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Fluidata ISP Boss Warns of Phantom UK “Fibre Broadband” Availability

Thursday, September 24th, 2015 (8:57 am) - Score 1,496

The Managing Director of Fluidata, Piers Daniell, has highlighted one of the most frustrating and often overlooked problems with BTOpenreach’s roll-out of Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC) based “fibre broadband” services. When the service is technically available, but due to a capacity shortage you can’t get it.

Every one of Openreach’s street cabinets has a limit, most obviously in terms of how many active customer lines they can handle (e.g. a few hundred subscribers for the big cabs or less for the smaller units) before more cabinets / capacity needs to be built. Other problems may also exist, such as with the need for a better local power supply etc.

In any case it’s well known that cabinets, especially those in areas where the demand from local premises may quickly outstrip supply, can and do run out of capacity (example). The result is that Openreach and ISPs cannot connect extra customers until more capacity / cabinets are built and sadly this can sometimes take a very long time to resolve.

Piers Daniell said:

One such issue was recently highlighted to me by a neighbour who said to me that he had finally got ‘fibre broadband’ as it had just been enabled in our building. “No”, I replied, it has been in our building since January 2014 when BT first enabled the local cabinet. What has transpired is that while our building has been enabled, the actual cabinet quickly ran out of capacity and it has taken over a year to deliver more capacity to it so that the rest of the residents could receive the service.

So is that due to BT being overstretched, or possibly a lack of hardware available? Or cynically could you read into this that actually on paper, at least, our building has been enabled and so therefore met a target, even if not many people can actually order it.

The same could be said where I live in the country. For the past nine months, I have been inspecting a shiny new cabinet that has appeared at the end of my drive. ‘Fibre Broadband is coming’ said a BT engineer to me who came to fix my broken phone line. Maybe, but at the moment all I can see is an empty box in preparation for it.

Are we going to get the same issue in our village, that only a few will be able to enjoy it until it reaches capacity when it is finally enabled? And has the very presence of the cabinet thwarted any plan from an alternative fibre provider from investing into connecting up our village?

In fairness this is not an exact science and Openreach can only estimate the expected level of demand within any given area or period of time, while the need to deliver a return on their investment will always make an operator more inclined to be cautious with how much additional capacity they initially build-in.

On the flip side full FTTC cabinets are also technically good news as they show that strong demand does exist, particularly when it occurs in areas where doubts about local demand may have previously been expressed. Never the less we do see a fair few similar gripes about this. Both ISPs and Openreach could certainly do more to better communicate the reasons for such problems and clarify when they will be resolved.

Meanwhile it’s important not to confuse the above situation with another one that can occur during the early deployment stages for a new community. Some consumers may mistakenly believe that once they see a new cabinet pop-up then the service will be immediately available, although it can often take a fair bit longer (many months) before Openreach activates all of the relevant local connectivity in order to make the service “live“.

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20 Responses
  1. Avatar Steve Jones says:

    It would be interesting to have some metrics. There are tens of thousands of cabinets installed. I wonder what percentage are being impacted or likely to be in the next year or two.

    I would also hope that Openreach has a process for anticipating full cabinets before it becomes critical. If they spot a trend (say) 6-9 months in advance, then they ought to be able to forestall most of the issues. It won’t be 100% of the time (and clearly not if the initial demand is much higher than expected), but it would surely help.

    I also expect that resources are very stretched ad the moment with the BDUK roll-out, and this is, maybe, not at the top of the priority list just at the moment.

    1. Avatar MikeW says:

      The best statistics I’ve seen come from around a year ago, when Openreach were applying for the necessary approval to run cabinets without electricity meters. The statistics they used to as part of this gave a snapshot of the status of something like 34,000 of the deployed cabinets.

      Reports are here:

      Statistics can be found in “UMSUG 113/02 – Presentation slides” on pages 19-21.

      That sample of 34,000 cabinets showed there were 65 categorised as using (at least) some of the final group of 16 ports … so 65 cabinets (0.2%) is the maximum that could have been full within the sample.

      To allow for growth since then, you should allow perhaps 1-2% per quarter – 1% seems correct for commercial areas, 2% is better for BDUK areas. That might add another 60 cabinets to the “at risk” group.

      Of course, this data only shows the statistics for a full cabinet. It doesn’t show whether a cabinet is in need of an intermediate upgrade – either needing a new card, or needing an increase in tie pairs.

      Upgrade Triggers:
      I do recall seeing that BT’s threshold for triggering a new card is when 75% of the ports on the previous card are used (or, given Barry’s comment, faulty).

      I’ve also watched some contractors wire in new tie pairs in a cabinet visible from our house. At the time they did that work, the cabinet was not marked as unavailable … which presumably means the work here was triggered before the limit was reached.

    2. Avatar Steve Jones says:

      That’s quite a find. Not exactly the first place I’d look for that sort of data.

      One very interesting thing is it gives a fair idea of how power consumption varies with port numbers. Whilst the average per port is in the 2.5-3W area, there’s a fairly high base load of perhaps 100W or so with an increment requirement per port of perhaps 1.5-2W.

      I guess that one of the major challenges of the FttrN type solutions is to get that power consumption down and, reverse-powered of line powered solutions will surely require the base load to be minimised. I can easily see RPN solutions supplying 5W per line, but I think 10W is about the maximum to be relied upon for a single line and, presumably any RPN solution needs to work off a single active line.

    3. Avatar Ignition says:

      The 75% comment may have come from me. I queried with Openreach after the first FTTC cabinet here repeatedly ran out of capacity.

      They told me this was the case, however the cabinet here was filling too quickly and there was no chance of install keeping up.

      The first 2 line cards were filled in less than a day, the second one installed a week after the first. The third and fourth cards were installed virtually simultaneously a little over a fortnight after #2 filled and lasted 5 weeks.

      From early February to April the cabinet was awaiting additional tie pairs and line cards. Cards 5 and 6 were installed and by early July they were gone.

      Cabinet #2 was installed in December. By March-April it had gone through 2 line cards and there was no space left for jumper blocks in the PCP, alongside which tie pairs and further line cards were needed.

      A stand-off shell, an extension of the PCP, was installed in June. Line card 3 is now full, 4 is nearly there, jumpers are in the shell for cards 3,4,5 and 6. I presume a 5th line card and tie pairs are due imminently.

      TLDR: Openreach do have systems and do try and keep up with demand, but it’s not foolproof and there are a lot of demands on resources.

    4. Avatar MikeW says:

      Here’s the data lifted from that application, thrown into a spreadsheet:

      I’m not sure whether I read the figure from you first, but I found independent verification in Openreach’s original application for meterless power a year earlier (that application failed).


      That one had more coarse statistics (only based on cards, not on ports), and was for 24,000 cabinets.

      Your site is the very model of the release of pent-up demand, isn’t it? A good example of both the response and the delays that can occur.

      Yeah – a totally left field place for statistics. I knew to search for the 2014 application, because I’d seen one fail in 2013. But I can’t remember what latched me onto that source in the first place … probably a happy side-effect when googling for the different cabinet types used by Openreach.

    5. Avatar Neil says:

      Sounds like many in your local area Ignition have struggled to get FTTC if they did not get in quick. Hope any issues you had have been sorted.

    6. Avatar Ignition says:

      Yes – I would say that the capacity has caught up with the demand but it’s probably more accurate to say that the demand has abated enough for the capacity to catch up 🙂

    7. Avatar Neil says:

      Looking at some of the months you mentioned ignition, would it be right to assume it took Openreach well over a year to sort your capacity situation out?

  2. When FTTC came to my hamlet I was first in the queue and connected to port 1 on the DSLAM. When that failed they moved me to port 14. When that failed they moved me to port 28. I discussed this with the engineer and he admitted that 1/3 of the ports in the 1-28 range were now marked as faulty. More worryingly he, as an analogue engineer, was denied access to the FTTC cab and there was no formal mechanism for reporting the crippled DSLAM and initiating a replacement.

    If this pattern occurs in other cabs then they will be prematurely showing “full” capacity and refusing new orders.

    1. Avatar FibreFred says:

      Any reason to think this is commonplace?

    2. Avatar TheManStan says:

      That’s poor, there should be a mechanism for an Openreach engineer to report issues that fall out of scope of their area of work.

    3. Avatar MikeW says:

      Of course, the fibre NOC will have been involved in marking the ports as faulty … they are, after all, the ones who allocate ports in the first place. If they don’t know it is marked as faulty, they be constantly re-allocated!

    4. Avatar Steve Jones says:

      That’s surely exceptional. If it was at all common, we’d surely have head about it.

      As for untrained staff not having access to the cabinet, isn’t that a good thing? I suspect the last thing you want is unqualified staff making changes. That’s not the same as not being able to report a problem of course. I hope that is remedied (and surely those allocating the ports will know about the failures).

    5. Avatar Ignition says:

      Broken ports are taken off the ‘available’ list and attempts are made to bring them back into service.

      We’ve had a string of incidences of running out of capacity on our node here. One of the ways this was mitigated, albeit briefly, was by repairing ‘faulty’ ports.

    6. Avatar MikeW says:

      ‘briefly’ because they went faulty again? Or because of the high demand?

    7. Avatar DTMark says:

      How/why is this brand new equipment faulty already?

    8. Avatar Ignition says:

      High demand. They were brought back into service and immediately used.

    9. Avatar Ignition says:

      A fault on a port may refer to any issues in between PCP and FTTC cabinet and back, so tie pair issues would be considered a port fault too. They aren’t going to do in-depth investigation every time an install fails.

    10. Avatar FibreFred says:

      DTMark doesn’t brand new tech break?

    11. Avatar Neil says:

      Faults obviously happen but if ignitions situation is anything to go by he has/was either very unlucky or the equipment is unreliable. New stuff does fail but i would not expect it to in any high number or consistently in the same place. I wonder why his location had so many issues and if this is commonplace.

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