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New Openreach Trials Bring Full Fibre to Rural UK Villages

Monday, October 7th, 2019 (12:01 am) - Score 4,149
diamond cutter fttp openreach broadband

Openreach (BT) has today unveiled trials to test a “range of new tools and techniques” for deploying their 1Gbps Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) broadband ISP network, which under the plan could help 13 of the UK’s remote rural villages and towns (50,000 premises) to access the service and support the Government’s £5bn plan.

The operator is pitching this as their response to last week’s pledge by the Government, which announced a commitment of £5bn in public investment to help bring “gigabit-capable” broadband ISP speeds to the final 20% of rural and suburban UK homes and businesses by the end of 2025 (here).

On top of that the trials will complement Openreach’s on-going efforts to rollout their “full fibre” network to cover 4 million premises (1.8 million homes and business have already been covered) by March 2021 and then 15 million by around 2025 (here), which is estimated to cost them somewhere around £5.25bn in commercial investment.

At present bringing FTTP into remote rural areas tends to be a very slow and expensive process (i.e. few customers spread over a sparse area = difficult payback). As such if those challenges could be reduced then Openreach claims that “hundreds of thousands more homes and businesses across the UK … could potentially become eligible for being included in Openreach’s ‘Fibre First’ investment programme.”

NOTE: Government statistics suggest around 11 million people (17% of the UK population) live in rural areas.

What is being tested?

One of the methods that Openreach proposes to trial has already been touched on by ISPreview.co.uk before (e.g. remote FTTP nodes [Mini OLT] inside street cabinets – here) and, elsewhere, we note that other operators may already be using diamond cutters (another tool proposed for the pilot).

The trials will also make use of Micro Ducting (here) and Ground Penetrating Radar (here), although as per the links we’ve already written about those in prior articles and so won’t repeat them below. Nevertheless the other changes below are fairly new, at least to Openreach’s way of doing things.

Trench Digging – Diamond Cutter
diamond cutter saw fttp openreach very high
A giant rotating circular blade with diamonds embedded in the metal coating on its edge – enabling it to slice through carriageway or footway leaving a neat channel into which the machine simultaneously feeds in tubing for fibre-optic cables as it moves along the ground.

The specialist kit is capable of installing 700 metres of cabling a day – more than 20 times that by a standard two-person civils team using traditional methods of drilling and excavation, slashing the time taken to deploy fibre by months.

Remote Fibre Nodes

This is where fibre-optic cables can be built out from specially-adapted existing green roadside cabinets. Specialised broadband-boosting equipment installed inside the cabinet enables full fibre connections to extend by more than one and a half times their current reach, with the capacity to connect more than 1,000 premises.

By ‘piggy-backing’ on our existing network, engineers can take full fibre further and faster – while avoiding up to six months in time and associated cost involved in deploying new fibre cables or ‘spines’ from an exchange to remote rural areas.

Mobile Planning with Orion

Our project engineers often have to grapple with wrong or missing paper records when they’re out in the field. We’ve developed Orion to help them with this. It is a digital mobile planning tool that lets engineers review and update the network using a tablet – in real time.

GeoRipper

A specialist piece of digging equipment used for digging trenches across soft ground such as fields. A chainsaw like blade carves a narrow trench allowing engineers to lay small fibre cables of up to 150 metres. The GeoRipper is ten times faster than digging these manually and leaves everything much tidier.

Apparently all of these methods are due to be deployed in order to help FTTP cover 50,000 homes and businesses in 13 villages and market towns stretching from Scotland to Devon including: Cranfield; West Calder; Flockton; Hesketh Bank; Kentford; Lingfield; Lundin Links; Mickle Trafford; Okehampton; Ottery St Mary; Parbold; Seal and Tarporley.

Some customers have already been connected and more will follow in time for Christmas 2019. Meanwhile building work across the other 13 locations is expected to be finished for just over half the customers across all the pilot sites by the end of March 2020. The locations have been carefully chosen to be representative of a wider number of geographic areas across the UK.

Clive Selley, CEO of Openreach, said:

“At Openreach, we’ll never be just a city fibre provider. We’ve always worked hard to improve connections to isolated, less commercially attractive communities through inventive engineering and effective funding partnership models.

In recent years we’ve been extending our full fibre network into rural areas – mostly in partnership with local authorities and Government – but the economics are clearly challenging and we want to do more. We know that around 10 per cent of the country will need to the support of public subsidy, but these trials will help us test a bunch of new techniques that could help us in other rural areas.

The trials will also give us a much clearer picture of what the technical challenges in these kinds of rural areas are. We hope they’ll go a long way towards developing the tools, skills and innovations required to make sure that nobody’s left behind in the full fibre future.”

Openreach believes that up to 90% of the UK could be upgraded to “full fibre” lines via the private sector, which in our view seems wildly optimistic (this is why the Government’s £5bn will focus upon the final 20% rather than the final 10%) but then much would depend upon how radical the Government is willing to get with its future regulatory changes.

As we’ve said before there are a lot of complicated challenges to overcome, not least in terms of finding enough skilled engineers for all of the players, ensuring fair competition between a growing soup of rival networks, fostering an easier approach to wayleave (access) agreements and extending the holiday on business rates for new fibre from 5 to 10 or even 15 years+ etc.

However at the same time what Openreach is doing above reminds us that there’s still plenty of room for some network operators to improve the speed and thus efficiency of their civil engineering teams, which when correctly implemented can have a very positive impact.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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29 Responses
  1. Avatar John

    Max – OpenReach FTTP are rip off anyway I stick with my free Plusnet FTTC.
    Virgin the same etc

    NGA FOR ALL – BT should use their gainshare clawback to roll out FTTP to ever home in the UK.
    Enough left over to return millions to local authorities.

    Chris B4RN – Not symmetric FTTP, moan moan. Superfarce etc.

    saved 3 of you the trouble.

    Positive news, taken positively here.
    I’m sure others will find a reason to moan.

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      @John

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      @John
      😉

    • Avatar NGA for all

      John .. there is enough owed to get another 400k premises under contract and this plus the pending and under contract but yet to be delivered should take superfast to 99%, with nearly 1m FTTP at the edge.

      It is not just the capital deferral but any outstanding capital balances.

      If these tools and techniques help the UK go further, fantastic.

      ‘all’ is a matter for BT and the market. Only ever discussing the original budget intended for in-fill.

    • Avatar NGA for all

      John…’all’?? No, so for the record. There is enough monies owed to contract for a further 400k rural premises for mostly FTTP upgrades. When we combine with premises contract but yet to be delivered 350K, Stratum, R100 and other capital balances outstanding, then 99% superfast with 1m FTTP at the edge will be possible by 2025.

      It means the B-USO can be re-written.

      All this is welcome, the problem has been with BT Group representations to several Parliamentary inquiries and the original Gambit in the BDUK Framework. This is all work for the working man so what is your problem?

    • Avatar NGA for all

      mike – Free… No there is still £800m in play to be used to finish the rural work, so money is not the issue.
      New Londoner .. Can you think of any reason why the 99% coverage cannot be reached? These efforts should reduce unit costs further.

      The upside is huge, it should be explained in full and celebrated and not lost to some cynical sledging.

  2. Avatar Joe

    Some of those places might smile at being called remote rural villages 🙂

    • As Openreach says, they’ve selected a variety of areas with different challenges in order to return the greatest learning. Some are absolutely a lot less rural than others it seems 🙂 .

  3. Avatar MikeP

    Ottery St Mary is hardly a “remote rural area”. It’s very much within the broad Exeter “extended urban” area, on the A30 eastern corridor which extends out to Honiton (although its residents of both places probably wouldn’t thank me for saying that).

    It all depends on the radius of the area they’re centring on Ottery. Can’t speak for most of the other areas, knowing less about them.

  4. Avatar Jono

    I still don’t understand why Openreach don’t just get the easy places done first.

    My modern estate in Warrington about 5 years ago BT put in FTTC which for a single estate which isn’t huge involved creating 3 FTTC cabs. They then realised they had forgot one 12 months later that part of the estate got FTTP.

    It’s an incredibly easy job trunking exists all round the estate and even to each property.

    Why does BT have no plans to convert my estate fully to FTTP. It would be so quick and easy.

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      OR (BT) is a commercial company. If they were to implement FTTP in a recently provided FTTC area what are they supposed to do with the kit, write it off? I would think there are a lot of places still on ADSL and slow FTTC that would argue they should be higher in the priority. OR can use kit as spares/capacity elsewhere but there is a limit.

      These are trials so presumably OR has chosen a selection of already identified areas to get the best understanding of the installation practicalities and costs. The OR rollouts are mainly following a contiguous approach to maximise investment, resource teams and equipment. OR are currently covering 20k per week (all types added) and they have the capability to ramp further and subcontract more copper activity.

      BDUK extremes now appear to be benefiting and if the politicians are true to their word then Rural will get a suitable subsidy. Full Fibre etc are confirming that using PIA they can reach out commercially in the interim. If the marketing data indicates a return or you come in the sights of one of the Altnets then great but otherwise you will have to await to be covered by OR roll-out plans.

    • Avatar Jono

      Or they should have done FTTP to start with in an area like mine. Instead they got funding for FTTC and will more than likely get funding again for FTTP.

    • Avatar Fastman

      jono

      Instead they got funding for FTTC

      partially they would have had some funding from BDUk the rest would have come from openreach – so openreach has already invested in this area in partneraship with BDUK

      BDUK is not free money it has to be matched in accordance with State aid and aid intensity rules

      the cost of doing FTTP to FTTC is about 5 to 6 greater with FTTP than FTTC

    • Avatar NGA for all

      Fastman …Hallelujah ..Adapting existing VDSL2 cabinets to utilise spare fibres to link the GPON network.

    • Avatar Jono

      @fastman I would normally agree about cost, but I’m not sure it was a lot cheaper in this case.

      The estate is probably around 150-200 houses, they installed 3 FTTC cabs to serve that small space then had to do FTTP to cover the houses they forgot.

      When they popped the FTTP in there was no digging involved.

      Getting FFTC cabs in was actually pretty costly as they had to get power to the cabs which wasn’t easy to get.

  5. Avatar Dave

    These 13 locations.. Seal? As in Seal in Sevenoaks (Kent) 5 miles away from the M25?

    • Avatar Gadget

      Dave – Thinkbroadband item contains a more detailed look using Andrew’s data – but does suggest it is the Seal you are thinking about.

    • Avatar Alex

      What does being 5 miles from the M25 have to do with anything?

    • Avatar AnotherTim

      5 miles from the M25 isn’t considered “remote rural” by anyone that lives in a remote rural location.

  6. Avatar Roger_Gooner

    Hey, let’s not forget the use of aerial drones for those on the other side of the river.
    https://www.ispreview.co.uk/index.php/2018/11/openreach-drone-brings-fttp-broadband-over-rural-scottish-river.html

  7. Avatar Fastman

    Jonjo

    really

    NGA not sure what your on about – missing the point i made as ever

    • Avatar NGA for all

      Fastman; let me try again, – re-use of spare fibres from the cabinet to create FTTP clusters is a good development.

      The over-use of cabinets where duct was available to complete FTTP in the first instance is a missed opportunity. BT contribution to BDUK cabinets has not been ratified in any published report as yet. The timing of that investment is important. Was it scoped in the original plan or an afterthought or is some of it now included in the capital deferral?

  8. Avatar A_Builder

    This is really good news.

    Probably part of the One Network drive as well as fibre first.

    From a commercial point of view makes total sense as existing assets are used to reduce cost and increase speed.

    The stuff about diamond cutting is fluff – everyone has been doing that for years.

    Great that OR are using the spare capacity to the DSLAM intelligently. Pure common sense – well done OR.

  9. Avatar dajavu

    Wow looks like Openreach have actually started deploying fibre using techniques the Altnets have been using for the last few years.

    Think they might actually invent the TV next……

    • Avatar Ivor

      Not sure “the altnets did this first” is a great argument considering OR are still top dog in FTTP deployments and after the recent spectacular collapse of the Devon and Somerset/Gigaclear scheme.

      Still, it’s good that OR are considering options like remote nodes, hopefully used sparingly and where necessary (i.e. properties that fall outside the reach that exchange based PON can do)

  10. Avatar Brian

    Hope they can get the costs down for dealing with areas where the existing installed cables use the direct in ditch / hung over wall installation techniques.

  11. Avatar Andrew

    OR have appeared in our village (GL13) without prior “warning” and are installing fttp along a 1km. stretch of road. We have been “in plan ” for Gigaclear via Fastershire for a couple of years, but the build date is fast receding. Sadly no BT/Openreach website information for us, but optimistic.

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