The Fibre for Middleton group, which started campaigning for better broadband earlier this year and has been working with BT to get several street cabinets in the Leeds suburb upgraded to support its 80Mbps capable FTTC tech, has questioned the operators commercial viability assessments after finding contradictions in its methodology.
BTOpenreach are due to upgrade the local telephone exchange to support their latest Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC) based superfast broadband service in December 2012, which could potentially help those in the Middleton area where speeds of between 0.3Mbps and 2.5Mbps appear to be the norm. If only it was that simple.
Carl Thomas, Fibre for Middleton Campaigner, told ISPreview.co.uk:
“We have been working towards persuading Openreach to deploy their fibre throughout the area for several months, through meetings with them, local and national government, volunteers knocking door to door, a poster campaign, an online campaign and encouraging and registering interest on their behalf.
We have done a great deal to sell Superfast Broadband in an area where 2Mb speeds, available since the early 2000s, are the extreme exception rather than the rule, yet the area is on the outskirts of a major city which is growing and developing rapidly with these new estates a testament to that growth.”
The exchange upgrade is only part of the equation because FTTC technology is more dependent upon local street cabinets being similarly updated. Sadly some cabinets will inevitably end up being classified as not commercially unviable for such work, which can result in many areas being excluded from the rollout.
As part of the recent talks BT initially confirmed that several cabinets on the estate would be eligible for rollout within their existing £2.5bn private investment strategy (i.e. cabinets 22, 40, 43, 60 and 90), which was apparently thanks to a change in the way that BT assessed its cabinets. But BT also advised that they could not go ahead with cabinets 62, 82 and 91 because they were not deemed to be economically viable. So far, so normal.
Carl Thomas said:
“Throughout this period we have been repeatedly told that some cabinets are just not economically viable despite the inevitably high uptake, given the poor quality of services currently available.”
According to the campaign, BT initially indicated that they would be willing to revisit the issue if the group surveyed local people to help identify how much interest actually existed. After successfully completing this work the group was then told by BT that they would instead need to seek funding via the state aid Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) process; despite the possibility of additional cash potentially coming from a local supermarket and several housing authorities.
At this point the group began to cast a more questionable eye over BT’s economic viability assessments and identified several apparent contradictions. In particular, the group noted an interesting comparison between BT’s rejection of local cabinet 82, which is believed to connect around 300 properties, and the planned upgrade of a considerably smaller cabinet (53) in Haywards Heath (West Sussex). Cabinet 53 serves 143 homes in an area that appears to be filled with wealthy homes and swimming pools.
The BTWholesale checker states that “cabinet  is planned to have WBC FTTC by 31st December 2012” (check performed on a line connected to the Haywards Heath cabinet). Indeed planning permission for the FTTC upgrade of cabinet 53 was submitted in February 2012. But oddly Openreach’s complaints department told the campaign that neither 53 nor the local 82 cabinet were due to be upgraded because they’re not in BT’s commercial “footprint” as they have “a low total [of] homes passed”.
Carl Thomas added:
“With these statements ringing loud and clear in our ears it’s extremely disappointing to see a cabinet in Haywards Heath which serves fewer premises than at least one of our ‘uneconomical’ cabinets receiving service and even more dismaying that Openreach themselves don’t seem aware that they are enabling this cabinet.”
ISPreview.co.uk contacted Openreach to query the situation and have been told that cabinet 53 was/is deemed to be commercially viable but its upgrade is likely to have been delayed due to issues with the power supply, ducting costs and access rights.
Meanwhile the Fibre for Middleton group is left to ponder why such a small cabinet looks set to be upgraded when a larger one like 82 is not. A spokesperson for Openreach similarly told one local resident that cabinet 82 “is a small cab with a small number of premise connected to it. Our calculations showed that it would not be commercially viable to upgrade.”
In fairness it should be said that every area is different and all will inevitably face their own unique and often unexpected challenges (restricted access, blocked ducts, power supply costs, road closures etc.), some of which could make it cheaper to upgrade certain cabinets with fewer lines than others with potentially more lines. The figures of homes passed or directly connected aren’t the only gauges that BT uses to make such an assessment.
The Fibre for Middleton campaign have now pinned their hopes to the still uncertain prospect of public funding from the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) office, which could be used to help achieve some of what might potentially have been done without needing any state aid.
UPDATE 2nd November 2012
Friday’s article explains a bit more about the issue of cabinet costs and power supply issues.