On top of those Openreach flagged up a few more specific ‘guiding principles’ that also need to be considered:

  • Building contiguous footprints within its exchange areas to avoid creating new not-spots
  • Working closely with CPs to upgrade every customer in those areas quickly once the new network is built
  • Offering a compelling, simple portfolio of products that supports new retail voice and broadband services
  • Upgrading the large majority of people voluntarily, whilst developing an industry process for late adopters
  • Withdrawing copper-based services progressively
  • Developing a consumer charter with industry and Ofcom that encourages transparent communications to homes and businesses affected, and includes protections for vulnerable customers

In other words those pesky ‘late adopters’ would eventually be given no choice but to upgrade. This is what Openreach had to say about the copper situation: “The process would start with a ‘no move back’ policy for premises connected with FTTP, followed by a ‘stop-sell’ of copper services to new customers, and ultimately a withdrawal in full.”

It seems a bit authoritarian, but if the economics of maintaining the copper network don’t add up then it’s hard to what alternatives there are. The danger of forcing consumers to take a service is that CSPs could take that opportunity to over-charge, so Ofcom will want to keep an eye on that side of things. The government, as ever, will ride on the coat-tails of the process in its never-ending search for cheap political capital.

“We’re building a Britain that’s fit for the future, and our plans for a national full fibre broadband network underpin our modern industrial strategy,”  said Minister for Digital Margot James. “Upgrading to gigabit capable connections will benefit homes and businesses all across the UK. I welcome Openreach’s consultation on how to make this process as simple and efficient as possible whilst ensuring a competitive market is in place for all consumers and infrastructure providers.”

Openreach also recently announced Salisbury is going to become the UK’s first place to get FTTP across an entire town, which will be complete in April 2020. It seems to be setting this up as an exemplar of how great everything can be if we all cooperate on this stuff and reap the consequent connectivity rewards. This consultation will be open until 3 May, after which Openreach will let us know how it went.

Openreach talks fibre in Edinburgh

With fibre becoming an increasingly politicised topic, fixed infrastructure wholesaler Openreach decided to hang out with a couple of Scottish politicians.

Ian Murray MP and Daniel Johnson MSP got to hang out with some engineers in Liberton, a suburb of Edinburgh, where Openreach has been laying some serious fibre down. Specifically this is of the FTTP variety, which enables Openreach to use emotive phrases such as ‘ultrafast broadband’ and ‘future-proof technology’.

“Good connectivity is vital for a strong local economy, so it’s been great to hear about the progress that’s being made and what that means for constituents,” said Edinburgh South MP Murray. “The fact that Edinburgh is one of the first places in the UK to benefit from Openreach investment in full-fibre will help make sure that our historic city remains at the forefront of technology.”

“It was particularly interesting to hear about the huge difference a full fibre connection will make to residents’ broadband speed, reliability and capacity,” said Edinburgh Southern MSP Johnson. “It was also useful to hear about developments at Openreach’s training centre in Livingston where a new fibre school will be launched next year. Engineering is a vital part of Scotland’s economy and skills learned there will benefit the nation.”

Jim Wylie, Openreach’s fibre operations manager for Edinburgh, said: “We know good broadband is really important to local people and we’re delighted to be building our first fibre city here in Edinburgh.

“Ian and Daniel share our ambition to make sure everybody in Scotland has access to a quality broadband service,” said Jim Wylie, Openreach’s Fibre Operations Manager for Edinburgh. “We appreciate that they were able to make time to come and learn about the challenges and realities of delivering digital technology. For example, a specific issue in Edinburgh is getting access to put new equipment on telephone poles, which are often sited in people’s back gardens!”

So this looks like a win-win; politicians get to be seen to be championing next-generation infrastructure for their constituents, while Openreach gets to lobby them for a few juicy concessions. Result.

Most people think ‘fibre’ means FTTP – survey

A survey commissioned by UK fibre challenger CityFibre found that most people think fibre should mean fibre, which seems fair enough.

The research was conducted by Censuswide, who surveyed 3,400 UK broadband punters. 24% of respondents reckoned their broadband consisted of fibre all the way to the premise, even though only 3% of the UK currently has that privilege. Furthermore 45% of them assumed a service advertised as fibre meant fibre all the way, rather than just to the cabinet or whatever.

CityFibre is in the process of taking the Advertising Standards Agency to Court as it disputes its conclusion that ‘fibre’ is not a misleading term in broadband adverts when used to describe hybrid copper-fibre connections. That seems like a reasonable objection and is clearly the reason it commissioned this survey.

But CityFibre isn’t entirely innocent of a spot of misleading itself. The press release announcing this survey was headlined ‘Two thirds of broadband customers believe “fibre” should mean fibre-to-the-premises in ads’, but then offers no data points to support that claim. The closest one is the finding that 65% of respondents ‘didn’t think their current connection relied on copper cables or hybrid copper-fibre’.

There’s also this: While just under two thirds (65%) said their broadband provider had described their connection as “fibre”, only 1 in 6 (17%) thought this connection would include copper cables. But that’s still not consistent with the headline. People in glass houses…

“We are calling on all broadband providers to stop using the word ‘fibre’ unless it is describing a full fibre connection,” said Greg Mesch, CEO of CityFibre. “Rather than waiting for the backward-looking ASA to be forced to act, the industry should stand as one and pave the way for a new generation of connected homes, businesses, towns and cities across the UK.”

Mesch and CityFibre have a long history of agitating about the US fibre environment and usually manage to diminish their point by overdoing it. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong and in this case they definitely have a point. Calling a service ‘fibre’ clearly infers it’s fibre all the way. If it’s hybrid then that should be represented in the name, regardless of what ISP marketing manager want.

UK makes solemn vows about national infrastructure

The UK National Infrastructure Commission has published an assessment that says UK national infrastructure needs to get better.

At first glance this looks like one of those broad public sector studies that serves to both rubber-stamp proclamations made by their political sponsors and loosely demonstrate that the state is on the case, knows how important this sort of thing is, and is doing loads to make sure it gets sorted out.

The report covered a broad swathe of infrastructure categories from energy to transport to mitigating climate change, but the first one concerned ‘building a digital society’. You can read that section here, but it seems to be a collation of a bunch of other public proclamations on the matter, including the aim of connecting 15 million premises to fibre by 2025.

“Whether it’s electric or driverless cars, new energy sources, tackling the risk of climate change or preparing for the newest and fastest broadband speeds, the issues we’ve been considering profoundly affect people’s everyday lives,” said Sir John Armitt, one of the associated Commissioners.

“The whole purpose of the UK’s first-ever National Infrastructure Assessment is to think beyond the technologies of today and to ensure we can make the most of future innovations. It’s why it’s not just a one-off but something we will be repeating every five years to ensure we remain on the front foot.

“This is not some unaffordable wish-list of projects: it sets a clear direction for how to meet the country’s future infrastructure needs, and makes a realistic assessment of what can and should be delivered within the stated aim of Ministers for steady and continued investment over the coming years.”

“From businesses who need reliable high speed bandwidth to manage their global supply chains in real time, or families streaming the latest film releases via smart TVs, we are all looking for fast, reliable broadband connections – and so are our international competitors,” said Andy Green, another Commissioner.

“We can’t afford for any community to be cut off from these essential technologies and so alongside private companies, the Government must also play a role. A National Broadband Plan would make clear that the government needs to take action to ensure rural areas as well as our cities can take full advantage of the digital revolution.”

Maybe Andy, but Openreach has already made it clear that it’s not aiming any higher than ten million FTTP installations by the mid 2020s so is the recommendation that the tax-payer foots the bill for the remaining five million? The report also calls for full national FTTP coverage by 2033 – good luck with that.

UK Chancellor wants 15 million FTTP by 2025, Openreach is sticking with ten

The UK Chancellor of the Exchequer has said he wants to see full fibre to 15 million premises by 2025 but the CEO of Openreach thinks 10 million is more realistic.

Phillip Hammond was speaking at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) annual piss-up and his general agenda seemed to be to show how much his government is helping the UK tech sector. There was lots of talk of public R&D spending and name dropping of emerging tech trends such as AI and autonomous vehicles.

“But we won’t be able to put the UK at the front of the pack unless we have infrastructure that is fit for the future,” he said, before equating fibre networks with the canals, railways and roads of the industrial revolution. “So I am now setting a new target to see full-fibre to the premises connections being available to 15 million premises, that’s the majority of homes and businesses, by 2025.”

Hammond conceded this is an ambitious target and that it won’t be achieved merely as a result of him setting it, but at the same time implied it won’t happen without government intervention. Sadly that’s all we got.

Precisely what the UK state will do to encourage the likes of Openreach to raise their game remains to be seen and it will probably take the form of further grandstanding at equivalent piss-ups in the intervening years. Apparently Matt Hancock will flesh the plan out later this summer, if he can find time away from protecting us from internet horridness.

Clive Selley, CEO of Openreach – the main fixed line infrastructure player in the UK – seems to think this target is over-ambitious. “We share the Chancellors’ full fibre vision for Britain,” he said, as he has previously. “This year we’ll double our FTTP footprint and by 2020, we will have built it to 3 million homes across the UK. We want to reach 10m premises by the mid-2020s, and believe we can ultimately fully-fibre the majority of the UK under the right conditions.”

Openreach currently has full fibre to around 500,000 premises so it will reach a million by the end of this year and then take over a decade to do another two mil. At that rate it seems highly unlikely that it will do another seven in five years, let alone 12, but hey, it’s just a target.

San Francisco building own Open Access Fibre network for $1.9bn

A report has emerged from City Hall in San Francisco which assesses the final details for the city to build its own fibre network, passing 100% of homes and businesses, for $1.9 billion.

While there will be likely be hundreds of conversations around the US on how fibre can be delivered to the home, most of which will be nothing more than blue-sky thinking, this is one we like. The city already has the appetite for fibre after false-promises from Google Fiber last year, and the attitude of the ISPs when it comes to net neutrality might force the hand of the city. $1.9 billion is also not a huge amount when you actually think about it.

This would certainly be an approach to connectivity which would raise some eye brows, and one which could start a trend across the states. This would be a network which is designed and managed on principles which are governed by the opinions of the local population not federal regulation. The city has promised it will close the digital divide, ensure net neutrality principles are maintained and privacy concerns are addressed.

Even the emergence of such a scheme perhaps demonstrates how bored the US people are of the current telco industry. Service is highly prioritised in the urban or affluent areas, it is expensive, customer support is usually poor and fibre rollout plans are staggering. To ensure fairness throughout the city, a free Wifi service would be offered in public areas, while low-income residents would qualify for subsidies to make connectivity more affordable

Add into the mix that the people of California are not happy with the way net neutrality rules are being relegated to the footnotes, and the idea of a publicly funded and owned network becomes more attractive. State Senator Scott Weiner has already introduced Senate Bill 822, which aims to re-establish net neutrality rules across the state, though by owning its own network San Francisco would be able to enforce its own governance policies on ISPs.

The network would essentially function in similar manner to Openreach in the UK. The infrastructure would be owned and managed by the city, who would provide an ‘OTT’ service to the ISPs over the same lines. A two-tier data highway would not be allowed, and ISPs would also be forced to request ‘opt-ins’ from customers for any data collection or dissemination. It sounds like a great idea for those who oppose the current path of the FCC.

The only concern here would be the price. In the telco world, $1.9 billion is not a huge amount any more, but when it is public funds it is a monstrous amount of cash. However, the report notes that the benefits of a full fibre network should outweigh the investment. The digital economy is booming in California already and a full-fibre network would only accelerate this momentum in San Francisco. Add in the idea that 12% of the city lack internet access at home, a number which raises to 15% when you measure public school students alone, and the merit of the scheme becomes more promising. There are still a huge number of questions to be answered, for example whether it would be a lit or dark fibre network or the nitty gritty details of funding, but progress is being made.

The ISPs will of course not like this idea, as it creates a level playing field (everyone will use the same infrastructure) which encourages a pricing race to the bottom and forces the development of a customer service environment which actually cares about the customer. Genuine value adds will also have to be considered as holding customers to ransom as the only provider in an area will not exist anymore. You should expect some sort of lobbying or legal action to disrupt development.

That said, looks like the balance of power will be rightly back in the hands of the purchaser. You can read the full report here.

Openreach makes big FTTP statement, but with strings attached

Openreach, the UK’s dominant fixed-line wholesaler, has vowed to ramp up its fibre-to-the-premises roll-out to hit three million premises by the end of 2020.

As everyone knows, you can’t make a grand public statement without giving it a name, so BT-owned Openreach came up with the ‘Fibre First’ programme, presumably to distinguish it from the previous strategy of combining FTTC with copper augmentation via Gfast. The underlying point seems to be to virtue-signal about its new-found commitment to fibre.

“Through the Fibre First programme, Openreach is getting on with the job of building an ultrafast Britain,” said Openreach CEO Clive Selley. “We are accelerating our plans to build FTTP to three million premises by 2020 which sets the course to reach ten million by the mid-2020s with the right conditions. Where possible going forward, we will ‘fibre first’.

“Working closely with central and local government and our communication provider customers, we will identify the cities, towns and rural areas where we can build a future-proofed, FTTP network that’s capable of delivering gigabit speeds to all homes and businesses at an affordable cost.

“We’ll continue to invest in our people and we’re already in the process of re-training and upskilling to make Fibre First a reality. We plan to hire around 3,000 engineers in 2018/19 to kick-start Fibre First and further improve the reliability and performance of our existing networks.”

In case it wasn’t obvious, Selley is saying he’ll commit to the first three million (presumably where he feels healthy ROI is most guaranteed) but needs to see some public and CSP cash before he’ll do any more. Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, London and Manchester are flagged for the first wave, which Openreach nebulously said could also connect ‘up to’ (they just can’t get out of that habit can they?) 40 UK towns.

To further demonstrate its tear-jerking altruism Openreach reckons the cost of all this fresh fibre will be £300-£400 per premise, making the total cost £1-4 billion. The clear message is that if you want the spend to get anywhere near to the top end of that range we all need to chip in. Having said that the capex estimations seem to be coming down.

In a somewhat contradictory position the Openreach announcement also stressed how into Gfast it still is. “Openreach remains committed to rolling out Gfast at speed,” it said. “Openreach will employ a Fibre First ethos and will not build Gfast and FTTP to the same locations. So, in summary, Openreach is committed to fibre unless it’s a bit too pricey and/or it fancies going with Gfast instead. Great.