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Spectrum Internet Says Government Broadband Rollout is “5 years too late”

Monday, October 5th, 2015 (1:23 am) - Score 1,711
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The Managing Director of Cardiff-based ISP Spectrum Internet, Giles Phelps, has told ISPreview.co.uk as part our exclusive interview that the Government’s roll-out of superfast broadband is “about 5 years too late” and that future projects should focus on ultra-fast FTTH/P broadband with fixed wireless for remote rural areas.

As an ISP Spectrum Internet, which has deployed plenty of its own fibre optic and fixed wireless broadband infrastructure around parts of the United Kingdom (they’ve also unbundled a number of exchanges from BT in order to offer more services), is perhaps mostly focused on improving connectivity in southern Wales and the south west of England.

Spectrum also works with BTOpenreach, just like most ISPs, but they still “prefer to roll out our own network where possible.” The provider, which started life as Connect Cardiff in 2008 before a rebrand in 2011, and initially only focussed on the city centre, is also one of the founding members of the Cardiff Internet Exchange (Cardiff IX).

Most recently they’ve also been deploying ultrafast Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP/H) services to a number of rural and urban locations, such as in parts of Bristol and even to a rural primary school that required them to use micro trenching and redundant utility infrastructure. On top of that they’re also exploring VDSL Vectoring (FTTC) and G.fast technology, just like BT.

Suffice to say that Spectrum Internet has a lot of experience in this field, both as an Internet provider and a developer of the underlying infrastructure, which makes their views particularly important. However Giles is “not convinced” that the Government will actually deliver 24Mbps+ speeds to 95% of the UK by 2017/18 as promised and suggests that it would have been better to ensure that “all areas had a minimum level [of speed] to begin with rather than just talking about top speeds.”

In the following interview Giles also expresses concern about the BDUK contracts in Wales, which he says were “considered as a whole rather than divided … which meant that none of the smaller providers could have bid” and he is worried that in “some cases the timescales for delivery are unachievable … It’s best to be upfront with people if things … are likely to be [delayed].”

However Giles, who is similarly worried about the Government’s plan to spend public money on a Satellite subsidy, also admits that BT was probably one of the only operators that could do the job. “No one else out there could do it faster as the timescales are so tight – but of course it would have been better if there was more FTTP,” said Giles.

The Interview

1. Spectrum Internet has deployed a number of its own superfast broadband services using VDSL2 (FTTC), FTTP/H and fixed wireless broadband technology. Can you tell us a little more about these (e.g. where they are? How many premises passed?) and how you decide which of those technology choices is the best for any given area?

ANSWER:

Yes, we like to play with lots of technologies! In total we’ve passed approximately 1500 premises with a superfast service and another 4000+ that can access a faster service than through using BT Openreach’s infrastructure (i.e. where we’ve unbundled the exchange and can offer ADSL2+ where there is only a BT Wholesale offering ADSL Max).

We would love to bring FTTP/H to every customer but, sometimes, it just isn’t affordable to deploy. These are often rural areas where telephone line lengths are long (7km is the longest we have seen!) and therefore FTTC with VDSL2 won’t help. Most of our cabinets therefore have ADSL2+ as well as VDSL2 which helps those on longer lines or where the customer may have a tighter budget but wants more than 0.5Mbps from the exchange.

Our first ever community scheme back in 2011 was a Microwave-to-the-Cabinet. The distance is 7km for the wireless link and it is still going strong today with 90+ customers gaining speeds of 60Mbps.

In terms of current and future projects, we’re working on FTTP for a number of multi-tenant office buildings in south Wales and Bristol. We’re also exploring vectoring and G.fast ourselves, but I firmly believe FTTP/H is the way forward with some wireless technology for the very hard to reach areas. I believe it’s about being creative in the way these services are delivered. We’ve recently deployed FTTP to a rural primary school using micro trenching and using redundant utility infrastructure, of which there is a considerable amount.

It was a shame that we narrowly missed out on BDUK pilot project funding last year, which would have help us explore other potential avenues as we fund the majority of our R&D projects ourselves. (see Q12 for future plans here)

3. What are the biggest challenges that you face when rolling out an alternative broadband solution in Wales and could the Government or other operators do anything specific to help resolve those?

ANSWER:

In the past we’ve been questioned more about our ability, but as more alternative providers have come about it’s become easier to get over the hurdle of being a small provider.

We suffer the normal headaches such as the time it takes to pull together funding, go through planning and then roll out a project – it’s frustrating for us and the communities in which we have worked. Of course there’s also working with other suppliers. We now lay a lot of fibre ourselves so that has reduced a number of headaches!

However, when we have worked with the right contacts within a supplier or partner organisation that actually wants to help you grow and develop it makes a huge difference as it allows you to share ideas and get on with the task in hand.

As a smaller provider, the regulatory stuff takes time to get your head around – we don’t have a department that works purely on R&D so it’s part of the day job for a number of staff who may also be delivering projects or working on other internal tasks like quality management.

4. What are your thoughts on the progress and approach being taken by the government’s Broadband Delivery UK programme, which is currently rolling out superfast broadband (24Mbps+) services to 95% of UK premises by 2017/18 and a similar level via Superfast Cymru in Wales?

ANSWER:

I have two strong thoughts about it. Firstly, I think the whole programme is about 5 years too late. If we want a more digitally savvy nation then we need to deliver first and then work on education and exploitation. There for the majority and not the minority – nothing really is going to change, so I’m still not convinced that we will actually see 95% achieving speeds on 24Mbps + apart from where there is FTTP, so I take a lot of the statistics with a pinch of salt. We know the challenges are in the 5% and this programme doesn’t resolve them.

Should BT have won the contracts? Well, no one else out there could do it faster as the timescales are so tight – but of course it would have been better if there was more FTTP.

Secondly, we all know that the frustrated 5% will be in rural, hard to reach communities or, even worse isolated properties. Because of the way the BDUK regions have been carved up, it will make it incredibly expensive to serve these properties. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t, but if we ensured all areas had a minimum level (as they did with the last round of spectrum licences for mobile coverage) to begin with rather than just talking about top speeds, the whole of the UK would be in a better position.

This is one reason why we’ve deployed ADSL2+ in our FTTC rural cabinets – we’ve brought communities up from less than 2Mb to 15Mb that are more than 3Km from the cabinet. VDLS2 won’t do that at that distance. Whilst we’d love to have everyone on 50Mbps +, you can still stream TV, make video calls and run a business at 15Mbps which you can’t do at 2Mbps.

Wales has been considered as a whole rather than divided in any way, which meant that none of the smaller providers could have bid. However, I can understand from the Welsh Government’s perspective that it makes it easier to procure.

It’s good to see that some of the later awarded schemes are going to AltNets. However, I’m concerned that in some cases the timescales for delivery are unachievable which could lead to bad press that will affect all alternative providers and result in those more forward-thinking civil servants losing confidence and returning to BT for future projects to save face. It’s best to be upfront with people if things get delayed or are likely to be. There’s no point in land-grabbing deals with the hope of getting the investment needed and no clear plans of how to deliver as this lets the whole Altnet community down.

5. Previous phases of the BDUK programme have appeared to shun bids by alternative network providers, although the future phase 3 funding for reaching the final 5% of premises appears to be more open to alternative suppliers. Do you expect or hope that Spectrum Internet will be able to get involved in bidding for phase 3 and if not, why?

ANSWER:

We’re realistic about our ability to deliver and I won’t overstretch the company as quality will suffer. We’ll only bid where we know we can deliver to the required timescales. We choose our battles carefully and look at the project’s sustainability which gives long term growth for Spectrum too.

6. BT has announced plans to deploy 500Mbps capable G.fast broadband technology across most of the UK over the next decade or so, beginning in 2016/17. What are your thoughts on that plan and do you think G.fast is a good solution for future connectivity needs?

ANSWER:

We’re actually working on our own trials but, as we already know that it makes fast connections faster, I believe there’s limited use – if we want fast speeds, we need to be using fibre…unless we can start implementing DSLAMs on poles – in which case, there’s a real answer to speed improvements in rural areas sooner rather than later.

For network quality, we universally need to own up to the fact that copper does not deliver.

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

    Q4 – Good to see the impact of ADSL2+ from the cabinet – perhaps the GEA-over-ADSL2+ product isn’t a dead duck after all.

    However, 15Mbps over 3km is quite high – my old exchange line was only 2.2km long, and could only get 13Mbps on ADSL2+. Perhaps the remote community was fed by thicker copper than average…

    Does Spectrum implement PSD masks for ADSL2+ from the cabinet, matching the VDSL2 ones in the ANFP? If so, how much does that compromise the speed that could be achieved?

  2. JamesM

    I live in South Wales and Spectrum are at my exchange. I like their approach and I am looking for a business grade line so I might well speak with them and see what they can do.

    • JamesM

      All i can see is a £250 connection fee on the home broadband pages. This can’t be right? No one will pay £250 to connect to home FTTC!

  3. TheoB

    It’s just not correct to say that the last 5% are entirely Rural – there are heaps of EO lines in inner London, and we’re not happy!
    I have just commented on
    http://www.ispreview.co.uk/index.php/2015/10/no-mention-of-broadband-as-uk-commits-gbp100bn-to-infrastructure.html#comment-160666
    before viewing the above, so I won’t repeat myself here.

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