NBN: Fibre to the world

Summary:In this feature, ZDNet explores how fibre deployments across the UK, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States are being achieved, at what cost, whether they have been successful, and how they compare to Australia's NBN.

The United Kingdom

  • Project: Fibre to the cabinet and fibre to the premises

  • Area: 242,910 km2

  • Population: 62 million

  • Premises to be passed: 19 million

  • Percentage: 66 percent

  • Cost: £2.5 billion (AU$3.6 billion)

  • Government/private/mix: Private

Image: BT

Openreach, the wholesale infrastructure arm of British telco giant BT, is spending £2.5 billion to roll out 3 million kilometres of fibre and 50,000 new cabinets for a fibre-to-the-cabinet and fibre-to-the-premises open-access regulated wholesale network that will be completed by mid-2014. It will service 19 million premises, around two thirds of the United Kingdom, and the network already has 1.4 million active services across 50 internet service providers (ISPs), including the big three: BT, TalkTalk, and Sky.

Speaking exclusively to ZDNet, Opeanreach's director of network investment, Mike Galvin, said that BT would not have been able to justify the cost of deploying fibre to the premises across the UK.

"Fibre to the cabinet is considerably cheaper. It varies from site to site, but in brownfields, it is typically four times cheaper, maybe even more," he said.

"We would not have a business case for doing that if we were doing fibre to the premises, simply because of the additional cost. Even as it is, it is a long-term investment with payback in the mid teens of years.

"Fibre to the cabinet has made the deployment possible, as a non-subsidised deployment."

Galvin stressed that fibre to the home is best for new housing sites, but said that a cabinet deployment at a maximum of 1km from each premises significantly cuts down on the cost of deployment, and makes it roll out much faster. The company is currently passing over 100,000 premises per week.

"Fibre to the cabinet has made the deployment possible, as a non-subsidised deployment." — Mike Galvin

"There's a very strong argument that says fibre to the cabinet is a minimum-disturbance technology, and if you're equipping a city like New York or London, you're not having to dig up masses of streets and do a lot of retro fit work," he said.

"It's something that can be overlayed on the current network, so it is a much more reliable and quicker deployment."

The power required for each cabinet is about half of that required for DSL services today, and each cabinet comes with a battery backup and an alarm.

Galvin said that the network has the potential for a lot more development, and while speeds are currently a maximum of around 80Mbps down and 20Mbps up, the company is testing out vectoring, which would see the speeds increase dramatically. Galvin said vectoring would likely be deployed into the network later in 2013.

Mike Galvin Image: BT

"We see vectoring as one of the cornerstone technologies going forward that will extend the capability and the life of the fibre-to-the-cabinet product," he said.

One of the biggest criticisms of a fibre-to-the-cabinet deployment is that it uses legacy copper lines to the premises that are often described as being too old or damaged to be usable for high-speed broadband. Galvin rejected this suggestion.

"That's not our experience. I can't comment on what the Australian local network is like, but a lot of our network goes back to the great expansion in telephony services in the '50s and '60s, and that network is perfectly good for carrying these signals," he said.

While copper has an asset life of 30 years for telecommunications companies, Galvin said it can continue to be used long after that.

"It doesn't mean that after 30 years and one day, it stops working. We've got copper in our network that goes back to the 1920s, and it is absolutely perfect," he said.

"Age is not necessarily a guide. It depends how well the network has been maintained, how well it has been looked after, and the quality of the original installations."

But not everyone has agreed with BT's approach.

Earlier this month, the chief techology officer of one UK ISP Timico, Trefor Davies, reportedly had problems with his own connection to the network achieving only 6Mbps speeds, and it was only after a technician came and examined his copper line, that it was determined that the line from the telegraph pole to his premise had deteoriated and needed to be replaced.

Last March, the company's former CTO Dr Peter Cochrane (PDF) said that FttC was "one of the biggest mistakes humanity has made".

"It ties a knot in the cable in terms of bandwidth and imposes huge unreliability risks," he said.

"The number one fault problem with copper is water ingress. Fibre does not care about water. The fault level in an optical network goes down very low. You can reduce manning, buildings, power consumption and everything."

Cochrane admitted that most of the cost in going to fibre-to-the-premise was in the civil construction of building the pits and ducts to each premise, and he suggested the UK government could fund some of the smaller construction players to boost competition and reduce prices for BT to go to the premise.

"It doesn't mean that after 30 years and one day, it stops working. We've got copper in our network that goes back to the 1920s, and it is absolutely perfect." — Mike Galvin

Customers who are on BT's network via a cabinet but want the full fibre connection can pay for the privilege. Openreach is currently trialling a user-pays system, but Galvin said that the connection cost doesn't come cheap, and users can expect to pay up to £3,500 for the installation of a full fibre connection that would offer download speeds of up to 330Mbps.

Prices with BT start at £29 pounds per month for a 38Mbps service with 40GB of monthly use up to £37 per month on a 76Mbps service with unlimited data. Sky offers a £34.50 per month plan for unlimited data use.

Galvin said that the key to the network's success is its speed of deployment.

"It's been the fastest deployment anywhere in the world. That comes partly with the technology we're using, but partly because we're running a production line," he said.

"We think that's the secret to success. Business wise, it's been a success, as well. For the commercial deployment, there is no government subsidy, we've done it in a regulated environment, we have an open network, and we've made a success of it," he said.

A second initiative to cover the remaining one third of premises not covered in Openreach's rollout is being subsidised by local councils as well as the UK government and the European Union. There are around 35 projects, and BT has won all of the bids so far.

Topics: NBN


Armed with a degree in Computer Science and a Masters in Journalism, Josh keeps a close eye on the telecommunications industry, the National Broadband Network, and all the goings on in government IT.

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