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Challenges as Cityfibre Moot Using BT Cable Ducts in Southend-on-Sea

Monday, May 2nd, 2016 (10:39 am) by Mark Jackson (Score 1,931)
fibre optic cable duct

Industry sources have reportedly revealed that Cityfibre are working with BT (Openreach) to test a major deployment of Ofcom’s newly proposed Duct and Pole Access (DPA) solution, which could help ISPs to build alternative networks by giving them better access to BT’s cable ducts and poles.

Last month Cityfibre announced that they’d won a new 10-year and £3.24 million contract to build a 50km long Dark Fibre network around Southend-on-Sea (Essex, England) that will provide ultrafast broadband / Ethernet services to 120 key public sector sites and local businesses (more details).

However a report in The Telegraph claims that Cityfibre will also attempt to use Ofcom’s newly proposed regulatory fix (Duct and Pole Access), which essentially nudges BT to give rival operator’s more access to harness their existing network of underground cable ducts and overground poles. Check out our full summary of the DPA solution.

Ofcom’s approach attempts to put right some of the problems with the previous Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA) solution that tried to do the same sort of thing, although PIA was often hobbled by awkward costs, tedious administrative processes and limitations on its use (e.g. no rural backhaul or big business connectivity).

As it stands Ofcom are still working out the details and the Cityfibre test will play a part in that, although the new report also indicates that there might be problems ahead. “There’s not enough capacity to build a fibre to the home network in some of these ducts [and] some of BT’s poles are full too,” said the newspapers source.

Ofcom’s Strategic Review proposal suggested that there could be “sufficient duct space … available in the UK to support [the DPA] model of competition” and it pointed to a 2010 survey, which found that 63% of the 90mm duct ends surveyed and 97% of the 50mm duct ends surveyed (between the street cabinet and the premise) had at least 42% of unoccupied space. But that was 6 years ago and a lot has changed (e.g. BT have already blown a lot of new fibre through existing ducts), although many new ducts have also been built.

On the other hand BT has already warned that this will “not all translate into useable duct space” and indeed we’ve seen plenty of issues with blocked or simply poor quality cable ducts crop up as part of the Broadband Delivery UK project, which in some cases has prevented an upgrade due to the high cost of repair or challenges with access.

Never the less Ofcom believes that it still “provides a basis for cautious optimism” and Cityfibre has already made no secret of their desire to use the DPA solution, but the practical problems of doing this may yet hamper its impact. BT are now said to be surveying their Southend-on-Sea ducts in order to get a better picture of the area.

Meanwhile Ofcom are still keeping the option of splitting Openreach from BT’s control on the table, albeit only if they are unable to reach a voluntary agreement with BT over their alternative remedies.

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7 Responses
  1. Steve Jones

    Yup. Anybody who thinks that there’s a wonderland of easily accessible duct space might have a nasty shock. Some of that stuff will have been in the ground a long time, much of it dating back to the years after WW II when the phone network was expanded a lot. I suspect that the methodologies have changed over the years and there’s a hotch-potch (in my street, there is no ducting in front of the houses – it’s direct buried, rather like power cables). Many decades of putting in more cable, street works, tree roots and so on will means there could be a lot of work. Just who will pay for any remedial works? At the moment it would appear it’s the unlucky project that comes along first.

    Of course it would be possible to have a regime which cleared ducts on a regular basis just in case they might be needed, but that’s an expensive exercise and potentially wasteful as (in some cases) it’s several decades between when new cables are put down ducts. If this was to be done along with pre-emptive surveys looking at every access point, available space and so on, then it would add greatly to the maintenance costs. How would that be defrayed? Onto all the existing lines?

    In short, not a simple thing to put together. If ducting had been designed as an infrastructure service from day 1 with plenty of excess capacity, then life might have been different, but that’s not the history of the network. (I believe in Sweden they do have a publicly funded infrastructure system in some cities).

  2. thebuilder

    I remember carrying out few PIA trial areas and it wasn’t easy…

    The process was overly bureaucratic and complex on BT’s side and rightly so. It was an opportunity for them to get someone to do the network audit and get someone to upgrade the network if necessary. BT wouldn’t survey the network for capacity check or upgrade the network to make capacity for you and the argument is why would they. I believe its similar approach by any other operators.

    Having said we need to start somewhere if we were to start sharing existing available infrastructure to provide end customer the overall cost benefit

  3. fttx

    Looking forward to this one to see how things have changed since PIA ‘Episode I’, which was nuts.

    PIA ‘Episode II’… Fingers crossed it works.
    But 50km on a first trial, that’s ambitious. On a trunk hopefully the ducts integrity will be good for CFH’s sake.

    Regardless, 50km means a lot of chambers to survey. That will be a Challenge in itself.

    Moving forward, Carillion will be v.busy if PIA does go anywhere 🙂

    • TheFacts

      Surveying chambers won’t find the 7 blockages in 2km that the FTTC install found near here.

    • Steve Jones

      You do have to wonder if OR to be compelled to make dark fibre available then just how relevant all this will be anyway? In any event, it looks like a whole new era of complexity in configuration management, accounting, order handling, billing and so on.

      Then there’s going to be the little issue of business rates. OR pay business rates on the network infrastructure (including the passive plant of course), but I assume that the authorities will still want to charge rates on any company using OR passive infrastructure in its own right.

  4. Former telecom engineer

    Well it’s good to see a company consistently getting fibre past the press release and into the ground.

    It won’t be all plain sailing accessing legacy ductwork but immensely cheaper than a new build, and certainly less disruption to the highway / footpaths. Worth noting that duct capacity / blockages are a huge issue for openreach who have invested in r&d in this area; this yielded methods which work around straight congestion very successfully unlike the old rope, lube, pull and pray in use during Pia inception. Quite possible an alt net might even develop further methods to passively rectify similar issues.

    More competition will cause a loss in sales, but as an asset the duct and pole network could pull in significant sums in future. The real issue is cost of rectifying collapses etc.

    I worked in areas where duct sharing was common (due to bt cable network sell off in the 90s). Often had to move each other’s kit to access our own but never an issue from either side with respecting and securing joints / amps etc. Only bug bear was any safety complaints (Catv cab doors open or loose cables) always get reported to BT by the public, with cost of making safe, rereporting to correct firm etc involved. Especially annoying after the network was turned off and just abandoned. To this day still causes safety issues but only firm who will accept a report and turn up and make safe is BT.

    If it was my call I’d account for the cost of this and put responsibility for emergency call outs for safety onto openreach.

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