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Interview – How Openreach is Creating a New Fibre Infrastructure for Wales

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015 (7:39 am) - Score 7,030
testing fibre

In this guest editorial Nicholas Hardiman, an IT consultant who has worked with Internet and Enterprise technologies since the 1990s, interviews Openreach’s (BT) Senior Project Manager, Steve Jones, about the work being done to bring faster “fibre broadband” connectivity to many thousands of new homes and businesses in Wales.

Like many people, my house is in one of those patches of the country where I can practically see my data crawling along the phone line. I’m an IT consultant located in a rural location on the Welsh border. Yes, it’s my own fault for not living in a city.

People like me, living in superslow broadband areas around the country, have all paid attention to government announcements about revolutionizing broadband for quite a few years now and yet we still live in the land of buffering.

The solution for me is the Superfast Cymru project – the Welsh government’s work to speed up the Internet for the whole of Wales, which is working with BT to make “fibre broadband” available to 96% of Wales by the end of 2016. Superfast Cymru began in 2013 and should finally reach my area sometime in the next year.

But what lies beyond the newspaper stories of contracts won and millions spent? What is this project actually doing behind the scenes? I asked Steve Jones, Senior Project Manager (SPM) at Openreach who works out of the Newtown exchange, to describe what is happening and how all the pieces fit together.

What follows is Steve’s brief account, in his own words, of Openreach’s deployment process.

Openreach and Superfast Cymru

The Welsh government own the contract to roll out Superfast Cymru in Wales. BT Group won the contract to run Superfast Cymru. Wales is just one contract – in England they did them by county. Shropshire have a contract, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and so on.

We’ve been running now a couple of years, with the Welsh government contract. Our agreement with the government ends in summer 2016.

Within BT Group, Openreach are the delivery arm. Openreach own the copper and fibre network and are responsible for the build. We split up the contract internally into mid, north and south Wales. I run mid and north, and a colleague runs south Wales. We report into a project director, who has Wales as an overall lead.

Exchanges

Openreach owns the network and is BT’s engineering arm, so we make exchanges live by putting optical equipment in there. We call exchanges “parent exchanges” or “head ends”. We branch out from a parent to the children around it.

We do the head end first. These are larger exchanges – physical buildings. As an example, the town of Presteigne is fed off the Kington exchange. On Anglesey, the exchanges at Amlwch and Bangor feed all of the island.

We’ve done just under 300 exchanges in Wales, so far. We have got exchanges released in every one of those counties. In some places, like Anglesey, every exchange has been enabled. Every exchange there has had at least a cabinet or an FTTP area made live.

Cabinets

After an exchange goes live we put new DSLAMs (the green cabinets) in the area, which will feed the premises. We already have the old copper cabinets all round the exchange, providing copper lines to the houses for their telephony, broadband, etc. We put fibre from the head end into the new cabinet and we link the two cabs together.

cabinet llanon

Ducts, subducts and fibre

We lay the fibre within ducts. They are about a drainpipe size. We try to use the existing drainpipe-sized duct where we can. Within that duct we lay a subduct, which is about the size of a hosepipe. The fibre cable has the diameter of a pen and the fibre is like a hair on your head. We lay the subduct first and put the fibre in afterwards.

The major routes getting from exchange to exchange are called spine routes. A duct leaves an exchange and typically follows the road out in both directions down to the next towns or villages.

We’ve got 3000 kilometers of subduct laid. Every day, nationally, another kilometre or two of subduct goes in. The size of the subduct network is a little hard to confirm until you’ve done it, but it could be another 2000 kilometers.

Cable drums

When engineers leave the exchanges in their vans in the morning, you will see them towing what looks like a little trailer with a big wooden drum. On the drum will be either the subduct or the fibre. Some of the drums are nearly eight foot in diameter.

We buy different size drums for each job. Say we are doing the Presteigne spine to Whitton – we know its 8 kilometres – we order 8 kilometres of fibre and 8 kilometres of subduct.

Boxes

A box is the sunken chamber that gives engineers access to the ducts, not the familiar roadside cabinet. On average these are two hundred meters apart and cover the whole duct network. You see the lids on the road, on the verge and in the footway.

A box can be difficult to find. Quite often the boxes are in the grass verges. People haven’t been in some of these for forty or fifty years so grass and mud has grown over them. In Wrexham industrial estate we had to dig down nearly six foot to find the manhole. They re-generated the industrial estate and built up a big roundabout on top of it. The engineers call the big digger in and there it is at the bottom.

box-difficult-to-find

Rodding from box to box

A couple of Openreach engineers form a rodding gang. They lift the box lids and they try and push a rod from one box to another box. If the rod pops up at the other end, they pull a rope through, then pull the subduct through. They do this from box to box to box.

We’ve had stretches of thirty or forty kilometres. For example, Builth Wells feeds Pant-y-dwr. It goes through Llandrindod Wells, Newbridge, Rhayader and all the way to Pant-y-Dwr.

Clearing a blocked duct

In some places the ducts are blocked. For example, it could be an old clay duct and over the years some tree roots have grown through it. Or maybe someone’s built something on top, like a road sign – and they’ve gone through the duct and crushed it. Or it’s just filled up with silt.

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Nicholas is an an IT consultant who has worked with Internet and Enterprise technologies since the 1990s. He is writting for ISPreview.co.uk in the capacity of a guest author.
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21 Responses
  1. Patrick Cosgrove

    I’d be very grateful if Steve can explain how, the day our green cabinet three miles away went live, sub ” Mb speeds in our village went slower and stayed slower and developed a lag, rather like satellite. My ISP says there’s nothing wrong and those with BT have had the same reply.

  2. Sledgehammer

    I had this problem when I changed from ADSL to ADSL2+. All I needed was a router/modem that would cope with my new service, which I eventually got from my ISP.

    • PATRICK@COSGR.PLUS.COM

      The difference is that I don’t have a new service, unless fibre to a cabinet three miles away counts as a new service.

  3. Nice piece, it would be good to know the number of completed cabs a week.

  4. John

    Nice to read something that explains the huge task Britain has in its hands.

  5. MikeW

    There’s an interesting snippet hidden in there… that the fibre spines run from exchange to exchange.

    That’s interesting, because it gives the possibility for cabinets to be dual-parented, which adds resilience. This concept was floated by someone in BT as part of this presentation:
    http://www.ecoc2010.org/contents/attached/c20/WS_5_Rafel.pdf

  6. PATRICK@COSGR.PLUS.COM

    Here’s another thought. “People haven’t been in some of these for forty or fifty years so grass and mud has grown over them.” So that means that we’re paying BT for essential maintenance that they’ve failed to carry out. There’s a line between poles near us that’s been lying on the ground right by a main road for at two months now. It’s been reported. One person who lives nearby was told by an Openreach engineer that they’re tough so it’s fine.

    • Steve Jones

      You do know those are just manhole covers to sunken chambers and that there’s probably no reason to access these from one decade to another unless there’s a fault or a new cable to lay? Ofcom regulate wholesale prices, and they always apply pressure to minimise costs. Spending a lot of money regulary trimming all the vegetation round hundred of thousands of manhole covers, when it’s probably not going to get touched for many years, is not “essential maintenance”. It’s a waste of money. In any event, it’s probably just a minority as most chambers are likely to be in urban areas. Of more importance is the regular checking of telegraph poles as they do degrade and present a potential safety hazard.

      I suppose it could be done if Ofcom were willing to allow the extra costs to be included in the wholesale rates, but I rather think they won’t.

    • FibreFred

      I’m chuckling at the thought of people going around “checking” thousands of miles of ducts and poles for “just in cases”…

    • Steve Jones

      @FF

      The telephone poles are, of course, regularly checked (albeit “regular” doesn’t mean “frequently”) as they do degrade. But clearing the vegetation round a manhole in the roadside verge when it might not be touched for thirty years is hardly justified.

      nb. no relative to the project manager interviewed here in any way. We are just a common tribe.

    • GNewton

      @Steve Jones: “I suppose it could be done if Ofcom were willing to allow the extra costs to be included in the wholesale rates, but I rather think they won’t.”

      What are the real wholesale cost for BT? How do you know BT is not ripping off CP customers at the current wholesale costs? How long does it take before a local loop has been fully repaid, and how much are the real average maintenance thereafter?

    • Steve Jones

      @Gnewton

      I rather think you ought to address that question to Ofcom don’t you think, as they are the ones who are responsible for regulating prices. They have got far more access to confidential information about BT’s costs than is in the public domain. For example, they will have direct access to BT’s detailed accounts and such things as payroll, rates, building leases, power, contractor costs, motor transport, IT and many other such costs.

      In any event, that is not the only way that Ofcom work out regulatory costs. They also have information about costs in comparable countries an establish benchmarks that way. There is, after all, no guarantee that working on actuals is sufficient guarantee that the system is operate efficiently.

      Indeed, if you want to check yourself then it’s possible to find out wholesale costs for the equivalent products to MPF and the like in other, similar, EU countries.

  7. salman khan

    You do know those are just manhole covers to sunken chambers and that there’s probably no reason to access these from one decade to another unless there’s a fault or a new cable to lay? Ofcom regulate wholesale prices, and they always apply pressure to minimise costs. Spending a lot of money regulary trimming all the vegetation round hundred of thousands of manhole covers, when it’s probably not going to get touched for many years, is not “essential maintenance”. It’s a waste of money. In any event, it’s probably just a minority as most chambers are likely to be in urban areas. Of more importance is the regular checking of telegraph poles as they do degrade and present a potential safety hazard.
    i watch there full movie on youtube
    I suppose it could be done if Ofcom were willing to allow the extra costs to be included in the wholesale rates, but I rather think they won’t.

  8. Paul Webb

    I never realised how complicated this was to do, what about those landowners – they could be really awkward if they wanted to be, what would happen then, compulsory purchase orders?

    • X66yh

      Options are
      1. Negotiate with landowner for a ‘wayleave’ granting rights to place equipment and to have access to it for maintenance – also applies to cables.

      2. Go an alternative route!

      3. Take the nuclear option: Issue a statutory notice as all utilities can stating there is no alternative route, the service is for the general public good and therefore we are using our powers to enter onto the private land. There are details and provisions in the relevant acts for telecoms, water, elec, gas etc for the length of notice on the landowner required and remedies though the courts for the landowner to object.

      I live on a private road (so own up to the centre of the road) and I have in the past had a statutory notice issued on to me by a water company wishing to put in a new main across the property front. There was no negotiation or discussion….simply a recorded delivery notice to all residents on the road saying this is what is going to happen….end of story.

  9. Craski

    Nice article. Anybody know the timescale for the FTTRN trials? I’m on a long line so particularly keen to know how long lines will be tackled, long lines seem to be elephant in the room at the moment.

  10. TheFacts

    Where is Mr Wispa who often commented about broadband in Wales?

  11. Lovely and well-written bit of PR from the company that normally makes a huge point of saying we are not their customers and treating us as mushrooms when our lines need repairing urgently. That’s the trouble with BT. BT thinks PR is a substitute for communication. Telling us their technical project milestones (e.g. installation of a DSLAM) on their website is utterly misleading to business people making judgements about whether to bid for work, installing Satellite etc. We need user milestones, which will obviously still be best estimates, but grounded in 2 years project management experience of the gap between planned and actual connection for users. Not this repeated announcement of an expected date and then no information when the date comes and goes and our ISPs say we don’t know what’s happening either. Ask him when they’ll give us real-time information not PR guff.

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