The future is fibre: Openreach

Fibre to the premises is the end goal for Openreach over the next 10 to 15 years, it has said, while Deutsche Telekom and NBN look to bring fibre 'closer' to the customer.

The future of broadband is fibre, BT's Openreach division had said, with the company aiming to eventually deploy a fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) network to every home across the United Kingdom.

"I believe fundamentally that the long-term solution is fibre, let's be very clear, and it is fibre to the premises," Openreach chair Mike McTighe said during the Global Broadband Futures Conference in Sydney on Monday.

"There's no doubt in my mind; we all know it's faster, more reliable, more future-proof."

But with nationwide FttP coverage still a decade or more away, McTighe acknowledged that multi-technology mix rollouts are the best way to ensure ubiquitous access to high-speed broadband for now.

"I think it's a proven fact that a mixed technology model is more likely to deliver universal coverage than one which focuses only on FttP," McTighe argued.

"In other countries ... where they've deployed only FttP, I think there are clearly a set of haves and have-nots that have been developed in those countries. And it's a digital divide that frankly we would never want to create.

"We believe that access to universal broadband across the United Kingdom is an important part for us to participate in today's society."

Nokia fixed networks head of strategy Tomas-Sanjuan Flores similarly argued that there is an "S curve" for deploying fibre all the way to homes, involving a long wait for consumers.

"We are helping on making sure that the assets that you have in the field are still providing value for you," he said, calling hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) "very important", particularly with the advent of DOCSIS 3.1.

"This is why we have been working on how to put more things on the corporate platform ... for giving new life to copper [and] getting more out of your current assets."

Openreach is currently deploying FttP only where it "makes economic sense" to do so, after committing in 2015 to deliver 100Mbps broadband to 12 million homes by end of 2020 via the installation of 10 million ports on fibre to the cabinet or curb (FttN/C) and connecting 2 million premises with FttP.

Due to recent cost improvements, however, McTighe said that it will now likely involve slightly more FttP.

Looking to the future, Openreach is hoping to convince BT to fund a nationwide FttP network, with 10 million FttP ports estimated to cost between £3 billion and £6 billion to build. The company is also looking to line up a friendlier regulatory environment and greater government support, as well as persuading customers to pay more.

Openreach, which has been trialling 1Gbps FttC technology with Australian company NetComm Wireless, closed consultation on its FttP network proposition for Britain's "needs of the next decade" last month, and will be publishing its response with a "clear hypothesis" on full FttP before Christmas.

"Let me be very, very clear: Openreach wants to build a full-fibre network ... but equally, I'm not stupid," he said.

"We need to make an economic return. We need to have a business case that washes its face that I can take to our shareholder, which is BT, to get them to invest in and come up with the cash."

Another issue needing to be solved before a fibre network can be deployed is finding a way to turn off the copper network first, as McTighe said Openreach cannot maintain both.

Conversely, New Zealand broadband provider Chorus said it is running two networks at once, with both its fibre and VDSL networks gaining customers every month.

"We do believe fibre is the end game, but this will take time ... New Zealand will be a VDSL network [and] New Zealand will be a fibre network," Chorus head of networks Martin Sharrock said.

Also speaking at the conference, National Broadband Network (NBN) chief strategy officer JB Rousselot acknowledged that the goal is "more fibre".

"Ultimately, the end game is more fibre deeper in the network, eventually all the way to the home," Rousselot said.

"The question is how quickly do we get to there, and when do we stop at the node for how long? When do we stop at the curb, and for how long? It can also be to a HFC device, or even to a 5G device, but ultimately we will bring the fibre deeper in the network. The question is: How quickly do we do this, and what is the road to get to this?"

For the time being, Rousselot said FttP is already a gigabit-capable network, DOCSIS 3.1 will be rolled out across HFC to make it gigabit capable, carrier aggregation is being used on fixed-wireless, and the FttX upgrade path is its new fibre-to-the-curb (FttC) network, which will bring fibre "a lot closer to the home" than if NBN had to wait until it could deploy FttP everywhere.

"The journey will continue beyond 2020," Rousselot said, arguing that these upgrade paths will take NBN "well into the gigabit world".

"With the few exceptions of maybe Singapore and Qatar, there is nobody that is advocating a direct jump into full FttP. We all agree that there is a pathway to get to it, and the question for us is what is the pathway depending on the economic situation that we find ourselves in, and the network that we find ourselves with."

Similarly to NBN, Deutsche Telekom is bringing fibre closer to homes using FttC, with CTO Bruno Jacobfeuerborn saying FttP would only ever be deployed where it is economically viable after the company earlier this year argued that it would be "impossible" to roll out fibre to every home in Germany.

According to Jacobfeuerborn, Deutsche Telekom had originally been planning back in 2012 to do a full-fibre rollout by 2018 or 2020; however, a "reality check" came when it realised German cities do not allow aerial deployments, meaning it would have had to dig up entire areas to deploy fibre cabling.

This would cost billions of euros more and take far longer than initially projected, Jacobfeuerborn said.

"Building fibre in Germany is a difficult thing, because we're not allowed to use aerial cables, it all has to be underground," he explained.

"So we invented the so-called integrated network strategy: We say, 'OK, wherever we can, we will roll out fibre', so for all new households, where we have new areas, we build it. If you go, for example, business customers, yes we will do fibre.

"But what happens with the 41 million [other] households?"

As it already had 380,000 street cabinets with an average copper length between cabinets and homes of 300 to 350 metres, Deutsche Telekom decided to extend fibre from its 8,000 central offices to these cabinets to make use of its existing assets.

It then used chip tuning to increase broadband speeds to 100/40Mbps, with super vectoring being introduced next year for download speeds of 250Mbps.

Jacobfeuerborn told ZDNet that Deutsche Telekom is now trialling technology with Nokia to attain symmetric fibre-copper speeds of 1Gbps next year, and unsymmetric speeds of above 10Gbps.

"There is a lot of room for development in the future for copper," he told ZDNet.

Deutsche Telekom has promised the German government that by 2018, 80 percent of the population will have speeds of at least 50Mbps. It connected 3.5 million households last year and 3.5 million this year, and will connect between 2 and 5 million next year.

The carrier is not only using fibre and copper mixes, but also integrating its extensive mobile network.

"That is the first piece; the second piece is we do rollout of LTE and 5G," Jacobfeuerborn explained.

"We do fibre and mobile. And on top of that one, we invented the so-called hybrid router ... we're using the normal router at home but we will do a bonding between mobile and fixed.

"So that is the four pillars we have: Fibre wherever we can, reutilising our copper ... then having mobile, and the combination of both."

Deutsche Telekom's 4G LTE network covers more than 93 percent of the German population, Jacobfeuerborn told ZDNet, with its hybrid mobile-fibre coverage providing speeds of around 200Mbps to customers by combining VDSL and vectoring with LTE throughput.

"At the moment, it's 200[Mbps], and we're increasing it to 250[Mbps] in the future. What we're doing is combining VDSL and vectoring with LTE," he told ZDNet.

Jacobfeuerborn said the dogma of "FttP only" will never work effectively in either a cost or timing sense, and that Deutsche Telekom has realised customers don't care what their connection is based on -- they just want to be connected.

"Companies using FttC did something for the economy, did something for their customers."

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