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WightFibre CEO – The Challenge of Bringing FTTP to an Island

Friday, April 10th, 2020 (12:01 am) - Score 4,823
john_irvine_wightfibre_ceo

Q4. Obviously WightFibre’s main competitor on the island is still Openreach (BT), which with the support of public funding – something that now seems like an at least partly wasted effort given WightFibre’s commercial project – has predominantly only deployed significantly slower FTTC (VDSL2) networks to consumers.

In order to make your investment work at its best we imagine that you must be seeking to take some of Openreach’s market share on the island. Have you seen much evidence for this in your FTTP initial areas or is it still too early to talk about solid take-up figures (both in general across the deployment and more specifically from Openreach’s coverage)?

ANSWER:

WightFibre has been operating on the island since 2001. In our existing HFC cabled area of 13,000 premises we have over 40% market share. This is probably why BT have targeted our home town of Cowes for their first FTTP deployment on the island.

We believe we can replicate this 40% market share as we extend our reach across the island, particularly as we are deploying a superior product.

There is also an ‘island’ factor at play where islanders choose local island companies over large national companies when given a choice.

Q5. Are you concerned about the possible future prospect of Openreach also deploying FTTP across the Isle of Wight and if that were to happen then would WightFibre seek to make any big changes in order to combat them (prices, products etc.), or rely on what they’re already able to offer via the new full fibre network? We note that some FTTP providers have called upon Ofcom and the Government to help protect their investments from the incumbent, particularly in rural areas.

ANSWER:

Our business model expects BT to deploy FTTP throughout the island. It would be nice to think they will do this without state aid. All we ask of the regulator is a level playing field, something we did not have with the previous BDUK Rural Broadband products where state aid was given to BT to over build our HFC network.

For the time being WightFibre has first mover advantage. WightFibre have demonstrated we can take market share from the big national providers and we see no reason why this cannot continue. We have a full triple play offering with our own business and residential voice service and a tv offering from Netgem tv.

Our pricing is competitive and we expect it to remain so.

Q6. Has WightFibre ever considered making their network open access so that other ISPs can join and offer services or would this be too damaging to your significant private investment in FTTP? Are there other arguments against going open access?

ANSWER:

WightFibre would be happy to make our network available to other ISPs but we would expect to do this on a case by case basis with other ISPs. Sky and TalkTalk have both announced partnership programmes but the thresholds they have set for these programmes are currently set too high for WightFibre.

This isn’t quite open access. We would like to be able to choose to whom we make our network available.

Q7. The current Government has committed to an investment of £5bn in order to help boost the roll-out of “gigabit-capable” broadband (via 5G, DOCSIS or FTTP etc.) across the final 20% of hardest to reach premises, potentially reaching every home by the end of 2025.

Given that you have some experience of running a cable (DOCSIS network), what are your thoughts on this (e.g. how should it be handled, what regulatory changes do you think might be needed etc.) and do you have any concern about the Isle of Wight Council (IWC) potentially funnelling some of the money toward Openreach rather than yourselves (much like happened with the original Broadband Delivery UK programme)?

ANSWER:

It would have been nice if the government had stuck to its full-fibre to the home concept – the phrase ‘gigabit capable’ still requires definition. That said, for the very hardest to reach areas full FTTP will not be economic. In the Isle of Wight we estimate around the last 10% of premises will be uneconomic for FTTP.

Thankfully the new DCMS Outside In programme will be contracted centrally via DCMS and local authorities will not be the final arbiter in awarding contracts. I do think local authorities are institutionally biased towards BT Openreach and there is a significant risk still that much of the Outside In funding will flow to BT Openreach.

Q8. Speaking of cable networks, Virgin Media has recently started deploying DOCSIS 3.1 technology are delivering download speeds of over 1Gbps. Why did WightFibre ultimately choose to adopt FTTP instead of upgrading to DOCSIS 3.1?

ANSWER:

At the time of WightFibre’s original investment – full-fibre broadband was at the forefront of government strategy having been championed by Matt Hancock when he was Minister for Digital and subsequently DCMS. At that time, therefore, we made the decision to upgrade our HFC network to full-fibre to align with government strategy.

If we were making this decision today and with the advent of ‘gigabit capable’ broadband as an acceptable alternative to full-fibre, we would probably chose to upgrade our HFC network to DOCSIS 3.1. This could have been done for a fraction of the cost of the upgrade to full-fibre and much more quickly.

That said, the original decision is still sound. The inherent reliability of a full-fibre network versus that of a DOCSIS network means much higher service levels and speeds can ultimately be provided via full-fibre. In short, a full-fibre network has fewer ‘moving parts’ than a DOCIS network and so fewer points of failure. In addition, we have a single network to manage across the island rather than two.

Q9. The Isle of Wight is not part of the UK mainland but still faces many of the same obstacles, such as in its less economic rural areas. With that in mind, what have been your biggest challenges in the rollout so far and what sort of obstacles do you expect if or when trying to reach into the most remote locations?

ANSWER:

The biggest obstacle to the roll out so far has been the Isle of Wight Council. The situation is more complex than usual in that a PFI handed control of the island’s road and footways to a private, profit making company – Island Roads.

The WightFibre Gigabit Island project is being used by middle managers in Island Roads and the Isle of Wight Council as a revenue generating opportunity. It is certainly not seen as a strategic infrastructure project by anyone other than local politicians and the executive officers in the council. WightFibre are working through these challenges but at increased cost and delay to the rollout.

For the more remote areas we expect to use Openreach Dark X and PIA to minimise costs. For extreme remote areas we expect to use fixed wireless broadband – but we estimate using this solution only for between 1,000 and 3,000 very hard to reach premises.

Q10. Assuming all goes to plan and you eventually complete your FTTP roll-out then what comes next? For example, have you considered the possibility of expanding on to the mainland and would this be viable?

ANSWER:

WightFibre has no plans to expand beyond the Isle of Wight.

Q11. Finally, what industry development or change are you most looking forward to over the next year?

ANSWER:

WightFibre is looking forward to the release of DCMS Inside Out funding. We see this funding as key to achieving 100% premises coverage. WightFibre’s aim is for the Isle of Wight to be the first rural area of the UK to have 100% gigabit capable coverage.

We’d just like to thank John for agreeing to take part in our interview and helping to provide a unique insight into WightFibre’s FTTP deployment on the Isle of Wight.

Leave a Comment
7 Responses
  1. Avatar TheFacts says:

    Population 58,000, 71,000 homes?

    1. Avatar Neb says:

      ONS (2017) says pop of 141,000

    2. Avatar Gary says:

      Did 80 thousand people leave IoW recently ?, If not then where do the rest of the population live if 58,000 are urban 10k are rural and 5k are extreme.

    3. Avatar The Facts says:

      Read again, ignore my comment!

  2. Avatar chris conder says:

    fantastic altnet, they have persevered despite the obstacles government puts in the way. Good luck to them. keep the faith.

    1. Avatar AndyCoffin says:

      agreed, was with their cable service when it was in carlisle before virgin took over. rock solid 95% of the time (was built by omne before they took it over and upgraded it) with excellent ping times and the few times it went down was fixed that day by the team they kept local.

      Was quite sad when they left, left virgin a few month later as the pings where much worse and i did a lot of online clan games at the time (quake, counter strike, solder of fortune 2 to name a few)

  3. Avatar Linda Entwistle says:

    We live semi rural with in 3 miles a green cabinet has fibre to the east of us and 2 miles another to the north but a different exchange number yet we in between do not get fibre as we are to far from the cabinet. We have homes , businesses all requiring fibre but we are the forgotten few . Post code TD113PZ BT have told us they have reached their 95% target and we must look to other providers . not exceptable as we only get 2 mb at best .

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