Outgoing BT chief hints at fibre rollout

Sir Christopher Bland claims BT might roll fibre out as far as the kerb to boost broadband speeds, but doubts remain over who will pay for it

BT is seriously considering a rollout of high-speed fibre connectivity across the country, according to the company's outgoing chairman.

Sir Christopher Bland, who relinquishes his role at BT in September, said on Wednesday that BT could opt for a deployment of what is known as "fibre to the kerb", or "fibre to the cabinet". This refers to optical fibre being laid out between BT's exchanges and the street cabinets to which individual premises are connected, a halfway measure also known as VDSL2 (very high-speed digital subscriber line 2).

Such a rollout would mean faster connectivity for users than that provided by the existing all-copper connections between premises and exchanges, but not as fast as that promised by "fibre to the home" (FTTH).

More than a million subscribers across Europe are already enjoying the speeds offered by FTTH, research showed earlier this year. FTTH can offer real-world speeds of as much as 50Mbps, while BT's forthcoming, copper-based ADSL2+ technology will only offer a theoretical maximum of 24Mbps (analysts expect much lower real-world speeds).

Speaking to the Financial Times, Bland referred to fibre to the cabinet as the "more likely development going forward", but stopped short of declaring that a decision had been made on the subject. According to the Financial Times, he also expressed doubt that anyone other than businesses would need fibre access.

A BT spokesperson confirmed on Thursday that the company remains open to the possibility of fibre to the cabinet, but reiterated the previously expressed standpoint that "it needs to make sense for our shareholders if [BT is] going to invest lots of money in it".

This comment was a reference to the dilemma that BT faces regarding the issue of fibre. Because of the current regulatory environment, if BT were to roll out fibre it could then find itself having to let other companies use that infrastructure for free — a serious disincentive to investment, according to BT Wholesale's chief technical officer, Matt Beal. Nonetheless, BT is starting to roll out FTTH in some greenfield developments, partly because of the rising cost of copper.

In April the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) — an organisation including BT among its members — urged the deployment of fibre across the UK, warning that the country risked falling behind the rest of the world in terms of broadband infrastructure. On Thursday Antony Walker, the BSG's chief executive, told ZDNet.co.uk that he found Bland's words to be an appropriately cautious step in the right direction.

"I think it's a significant statement and one we find quite encouraging," said Walker. "This is the first time that, at a senior level within BT, there's been a suggestion that this is something BT is looking at, although we are aware they have been putting a lot of thought into the question of next-generation access," he said, while pointing out that "there remain challenges for both commercial players and the regulator in terms of getting the framework right for companies to make long-term sustainable investments".


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