As the U.K.’s political parties sweat their policy wonks to come up with voter-friendly manifestos ahead of the General Election in May, incumbent telco BT has dropped a reminder that broadband upgrades will never be big enough nor fast enough for digital’s cutting edge unless politicians find the willpower and public money to chuck at future-proofing the problem.
BT has today announced plans for what it’s dubbing its “ultrafast broadband vision” — aka how it plans to upgrade its existing fibre network to increase broadband speeds over the next five to ten years, with deployment due to start in the financial year 2016/17 — subject to successful pilots of the new tech. It’s not announcing any new money to fund the upgrade at this point, with a BT spokesman confirming the plans would fall “within the current capex envelope” for fibre broadband.
Under the telco’s plans, faster U.K. broadband speeds would be achieved for a majority of the population by squeezing more megabits out of a fibre-copper mix, allowing BT to focus on upgrading its fibre-to-the-cabinet infrastructure, via a third-way tech — called “G.fast” — rather than spending the much larger sums involved in expanding full fibre-to-the-premises (i.e. where the fibre line is dug in all the way to a customer’s door).
BT has previously shown this G.fast fibre-copper mix working from distribution points between the cabinet and the customer’s premises, but is now saying it can achieve faster speeds right from the cabinet — although it still has to conduct large-scale customer trials to prove the deployment in the wild.
“We know the technology is capable, so it’s just looking at how we deliver that on a larger scale,” the spokesman noted. He added that the tech also allows for “flexibility” in deployment — so BT could run fibre far closer to customers in some areas than in others, depending on the various costs/ROI involved.
BT is talking in terms of expecting G.fast to offer “initial speeds of a few hundred megabits per second to millions of homes and businesses by 2020”. And increasing thereafter to “up to 500Mbps” for “a majority” of the U.K. population “within a decade”. So not exactly a startup-paced revolution. But that would likely require the government to funnel (more) taxpayer money into the mix.
Would more public money help accelerate the U.K. getting faster broadband? BT’s spokesman vacillated on this question but finally said the upgrade timeframe would likely remain as is, given how the incumbent structures its fibre deployments, but did suggest that taxpayer cash might be a way to widen the scope of the deployments — to enable more of the population to gain access to the higher speeds (should they wish to subscribe).
“[Government money] probably wouldn’t mean it would be faster [to deploy G.fast upgrades] as we’re still rolling our fibre program and as that winds down G.fast will deployment will wind up hence we believe it will stay in broadly the same capex envelope. It might mean the scope of any program could be larger, however but it is a significant engineering task,” he said.
Taxpayer money has been used to that end — and funneled into BT’s coffers — with current-gen U.K. broadband. The company is perhaps envisaging a repeat of that process, although the spokesman added: “The extent to which public funding might come in to play is not something that we have a view on in the current time.”
Whatever the pace of G.fast deployment, BT’s “vision”/business plan looks set to cap the U.K.’s broadband speeds at well below 1Gbps for a majority of users for the next decade and beyond, while leaving more remote/less economically attractive areas lagging further still in the speed stakes, as is the case now. Bottom line: the U.K. will have a mixed-estate of customer fixed-line connectivity which digital businesses will have to grapple with for the foreseeable future. (Unless 5G speeds into the frame to save all that fibre-line trench digging.)
Others are clearly thinking bigger than BT on fixed-line broadband. Making a series of digital policy recommendations last year, an advisory group to the U.K. Labour party, called Labour Digital, suggested a target of “nationwide access to 1Gbps broadband in homes, businesses and public buildings, with 10Gbps services for tech clusters, as early as possible in the next parliament”. It remains to be seen whether such a target makes it into the Labour Party manifesto.
Across the U.K. the current average broadband speed is just 23Mbps, according to telco regulator Ofcom. While BT’s top-line speed for its current gen fibre to the cabinet broadband product is 80Mbps, and the few full fibre to the premises deployments it has rolled out (such as in Milton Keynes) can offer up to 330Mbps. The U.K.’s other fibre broadband network, Virgin Media, covers just over half of U.K. properties — and has a current headline speed of up to 152Mbps.
Up to 1Gbps…
The spectre of ‘up to 1Gbps’ broadband is also invoked in BT’s “ultrafast” manifesto — a possible future product that’s likely to be focused on the SME market, according to the spokesman. But this “premium” offering comes without any concrete commitments, pricing or deployment timeframes at this point:
[BT] is also planning to develop a premium fibre broadband service for those residential and business customers who want even faster broadband, of up to 1Gbps.
“We’re exploring options for a premium 1Gbps service,” the spokesman added. “There are various things we can look at. We’re looking at deploying fibre all the way to the customer’s premises, as we currently do with fibre on demand, but we’re also quite keen to see what speeds G.fast can deliver as it evolves. So we’re keeping our options open there.”
All BT’s upgrade plans remain dependent on the success of pilots of the G.fast tech — which it will be kicking off this summer, in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, and Gosforth, Newcastle, where BT will be asking around 4,000 homes and businesses to participate in trials. The G.fast broadband standard itself was approved by the ITU just last month.
“We are looking to re-use or co-locate with our existing fibre infrastructure where possible, to reduce the need for new kit,” said the BT spokesman, discussing the pilots. “We’re also working to reduce the size of any additional cabinets that might be needed.”
“During the trials we will be testing new ‘micro cabinets’ that are about the size of a biscuit tin and can be attached to telegraph poles, walls of buildings or placed in footway boxes. Max range 400m, possibly further. Pilots will give us more accurate performance assessments,” he added.
Yes: the U.K.’s next broadband ‘revolution’ could be accelerating to your router from out of a biscuit-tin-sized node…
Commenting on the upgrade plans in a statement, BT CEO Gavin Patterson added: “We believe G.fast is the key to unlocking ultrafast speeds and we are prepared to upgrade large parts of our network should the pilots prove successful. That upgrade will depend however on there continuing to be a stable regulatory environment that supports investment.”