Few things are more frustrating than finding out that you can’t get the latest 40-80Mbps Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC) broadband service installed because the local Openreach (BT) Street Cabinet is full to capacity, which can sometimes result in a lengthy wait for an upgrade.
Over the years we’ve received plenty of complaints and questions about this issue, particularly since we ran a related article to highlight some of the top reasons why people can’t order an FTTC (VDSL2) connection despite being covered by the service (here).
Take for example the case of Marlon, whose local FTTC cabinet in Eastleigh (Hampshire, England) has been full since February 2015. As a result Marlon can only order a bog standard 4Mbps capable ADSL based broadband connection until the issue is resolved, assuming it ever gets resolved.
Suffice to say that cabinets which run out of spare ports / lines are a known bugbear, although in the grander scheme of things the volume of such incidents is said to be low. Furthermore it’s often in Openreach’s interest (both financially, and from a reputation point of view) to keep these issues to a minimum, but practical and economic realities can also present some obstacles.
At this point it’s important to understand that Openreach can deploy Street Cabinets of varying different physical sizes and each of those will support a Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexer (DSLAM) network device, which can usually handle several Line Cards.
Street cabinets tend to hold up to 4 or 6 line cards, which depending upon cabinet size can usually cater for up to 288 subscribers when full (per cabinet). However Openreach has recently introduced the ability to upgrade their large Huawei street cabinets (H200), which increases customer capacity to 384 (here).
At this point some people may complain that Openreach occasionally appears to install a much smaller FTTC cabinet than the number of premises or level of local demand in a specific area might suggest they need. Indeed we’ve already seen how uptake can sometimes run ahead of expectations (example), but of course it can just as easily run well below.
On the question of determining which cabinet size to use, Openreach clarified that they first consider how many customers are served by each cabinet and then forecast the likely demand based on a “range of data” available to them at the time. “We follow exactly the same principles whether a cabinet is part of our commercial roll-out or a BDUK project, with an emphasis on achieving the best value for money,” said the operator.
Sometimes all Openreach needs to do in order to add more capacity to a cabinet is to simply introduce an extra line card, which should normally only take a few days. But you can only add so many of those cards before the space is consumed and thus ISPreview.co.uk set out to understand how the operator approaches more complex upgrades.
A Spokesperson for Openreach told ISPreview.co.uk:
“Openreach has a dedicated team responsible for proactively monitoring take-up across all of our fibre cabinets.
The team considers a range of data to pinpoint exactly where and when more capacity is needed, and in the vast majority of cases we’re able to increase the capacity of a cabinet in plenty of time before it fills up.
On a small number of occasions, cabinets do reach capacity before we can upgrade them, usually as a result of an unexpected spike in demand or difficulties we face in adding the capacity needed..
Having said that, we do appreciate how frustrating that can be for the people affected and we work very hard to resolve these issues as quickly as possible.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly Openreach would not tell us how many FTTC areas had currently run out of capacity, but they did give us an idea of time-scale for the “much smaller number of cases” where civil engineering work is required to install more equipment (e.g. adding an additional cabinet).
In those cases Openreach can be dependent on a number of external factors such as wayleave agreements, planning and traffic management, or the need to employ specialist skills. As a result the operator told us that it takes around 6-9 months on average to resolve such problems.
One often overlooked challenge in all this is that areas being upgraded to FTTC through the Government’s State Aid supported Broadband Delivery UK programme, which usually reflects a mix of public and private funding, cannot benefit from state aid when needing to upgrade a cabinet that has reached full capacity.
“The cost of increasing cabinet capacity is met entirely by Openreach whilst gain-share mechanisms continue to apply to any connections enabled by that investment,” said an Openreach spokesperson to ISPreview.co.uk.
The purpose of the BDUK scheme is to help infrastructure operators’, such as Openreach, to roll-out their superfast broadband networks into areas where it would have otherwise been considered commercially unviable to achieve via private investment alone.
The inability to use State Aid for such upgrades can thus present a few problems, not only economically but also with how this impacts whether or not an area (i.e. one that has had FTTC installed and then reached full capacity) should remain marked as having “fibre available” on the local authority’s coverage maps.
An Openreach Spokesperson added:
“Openreach and local authorities will jointly mark an area as complete as soon as people can order a fibre service there. In the small number of cases where cabinets fill up, we update the Openreach ‘Where and when‘ website to say that: ‘Your area is enabled…but demand is high on your cabinet right now. This means you may not be able to order fibre today but we’re working to increase capacity. Please check back for an update.'”
On this topic it would be all too easy to say that BDUK / BT could have spent more to ensure plenty of future capacity, but uptake could just as easily fall well below the forecast and this might have made the roll-out more expensive at the cost of lower network coverage. Most of the time Openreach will get their forecasts right, but that is little comfort to those unable to order FTTC due to a full cabinet.
At this point we should add that the AVERAGE cost per cabinet completed to date (FTTC only) is currently £26,500 under Phase 1 of the BDUK programme (here), which has already helped to make superfast broadband (24Mbps+) available to 90% of the UK. It’s not a cheap thing to add, especially in small rural communities.
Finally, we asked Openreach what sort of industry or policy changes might make it easier for them to add new FTTC capacity into BDUK supported areas that have full cabinets. Openreach said they’d welcome any changes to speed up and simplify external factors like complex / expensive wayleave agreements (the Government is currently trying to standardise these, but it faces a tricky fight with land owners), planning and traffic management.
According to recent information released by Openreach to ISPs, at the time of writing some 1,970 out of 77,033 live cabinets were full to capacity and awaiting upgrades (around 2.6%).