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UK Moots Switching Off Copper Phone Networks and Fostering FTTP

Wednesday, Aug 6th, 2014 (1:48 pm) - Score 2,275

The Government has today launched a new Digital Communications Infrastructure Strategy consultation document, which forms part of their effort to develop a long term strategy for helping to ensure that the United Kingdom has the “best connectivity” by 2025-2030 (phone, broadband, mobile etc.).

The consultation, which is focused on gathering evidence from the industry and follows the first announcement of their plans in February 2014 (here), starts off by reiterating the current infrastructure goals (e.g. 95% of the population to be within reach of fixed line superfast broadband and 4G services being rolled out to 98% of the population by 2017 etc.) and then begins to set out a series of questions; some of which are quite interesting.


The consultation does not prescribe a particular approach or set down any goals, although it does pose a number of questions that touch upon interesting scenarios and forward-looking trains of thought, which we’re not usually accustomed to seeing from Governments (most struggle to see beyond the length of their own term in office).

On the one hand it suggests that a modest growth in requirements, assuming that happens, would mean that the Government’s existing superfast broadband strategy will have “delivered a minimum of 24Mbps so that networks are likely to be able to meet the likely demand for consumers and small businesses“.

But on the other it also considers whether “switching off copper networks” is desirable from a commercial and a policy objective and also calls for respondents to consider whether the Universal Service Obligation (USO) needs to be extended to include broadband (currently broadband only comes with a 2Mbps for all “commitment“, which is not legally binding).

5.21 The future of copper networks

As the coverage and level of service available on non-copper networks increases the government is likely at some point to need to consider with operators and the regulator whether switching off copper networks is desirable from a commercial and a policy objective. This may need to take into account how best to encourage consumers to switch to non-copper based broadband services prior to this. The benefit of switching off copper networks is that this may further incentivise investment by operators to increase coverage of non-copper networks, and also act as a spur to replace last mile copper networks, or allow substitution with mobile or fixed wireless services. It should be noted that existing copper networks are privately owned assets.

The government would need to be sure that any switch off of copper networks would not leave any consumers without the availability of communications services, including access to the emergency services and also that any other critical systems (e.g. for monitoring and reporting on other utilities networks) could be migrated to non-copper networks. In addition, the setting of a date would need to be sufficiently far in the future that it would not act as a disincentive to current planned investments, and would minimise the cost of stranding any existing investments in the copper network, including where investment has been made in LLU exchanges.

Sadly it’s not entirely clear from the document whether or not the Government understands that BT’s dominant Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC) technology is also reliant upon the existing copper telephone network (everything after the cabinet is still done using VDSL over the old copper line to your home).


Never the less it’s quite normal for older services to be retired as new ones surface (e.g. older 20CN based ADSL products have tended to be replaced in areas where 21CN based ADSL2+ / WBC lines are available), which usually helps to save money and hopefully make the network work more efficiently. Similarly we can easily envisage ADSL2+ lines one day being replaced by FTTC as standard, which would make any debate about uptake somewhat moot.

On the other hand completely switching off copper, which given current developments still seems likely to be a very long way off (well it is a strategy for 2025/30), may one day become a plausible approach. The government has also considered the need to move everybody on to a true fibre optic (FTTH/P/B) network.

5.24 Future investment needs at a micro level should be determined by the market place and, where appropriate, encouraged at a macro level by Government, and supported and facilitated by a suitable regulatory regime under an independent regulator.

The future investment challenge for the UK includes how to deliver, for example:

• Infrastructure that provides for the speed, coverage, capacity, resilience and quality of service that users will demand;

• Moving from the current largely FTTC based infrastructure to the majority of buildings having an access to an internet connection offering FTTP like speeds;

• Greater symmetry in broadband connections to meet the evolving delivery of services across the internet, particularly cloud technology;

• Ubiquitous mobile coverage offering fibre-like speeds and resilience, delivered through 4G and 5G wireless infrastructure, which may require the densification of mobile networks supported by backhaul capacity; and

• Underpinning the areas set out in the Government’s Information Economy strategy.

The consultation is expected to run for an 8 week period and, given that the Government will use this to develop their strategy, they won’t be publishing a separate response. A final report is then expected during December 2014, which should come just in time for the 2015 General Election to help fuel the campaign trail with big promises and precious little detail on how they’ll be accomplished. But perhaps we’re being too pessimistic, although politics tends to have that effect.

In any case we’re pleased to see some difficult questions being asked, although it remains to be seen how they’ll end up being answered.


Digital Communications Infrastructure Strategy consultation

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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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