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

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015 (7:39 am) - Score 8,476
testing fibre

As the engineers are rodding from box to box, if they can’t get through they first call the de-silting gang. They have a hose, which propels itself along the duct using pressurised water and tries to clear the silt. 50% of the time it gets through.

If the duct is blocked by something that can’t be moved with water, the engineers measure out with a wheel the distance from both ends. They send a report in and we get a service contractor to go out at a later date and excavate at that spot to see the damage.

Normally the contractor sees the duct is damaged. They can clean out the dirt and rubble, and work with the rodding gang to make sure they can get a sub-duct through. They put a repair collar on and they reinstate. If you’re driving along the road and you see a patch of tarmac two foot square, that’s typically a repair job.

Laying new duct

If the rodding gang have repeated blockages, that’s where we lay a whole new piece of duct. We have options. Do we have to lay it in the road, which is time consuming and delays traffic? Or can we lay duct in a verge?

We will look to using the verge instead of digging the road up. Nobody wants us to dig up the road. Digging in the grass is quicker than cutting tarmac. But sometimes the verge is full of other utilities or drainage. It’s not always possible to take the best option.

In some areas we are attempting to do mole-plough. A tractor pulls behind it a blade in the dirt. The blade ploughs the earth and behind it lays the duct. They reverse the tractor over it to smooth it all down again. Within a month you wouldn’t know they’ve been there.

Blowing the fibre

The engineers connect up the lengths of sub-duct so it’s airtight. After reach the point in the next village where they break out into a number of cabinets. They blow the fibre with pressurized air through the subduct. Because its all sealed, the air pushes the fibre through that sub-duct all the way to the end. If it’s all tidy, with good joints and no leakage of air, they can blow a good couple of kilometres.

Taking fibre up a pole or down a hole

On some of the routes fibre is up poles. It goes up the nearest telegraph pole, and spans the poles into the housing estate. Even some of the spine routes are overhead. 90% of the spine routes go underground – only about 10% go on the poles.

We have to check the poles. Sometimes trees have grown over, or the poles are old and too short.

telegraph pole and bt engineer

Building the new cabinet

Work is happening to get ducts there, fibre is blown in to the high street. Simultaneously, we are trying to get the new fibre cabinet up. It’s got to be near the existing cabinet so the surveyor looks for a location. We want to avoid stuff like private land, triple SI areas [Sites of Special Scientific Interest] and areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. They find the location, they send the paperwork into the councils, and make sure everyone is happy on the highways.

If it’s privately owned land, we approach the owner for a wayleave. If its not privately owned, like a highways-owned street, we can proceed to put the cab up.

The civil contractor builds up the base of the new DSLAM, with its duct entry points, and earthing solution. Later they drop the green cabinet on it. They lay track between the existing cabinet and the new cabinet, because you have to join the two together to extend the new fibre to the existing cabinet. One of the last activities is the power company providing the connection to the new DSLAM.

Fibre-to-the-Cabinet architecture (hybrid fibre and copper)

After all the work from enabling the exchange to blowing the fibre is done, FTTC is complete. By this point you’ve gone from the exchange, through a couple of villages, to a street cabinet and onto another cabinet.

FTTC is one of three kinds of technical architecture – there are also FTTP and FTTC-exchange only.

Fibre-to-the-Premises architecture (pure fibre optic)

If we do FTTP, we do the same journey into the town, but we don’t go to a cabinet. We use equipment sunk into a hole or up a pole. We have to go further than just to the cabinet, taking the network into a housing estate, and provide our own structures at different points to feed the different houses.

FTTC-exchange only architecture

FTTC-exchange only is a flavour of FTTC. An exchange may have copper lines leaving it directly and feeding houses in the near vicinity. We have to re-route the copper lines, and groom them into a new a cabinet. Then we put a fibre DSLAM next to the copper cabinet and connect the two together. We are putting two structures up – the copper cabinet and the DSLAM.

New remote node technology (FTTrN etc.)

A remote node piggybacks off the DSLAM. You put a DSLAM in a village with nice green, a church, a pub and all those sort of things, and all the copper is nicely central. But then you’ve got a hamlet of twenty houses a mile or two away. It will be too far away to pick up the speeds of the cabinet by the pub.

We can put a remote node in that little hamlet. A remote node needs power and fibre. It is smaller than a cabinet – it can fit down a hole or up a pole.

[ISPreview Editors Note: FTTrN is still only a trial technology]

New all-in-one cabinet technology

Rather than putting up a DSLAM and a copper cabinet, we can just put one cabinet up, and it’s all built into the same shell. In my patch in mid and north Wales, the first one of these is going up in Hundred House at the moment.

With all of these things – if its different, a new template needs to be knocked up for the base. The engineers who make it all work need training on how to put copper into it and where the fibre goes.

Direct-labour employees, contractors and subcontractors

Hundreds of people work on this project. I’ve got a team of project managers working for myself, and so does my colleague working in south Wales. Under the project managers we’ve got field coordinators. A project manager will handle a number of exchanges, and a field co-ord is his eyes and ears.

We’ve got a number of our own direct-labour employees. You see the Openreach vans driving around. Openreach guys don’t do civil engineering activities – they don’t dig any holes. Openreach do cabling work – blowing, jointing and slicing.

Openreach engineers tend to work in my own patch. Our own mid-Wales guys work out of larger exchanges like Newtown. In North Wales they are in Bangor, Chester and Oswestry.

We use a partner, Carillion telent. They subcontract out to local civil engineering firms across Wales, such as RPO Williams in Anglesey and HT Installations in Carmarthen. They are the ones who dig the holes, clear the blockages or lay some track, put the cabinets up and all that sort of work. Some of them also do cabling work.

People will see lots of engineering. It’s obvious when it’s Openreach vans, especially if they are Superfast Cymru liveried. If it’s a subcontractor doing the work, people will only know if they read the gate cards – the little laminated signs around the work.

We go everywhere

Most people will only come into contact with the Superfast Cymru project by using a postcode checker, their Facebook page or their web site. When they pass by a van, who appreciates what they are doing? Away from the consumer side, the time, money and resources required behind the scenes to lay a fibre-optic network across the country.

We go everywhere. Some people have telephones but not running water. If the water company hasn’t got to them, they are not easy to get to. But we will aim to meet the contract, so we will get to the people who haven’t got running water.

I’m proud to be part of what feels like the largest engineering project in Wales. I love this job. My grandkids wouldn’t know what it’s like to suffer with less than superfast broadband speed.

Leave a Comment
21 Responses
  1. Avatar 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. Avatar 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.

    • Avatar 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. Avatar John

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

  5. Avatar 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. Avatar 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.

    • Avatar 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.

    • Avatar FibreFred

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

    • Avatar 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.

    • Avatar 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?

    • Avatar 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. Avatar 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. Avatar 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?

    • Avatar 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. Avatar 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. Avatar 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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