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After 15 Years – BT 21CN WBC Still Has 98 Exchanges to Upgrade

Monday, December 2nd, 2019 (9:48 am) - Score 7,126
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BT Wholesale‘s long running upgrade to the 21st Century Network (21CN) powered Wholesale Broadband Connect (WBC) platform, which began in 2004 and is the foundation for many of the modern digital IP and broadband ISP technologies on their UK network, still has 98 exchanges left to upgrade and some won’t be done until 2021.

Areas still stuck on BT’s older 20CN, which mostly reflects remote rural communities, are often left to suffer slow ADSL Max (up to 8Mbps) style copper line broadband connections and analogue telephone lines. By contrast the 21CN upgrade was all about bringing BT’s older network into the modern digital / IP connectivity age, which not only helped to cut costs but also brought with it a new generation of faster broadband technologies etc.

The vast majority of BT’s upgrades to their 21CN platform completed in 2017, when the new network covered around 94% of premises. At the time we were told that BT intended to replace all remaining IPstream exchanges with WBC by the end of 2018, which for example would have made the faster ADSL2+ broadband service available to 99.8% of the United Kingdom (c.1,600 further exchanges).

We occasionally still get some people complain that, some 15 years since the 21CN programme began, they continue to be stuck on first generation ADSL via a 20CN exchange and want to know when this will change. So far all such gripes have come from tiny rural communities with very small exchanges, which are often quite proportionally expensive and complex to tackle.

According to various ISPs, at the end of this summer BT had upgraded over 1,615 further exchanges and they still had 98 left to do. The good news is that this only represents around 8,000 end users / lines, which makes it a fairly small issue (unless you happen to be one of those still stuck in such a location).

The plan now is to upgrade 47 of the remaining 98 exchanges within the next 12 months (23 of those should be completed by March/April 2020), which leaves 51 exchanges left to do (equating to around 3,000 end users). At present no upgrades have been formally scheduled for the remaining 51 but they’re expected to be tackled during 2021.

The fact that Openreach (BT) has now secured the entire contract for Scotland’s R100 (“superfast broadband“) rollout programme should help the aforementioned process (here), not least by supporting upgrades for a number of key fibre backhaul routes.

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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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32 Responses
  1. AnotherTim says:

    Are they simply being upgraded to ADSL2+ which may not significantly improve speeds at all for many of the rural premises, or are they going to build FTTP for these. Switching to WBC may reduce BT’s costs, but won’t do anything for poor speeds. My exchange was one of the last to be upgraded in 2017 and that was simply to reduce costs, so I expect these will receive the same treatment – and remain at the end of the queue for faster broadband.

    1. CarlT says:

      The Openreach FTTP build is nothing to do with the BT Wholesale 21CN build.

    2. AnotherTim says:

      That’s what I assumed – but it seems very wasteful to spend effort “upgrading” to an obsolete technology that won’t benefit many of the affected customers – and although WBC may be cheaper to run the ADSL2+ will (should?) have a relatively short life-expectancy so I’d be surprised if the savings will ever pay for the upgrade.

    3. CarlT says:

      Until it’s possible to compel people to migrate to FTTx and there’s confirmation of FTTx deployment to these guys there’s not much that can be done.

      Openreach can’t give Wholesale any more of a heads up of their plans than any other CP.

    4. New_Londoner says:

      From what I can remember (it’s a long time ago!), 21CN offers benefits beyond just ADSL2+, including enhanced backhaul options etc. I can’t recall the detail, no doubt a google search would throw some light on this if it’s important.

    5. AnotherTim says:

      I believe the additional benefits of 21CN are for ISPs rather than end users. When my exchange was upgraded to 21CN I got a slightly faster connection, but that is the only visible benefit.

  2. Seppi says:

    I’m more curious as what will happen to the Exchange Active “exchanges”, many of which have very few subscribers and in such remote locations.

  3. Archie says:

    No surprise that my exchange is one of those (this is in central England).

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      I don’t think SamKnows has updated that for a long time.

  4. TheFacts says:

    Exchange Activate list:

    Exchange ID Exchange name
    ESAMU Amulree
    ESASB Abbey St Bathans
    ESBOB Bridge of Balgie
    ESBOG Bridge of Gaur
    ESBOR Borthwick Brae
    ESBUT Butterstone
    ESCAC Cappercleuch
    ESCLO Clova
    ESFER Fern
    ESGLL Glenlyon
    ESGSH Glenshee
    ESIVS Inversnaid
    ESMEN Menmuir
    ESSTO Stobo
    ESTRO Trossachs
    ESTRY Trochry
    ESWHS Whitsome
    NSADV Advie
    NSAGR Ardgour
    NSALG Aultguish
    NSALT Altnahara
    NSAPP Applecross
    NSASC Achnashellach
    NSASN Achnasheen
    NSASS Assynt
    NSBER Berriedale
    NSCAB Cabrach
    NSCGM Cairngorm
    NSDBG Drumbeg
    NSDIA Diabaig
    NSDMR Drummuir
    NSFIS Fair Isle
    NSFOU Foula
    NSGBD Glenborrodale
    NSGFN Glenferness
    NSGLG Glenelg
    NSGMZ Glenmazeran
    NSKBC Kinbrace
    NSKGL Kingairloch
    NSKHS Kingshouse
    NSKLL Kinlocheil
    NSKLN Killilan
    NSLAG Laggan
    NSLMR Lochmore
    NSLSV Loch Scavaig
    NSMER Merkland
    NSMUL Mulben
    NSNER North Erradale
    NSNRE North Roe
    NSNRS North Ronaldsay
    NSORT Orton (Grampian)
    NSOUT Out Skerries
    NSPPS Papa Stour
    NSPPW Papa Westray
    NSRHL Rosehall
    NSSCN Strathconon
    NSSCO Scourie
    NSSFR Stromeferry
    NSSKD Strathkanaird
    NSSNV Strathnaver
    NSSTU Struy
    NSSWL Scatwell
    NSTAL Talmine
    NSTCR The Craigs
    NSTDN Tomdoun
    NSTKV Tarskavaig
    NSTUL Tulloch
    NSUYE Uyeasound
    NSWSW West Sandwick
    WSCLA Clachan
    WSCOV Colintraive
    WSDAS Dalleagles
    WSDUE Durisdeer
    WSELV Elvanfoot
    WSINS Inveruglas
    WSKIB Kilchattan Bay
    WSKIF Kilfinan
    WSKIN Kinlochspelve
    WSMAB Marrburn
    WSMAC Machrie
    WSPEN Pennyghael
    WSSLI Sliddery
    WSTIR Tiroran
    WSWHI Whitehouse

    1. Guy Cashmore says:

      List is missing my exchange WWBSTW Bridestowe which hasn’t been done yet. Really can’t see the point now, they built just one FTTC cabinet right outside the door of the exchange, only about half the premises served by the exchange can benefit from it though as the other half are long lines. Upgrading the exchange wouldn’t help the long lines.

  5. Stephen says:

    Not sure how accurate that list is, I’m in ESCLH Cleish and have no access to WBC services and all served by exchange only lines. Openreach have refused to upgrade as it’s not economically viable… apparently.

  6. Anti BT says:

    waste of money!!!

    5G is coming
    6G in 10 years time!

    everything goes wireless!

    1. AnotherTim says:

      I don’t expect that 5G is coming to any of these exchange areas.

  7. chris conder says:

    5th Gen won’t come to rural areas. It needs thousands of small cells fed with fibre… and it is impossible for BT to do the rurals when they still have all the cities to sort out, they are still building out FTTC (obsolete before it started). Wireless has a long way to go before it is ubiquitous, but more fibre access will deffo speed up progress. The majority of rural areas would be greatful for a reliable 2G mobile signal…

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      Incorrect. In rural areas 5G will largely be deployed in a similar way to 4G – stick some big kit on top of a tall mast for wide coverage – although the caveat is that its performance in this setup won’t be vastly better than 4G due to using smaller chunks of spectrum in lower frequency mobile bands (e.g. 700MHz). However we should see more Carrier Aggregation with 5G as it’s supported out-of-the-box, so speeds will improve with time (i.e. as spectrum is refarmed).

      Since you can’t do 5G without 4G then all of those new masts being built will probably end up deploying 5G kit at the same time in order to save costs, which may mean that 5G reaches some remote areas sooner than 4G did.

    2. TheFacts says:

      @CC – any examples of current significant FTTC build out?

      It’s only you that says FTTC was obsolete, it gave a large number of properties a high speed quickly.

    3. JT says:

      I’ll be interested to see if our new mast will be getting 5G equipment installed as well as 4g
      The mast has been built (power and fibre connection) snd awaiting equipment installation
      EE are the network provide so should I feel optimistic @Mark?

    4. 125us says:

      The fibre used to deliver backhaul to radio towers is not broadband FTTP and isn’t dependent on FTTP being available. Fibre private circuits are available to any location in the UK.

    5. CarlT says:

      The majority of rural areas have no mobile signal?

      You must have a very different definition of rural from most given 99% of the population have mobile coverage.

      Are you saying less than 2% of the UK population live in rural areas or is this another #CyberDoyleFact?

    6. The Facts says:

      Weird that every Cyberdoyle statement from the beginning of time contains errors.

    7. JT says:

      I noted from Paul Wheelhouse’s recent comment re. the Ettrick mast (part of S4Gi) that the fibre being laid for that mast
      “This site will involve a total of 8 miles of new fibre being laid to provide backhaul for the mast, which will also support R100 deployment ”
      This is the same situation for Strathconon – the fibre was laid specifically for the mast
      I’ve asked OpenReach whether they will be able to leverage this fibre connection and have not been told it is a definite ‘no’

  8. JT says:

    oh….and we’re on 20cn for the local exchange and expecting to be in the 2021 rollout!

  9. chris conder says:

    Carl you are twisting fact to suit your argument. I said rural areas not population. Considering most live in urban it doesn’t change what I say. All the rural areas I travel in, mainly Lancashire Yorkshire and Cumbria, (but I have seen the same thing in Northumberland, Wales and Norfolk). have no 2G. On all networks. So CarlIt and Thefacts I speak from experience, not statistics prepared and funded to serve purposes. The fact remains that there is not mobile coverage in a lot of rural areas. In the areas I see FTTC appearing thanks to communities paying up and state funding then the masts also seem to spring to life. I have always thought that villages on route to masts will be used to leverage funding to serve rural masts, and that OR will be ditched once BT have mobile dominance. We shall see… It is amazing how many Cyberdoyle facts that have been trolled for 10 years are now proving correct. And they were all based on what was witnessed or just plain old fashioned common sense, not statistics provided at great expense by someone who needed them to prove something.

    1. New_Londoner says:

      Quote “ It is amazing how many Cyberdoyle facts that have been trolled for 10 years are now proving correct.“ Examples please.

      I particularly remember the one where you stated that fibre broadband couldn’t suffer from contention, how is that working out?

  10. James says:

    So as far as I can tell my exchange (Greenham TA21) serves 899 residential properties but is not 21CN enabled and only a few have FTTC – not including mine! We are hardly remote rural! Connecting Devon and Somerset have entirely let us down and BT can’t say if any sort of upgrade is on the way!

  11. alan says:

    Exchange name: Bures
    Exchange code: EABUR
    North of Colchester still not upgraded
    The only LLU operator we have is Talk Talk
    A couple of years back, BT installed a lenght of Fibre from the exchange, down the access drive and across the road to a cabinet, then proudly announced “Fibre is available in Bures”

    1. James says:

      Alan -Well I suppose you can always go and look at it!

    2. TheFacts says:

      6 FTTC cabs in Bures, although some have long lines.

  12. Mark says:

    As one of the 8,000 in rural Dorset (no cell signal either) is there a way of finding out when my exchange is due its obsolete 21CN update be it 2020 or 2021? It’s getting tedious doing teleconferences from coffee shops in Sherborne……..

  13. chris owen says:

    We are connected to Farnham Common Exchange, (THFC) with a speed of 2.5 Mbps. Openreach are refusing to upgrade to FTTC even though we are 1.2 miles away. They are saying we have been identifying as an OMR site, (Open Market Review) which means that other providers can supply. But I have checked with the all the providers and none have plans for us.
    How do we fight this ?
    Interesting that the government have set up the Universal Service Obligation (USO) for a minimum 10 Mbps service in the UK, and applications start 20th March 2020. But who do you apply to, and how ?

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