It's high time we had a manifesto for fibre

It's high time we had a manifesto for fibre

Summary: A next-generation broadband manifesto would inject the ambition and urgency that our legislators lack, says Malcolm Corbett


What we need is a next-generation broadband manifesto to counter the lack of vision and urgency displayed by our legislators, says Malcolm Corbett.

For those of us working to accelerate the pace of fibre rollout in the UK, February's report from the Parliamentary Business, Innovation and Skills Committee on broadband made depressing reading — not so much for the headline criticism of the government's proposed telephone tax, but for the paucity of vision and lack of urgency shown by our legislators.

World leader?
The first paragraphs highlighted Britain's leading role in the 19th century development of telegraphy, going on to say once again that the UK "faces the question of how best to maintain its position as one of the world leaders in electronic communications".

Wake up, guys. The global rankings for fibre to the home published at the FTTH Conference in late February in Lisbon show we are far from being world leaders. According to the Fibre to the Home Council Europe, an industry-led body, Britain is unranked.

We do not have even the one percent of connections that would qualify us to "sit on the bench with Bulgaria", as my Community Broadband Network colleague, Adrian Wooster, commented. It really is lamentable. Not only are Japan, South Korea, the US and China ahead of us, but so are Latvia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Portugal and Bulgaria.

But what of the vaunted competition between BT and Virgin Media to roll out superfast broadband? BT is aiming to deliver some fibre to the home as part of its plans, but the bulk of its rollout will be fibre to street cabinets and copper from there, delivering VSDL services. Virgin is offering an equivalent technology, Docsis 3.

Essential facts
An Ofcom speaker at February's FTTH Conference said this means Britain has 50 percent next-generation access coverage and so is doing very well. Perhaps. But only if you discount several key facts: BT and Virgin are largely competing for customers on the same territory; both technologies are heavily contended and heavily asymmetric, which means lower upstream bandwidth; and even more frustratingly for consumers, since VDSL is very distance-sensitive, we face the prospect of 'up to' speed offerings from ISPs for years to come.

Fibre to the cabinet is effectively the last throw of the dice for copper-based technologies. Outside the UK, this truth seems to have been accepted, judging by the major investments being made in fibre to the home. Other countries recognise that global competitiveness demands world-class connectivity.

Read this

Comment: Community holds key to broadband funding puzzle

The focus is on state and private funding for next-gen broadband, but community projects could help make the business case

Read more

While fibre-to-the-cabinet services may give us a temporary competitive equivalence with other countries, in the long run it is an approach that cannot compete with full fibre solutions, either in terms of bandwidth and therefore future services, or in terms of operational costs for operators.

In the UK, it seems we are still suffering from the delusion that fibre to the cabinet offering perhaps 40Mbps — if we are lucky enough to be offered such a product — will somehow put us on a level playing field with business in, say, the Netherlands, which can enjoy perhaps 1Gbps symmetric connectivity.

The issues are political and the election is looming, so here is what I would like to see in the next-generation broadband manifesto:

1. Obtain global ranking
Let's get the UK into the global rankings with at least one percent of homes and businesses connected direct to fibre within a year. That goal would mean about 250,000 connections — around 247,000 more than we have now, according to Point Topic.

Tall order? Yes. But if we fail to inject a sense of ambition and urgency into the debate, we will still be talking, rather than doing, for years to come. We need to get off the starting blocks. Fibre is the answer, the only questions are timing, cost and who pays.

2. Improve cost calculations
Get a better handle on the costs of deployment. The Broadband Stakeholder Group report into the costs and economics of next-generation broadband, published in September 2008, used a theoretical model to estimate the costs of full national fibre deployment at about £29bn.

That figure was double previous estimates and seems far more expensive than the price of live projects...

Topics: Broadband, Tech Industry

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • excellent idea

    Great article, but would query the BSG cost for fibre deployment, as that would be for new build and we already have ducts, poles and wayleaves, so it would be a fraction of their quote. We also have millions of unemployed people drawing dole. They could be employed? we could also have chain gangs like they do in America... ;) the cost of fibre is in the laying, and I have just canceled out that cost. so if gov chip in and cut the windoze tax on lit fibre the job can be done in a couple of years and we can lead the world. power to the people, JFDI.
    More info on VOA and all things fibre here:
    including news on the Final Third First, which is rattling a lot of Westminster cages at the moment...
  • er, we already have a manifesto...

    I remember thinking when I read the post at first that I had seen a manifesto somewhere, and I spotted it via twitter tonight. Its here, written in May 2009...
    'Are we clear what is required though for UK Plc? Are there too many factions trying to pull in too many directions? Is there a lack of cohesive, joined up thinking on the matter? Are we actually allowing all the voices to be heard, particularly those at grassroots who have broken many barriers and destroyed many of the telecom myths over the last decade, whilst finding and implementing solutions?'

    Here are some thoughts on the manifesto!'
  • Unfortunately the real problem here is that a very small number of very big companies want to make a great deal of money out of this.

    Every house in the country that is on mains sewerage can have fibre quickly and cheaply installed. I think the country could afford some form of subsidy to assist the remaining outlying locations.
  • Nothing rattles cages like next-generation broadband. Though I detect more agreement may be emerging in the industry? Optimistic? Well, I want to agree on a few points, and differ on others.

    Copper is not a long term approach. Like Malcolm says, VDSL tails off considerably with distance from the exchange. VDSL could provide a solution for the final 11% of the country which the universal service commitment will be trying to help, but speeds could be slow. Many homes on VDSL won't get more than ADSL2+ speeds.

    However - and this is a big caveat - VDSL is far cheaper to roll out than fibre to the home (FTTH) - around 20per cent of the cost looking at the UK as a whole. That makes it far more compelling than FTTH for telcos like BT - the business case for VDSL is far easier to make and we shouldn't be surprised that BT's initial rollout will be 75% VDSL: 25% FTTH.

    The situation is similar in other countries. Netherlands is actually an example of widespread VDSL. While its incumbent telco KPN is investing in FTTH as well, VDSL has, and will, make up significant deployments. Better business case again in those areas. Telefonica in Spain will be even more pro-VDSL.

    That said, I totally agree that the technical evolutionary path is much worse for VDSL, and in the long term will lead to higher capex for the telco concerned than building straight out with FTTH. The only thing is, shareholders aren't always interested in the long run, and BT needs to make money from fibre, now.

    I also would like to reply to Tezzer on the commercial angle. I think some people need to move on from the argument that telcos shouldn't be making money out of fibre. If they don't, they won't deploy it, and consumers will have to make do with copper. So they need a sensible margin. I don't advocate that telcos should make huge margins from fibre, but just look at the numbers - the returns are very small indeed, and negative in many deployment scenarios. So we need to be aware there has to be a business case for fibre deployment.

    Are sewer-based networks and community networks the answer? I've always argued that broadband deployment will become a patchwork of networks, at least for the short and mid term (we may see consolidation after that). Of course BT and Virgin will be dominant. But there will be a place for the smaller guy. They just have to make a different business case work.