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UK Top 5 Largest BT Telephone Exchanges Still Without Superfast Broadband

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012 (1:06 am) - Score 6,750

It might surprise some people to learn that BT’s £2.5bn roll out of superfast broadband services (FTTC/P), which ultimately aims to cover 66% of the UK by the end of 2014, has managed to overlook several large areas in some of the country’s biggest towns.

Over the past six months ISPreview.co.uk has received various messages of concern from people, often those living in large to medium sized urban towns (e.g. Darlington), whom feel that they have been unjustly ignored by the operators deployment.

BT’s current effort, which has so far been privately funded, is now at an advanced stage (i.e. they’ve nearly announced enough exchange upgrades to reach their 66% target) and thus you might expect them to have already covered all of the most economically viable areas. This, for the most part, has proven to be true. But a quick analysis of the operators programme found a small batch of telephone exchanges that, some would argue, should have been announced already.

So, to simplify, we’ve reduced this down to a top five of only those exchanges that have more than 25,000 local connections but less than 45,000. Take note that some towns and cities are served by several telephone exchanges, thus the following will not always represent the towns total coverage but rather a large section. Meanwhile smaller and more rural exchanges are increasingly likely to be tackled under the future Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) initiative with state aid support, although BT has done many smaller exchanges too.

Top 5 Largest Exchanges Without BTs FTTx (Active or Planned)
1. Darlington (NEDL) – Estimated Connections 43,000
2. East Kilbride (WSEKI) – 34,000
3. Dudley Castle (CMDD) – 28,500
4. Wakefield (MYWAK) – 28,000
5. North Shields (NENS) – 27,000

Further investigation revealed that each exchange has already been upgraded to support BT’s latest 21CN network and all sport a variety of unbundled (LLU) ISPs. On top of that Virgin Media also has a presence within the coverage for each of the above locations. All of this reflects a competitive local market [Market 3], which is quite common for any urban area of such scale. In addition almost all of the above exchanges are in Northern England (i.e. Dudley Castle is a bit more midlands).

Taking a closer look

Sadly there’s not a lot of reliable public data concerning service uptake and performance at specific exchanges, although Ofcom does have information on several of the related exchange areas. For example, Ofcom’s data shows that Darlington has an average local modem “sync” speed of 7.8Mbps, while 14.5% can’t get access to speeds of 2Mbps+ and superfast broadband services are available to 83% (i.e. mostly via Virgin Media) with general broadband take-up standing at 62%.

The local situation in Darlington is similar to most but not all of the other four exchange areas (e.g. Wakefield has considerably less superfast coverage) and might lead some to suspect that Virgin’s strength would make these areas less attractive for BT. In reality there have been many locations like this that BT has already upgraded, which makes it difficult to be sure of the operators position.

The good news is that each area has already developed a fairly competitive local market and most have had a 21CN network in place for several years, which means that they’re highly likely to still be included in one of BT’s final few roll-out announcements (i.e. as part of their private £2.5bn investment).

One final check that we performed was to look back over the results from BT’s Race to Infinity campaign, which last year pledged a free upgrade for six communities (telephone exchanges) where demand for its superfast broadband (FTTC) product was highest (Race to Infinity Winners). Interestingly none of the above five even got close to the 1,000 local votes threshold (most had less than 200), which might be down just as much to poor local publicity as it could be a more general issue of weak demand.

A spokesperson for Openreach, which conducts the roll out of related BT services, agreed that there were a “number of factors involved“, such as the cost of power, backhaul and the need to make a viable business case. Openreach told us that they also had at least one more announcement to go for their commercial deployment before moving on to the publicly funded plan (i.e. coverage that extends beyond the current 66% target (possibly going up to 90% by 2017)). Unfortunately they would not be drawn on the specific reasons for each individual area.

As a final note it’s also worth pointing out that FTTC technology, which dominates BT’s roll out but only takes the fibre optic cable as far as your local street cabinet, will on average cover 85% of homes and businesses within an enabled exchange area (here). Hence the exchange upgrade is only part of the picture, with cabinet coverage also playing a very significant part.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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