BT will run optical fibre directly to 2.5 million UK homes and businesses for high-speed broadband access, a move that analysts say will give its network longer life.
The fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) rollout will bring broadband speeds of up to 100Mbps by 2012, with possible future speeds of 1Gbps, depending on commercial demand, BT said in its announcement on Friday.
"Today's announcement will help the UK climb the speed league tables," BT Openreach chief executive Steve Robertson said in a statement.
"The UK is well placed [for broadband availability], but we need to invest for the future so that customers can access the rich applications that will be popular in a few years' time."
The telecoms giant said in July 2008 that it would deliver some form of fibre access to 10 million homes by 2012. There are two ways to do this: run the fibre from the exchange to the street cabinet (fibre-to-the-cabinet, or FTTC), or run it all the way to the home or business premises (FTTP).
FTTC is cheaper to roll out, but it only allows for slower speeds, as it relies on the existing copper connection between the street cabinet and the premises. Friday is the first time BT has publicly announced that a quarter of the 10 million homes it plans to hook up to fibre will be given FTTP.
Telecoms analyst Ian Fogg, from Forrester, described the news as an extremely important announcement. "Full FTTP is as different to FTTC as FTTC is to today's broadband, as to what speeds it can offer businesses and consumers in the UK," Fogg said. "It will make the network that BT was deploying considerably more future proof."
Fogg said BT's target FTTP speeds of 1Gbps were the same as targets in South Korea, which leads the world in broadband delivery. He noted that FTTC typically offers downloads at 40Mbps, and could reach 60Mbps or even100Mbps in the years to come, but these speeds depend on the quality of the phone line from the cabinet to the home or business.
FTTP is "potentially more costly to roll out, but it has a longer life", he said.
According to a company spokesperson, BT has been able to raise the proportion of FTTP because it now plans to run the optical fibre through existing underground ducts used for copper infrastructure, rather than digging up roads. It also intends to install fibre via overhead cabling.
"By rolling it out using existing infrastructure, we can achieve lower operational costs for rolling out FTTP," the spokesperson said, adding that most of the installation will take place in urban areas.
The majority of the FTTP installation will take place in 'brownfield' areas, which are existing neighbourhoods that already have copper broadband infrastructure, as opposed to 'greenfield' areas, which are new housing developments.
BT's first FTTP trials took place in the greenfield development at Ebbsfleet in Kent. The first brownfield trials are scheduled to begin at Bradwell Abbey in Milton Keynes and Highams Park in London in March.
The precise mix of brownfield and greenfield FTTP deployments "depends on how the UK housing market develops", BT's spokesperson said.
BT originally briefed analysts and investors that it planned to have only a 10 percent mix of FTTP in its fibre plans. The company's decision to step up its FTTP rollout was based partly on certain assurances from the telecoms regulator, Ofcom, according to its spokesperson.
"We've had a number of green lights from Ofcom in terms of the regulatory environment," the spokesperson said. "We are feeling confident in terms of the overall plan." The spokesperson declined to clarify what guideance BT had received.