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Looking at the Laterals in CityFibre’s UK FTTP Broadband Rollout

Tuesday, May 4th, 2021 (9:21 am) - Score 7,824
cityfibre Toby Box photo

Sometimes it’s interesting to probe a little deeper into the build strategies of different “full fibre” networks, and we recently did just that with CityFibre after seeing a number of instances where the operator’s civil engineering contractors seemed to be skipping lateral cuts in some of their Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) deployments.

CityFibre is currently investing £4bn to cover 1 million UK premises with their alternative gigabit-capable FTTP broadband network by the end of 2021 (over 650,000 have already been reached) and then 8 million premises across 285 cities, towns and villages – c.30% of the UK (here). The latter target is expected to be “substantially completed” by the end of 2025 and it’s supported by various ISPs (e.g. Vodafone, Zen Internet, TalkTalk etc.).

NOTE: A Toby Box (street connection point) – as pictured above – is an underground storage box, usually housing fibre Microducts and Splice enclosures. One box may be used to serve 1-2 homes.

At this point those unfamiliar with the specifics of a “full fibre” build might well be asking themselves the obvious question – just what is all this “laterals” stuff he’s talking about? Some FTTP deployments, particularly those from major players in dense urban areas (e.g. Openreach, Virgin Media, CityFibre), will see operators dig a trench for their new cable ducts (via pavements, roads etc.) and then add a lateral cut outsides homes. The lateral cut often connects through a Toby Box in the pavement just outside your house.

After that the “final drop” connection into homes – over your own private property – is usually left until an order is made. The exception is if the local network is deployed onto a new build site, since such homes could be fully pre-installed. However, there can be lots of variations in the approaches taken between operators and so this description is an oversimplification. The approach for an overhead (telegraph poles etc.) build is also different.

Sometimes lateral cuts aren’t needed, such as when an operator is only running a fibre duct down your street because it’s being built for a private business connection (leased line), or if the operator wants to speed up their deployment and possibly reduce some of their initial build costs (e.g. skipping laterals in areas where you expect take-up to be low). In the case of the latter, this may push the cost for doing laterals into the final drop.

In other cases alternative network providers, particularly those in rural areas, may simply run a house drop tube to wherever they think is sensibly close enough to local homes (often to the boundary) and cap it off. Broadly speaking, there can be various different approaches, but laterals and tobys remain most common for big operators with big urban deployments.

The use of Openreach’s Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA) product, which enables rival operators to run fibre through the incumbent’s existing cable ducts and poles, may also change a provider’s approach in some areas.

Laterals on CityFibre

Over the past few months some of our more observant readers have helped us to spot that a few parts of CityFibre’s recent FTTP builds have been conducted without adding laterals, which is not something we’ve seen from them before. As above, the largest urban fibre builders generally do build laterals to homes as they go.

In this case most of the examples have come from several streets in Leeds, although other anecdotal evidence has cropped up elsewhere around the UK. Naturally we were curious whether this meant CityFibre had adopted a new build strategy, although it seems like they only intend to do it very occasionally.

A CityFibre spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk:

“We can confirm that no changes have been made to our network design and build model in this respect. In almost all cases, laterals cuts will be built at the same time as the main route. There may be occasional instances in which this approach is altered but this is not for reasons of demand, competition or cost control.

As we build, we drop fibre as close to every prospective customer premises as possible. This enables us to offer our customers and theirs with a quick single-visit installation, typically completed in less than two hours and with industry leading Right-First-Time scores. We have also proven this to be the most efficient approach from a speed of deployment, resource allocation and cost of build perspective.”

We should point out that doing laterals in the pavement isn’t as massively disruptive as the main build, but it can still attract a fair cost (experiences may vary), and thus for big operators it usually makes more sense to do them at the same time as you’re trenching through the pavement. This also helps to keep later installation costs for homes down to a minimum.

As above, CityFibre states that their approach is all about finding the fastest and most efficient approach to conduct their build. The operator claims to have done a lot of research on this so that they can pass as many properties as possible. However, we understand that their method may sometimes change, such as when they also have a wholesale customer or particular existing infrastructure to deal with.

So, if you see CityFibre’s contractors doing laterals for FTTP in one street, but not your street (i.e. only the trench is cut), then this doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t be able to order their service once it goes live (unless of course the work is for a private fibre line as that is a different service entirely). Some people have expressed concern to us about the latter, but hopefully this answers that.

Likewise, other operators have different approaches, so don’t expect lateral cuts to be the norm for everybody.

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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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22 Responses
  1. sdf-2345 says:

    Excellent article.

  2. The Facts says:

    Looks like they are using PIA to the small street boxes and will put microduct in the pavement when they get an order.

  3. Dave says:

    Where I live they have adopted a mix of ducting with laterals and using existing telegraph poles for overhead deployment depending on what is easier in each location. It makes sense to me.

    1. Shaun McDonald says:

      Yes same here in Ipswich. Interestingly I’ve got an Openreach cable (now unused) and CityFibre fibre to 2 different telegraph poles.

      I’ve noticed some properties have the pavement box others don’t, often where there is a telegraph like available.

    2. Mark Jackson says:

      As per the article, overhead deployments are indeed a different kettle of fish.

  4. Just a thought says:

    When are the likes of local builders merchants and big box DIY going to stick ‘fibre duct’ that a householder can bury when say they put a new drive down leaving an empty but usable duct from property to drive gate post.

    1. The Facts says:

      How about use water pipe they can put their microduct into?

    2. David says:

      You can buy the duct from various places. You might not get grey though as its bt only. Ensure you use the correct colour. The network providers won’t beable to use blue as its only for water. Grey or green ducting only for telecommunications or cable TV.

  5. BStott says:

    As I write this, City Fibre are currently placing a smaller version of the green cabinet outside my home. This is about 100 meters from the cabinet that serves my property.

    Out of interest, how long can it take from Utility contractors doing this work and placing the purple cables underground to actually be able to order FTTP?

    1. Shaun McDonald says:

      Several months to a year was roughly the timeframe around me. Though this will probably vary a lot.

  6. Jay says:

    In my area most properties that i’ve bothered to look at have the toby box just outside the property.

    One thing i want to add though is that when the build was taking place i did not see any ducting!

    They literally buried reams of purple sheathed fibre in the ground and tee’d off each property. This was in multiple ‘Close’s’.

    Im not complaining but was rather surprised seeing absolutely no ducting- just fibre laid into the ground.

    1. Matt says:

      Hey Jay
      From watching Virgin and a few others locally do installations – they use a purple sleeve, which actually is the duct. They don’t have anything in at all. (When VM cabled Burton on Trent they were leaving spools of the stuff lying around – I went to be nosey because I was amazed they were still sat there and hadn’t been half-inched). It was just a hollow plastic tube.

      When the installation is complete they “blow” the fibre down the sheath upon installation the first time. A quick google for “Virgin media FTTH Chatteris” will take you to a blog with photos of how this is done (Though in that example they’re using green sheathing). Hope Mark doesn’t mind the “plug” (i’m nothing to do with the content) – it’s just for info!

    2. NE555 says:

      The “purple sheathed fibre” is, I believe, microducting – narrow plastic tubes, one per property. They blow the fibre down this tube when the customer orders service.

  7. Reaperman says:

    They put boxes on present phone poles on our street.

    Pity the only isp’s that you can sign up for look dodgy when you check their back grounds (2 are linked in some shifty way, 1 is related to golf shop????)

    And at the prices they wanted not good value for unknown risk taking.

  8. P jordan says:

    I work on behalf of cityfibre this is because we use a hybrid system using overhead and under ground to limit disruption

  9. Lee says:

    This is all great, but what about when the contractors stop the installation 25 metres from your house and then never come back? City fibre and Vodafone both say I can have the service, but I don’t have a Toby box…

    1. NE555 says:

      If they say you can have the service, then simply place an order and let them sort it out!

    2. Shaun McDonald says:

      Do you have a telegraph pole nearby that can be used? They might be using that for your property instead.

  10. Stuart says:

    Seen this in Rotherham when they were installing last Summer (still not able to order). Some houses have a Toby box, but the vast majority in my area don’t have a Toby box. The only houses with a Toby box appear to be underneath or nearby a high-voltage overhead power line.

  11. MikeP says:

    This article reminds me of a friend/customer of mine in Cambridge. Some 8 years ago VM put a cab at the end of the road, but no Toby Boxes or capped-off duct outside the properties. They took an order – turned out it was exactly this, laterals cut on order. So 3-month wait for civils, then excitement as the long+awaited install date arrived.
    Disappointment. The civils team had cut into the wrong duct – the one upstream from the cab. So he stayed on VDSL, wasn’t going to risk more disruption outside his house and another massive delay.

    1. Lee says:

      Yes, that’s what I’m afraid of. I ask for an install and it takes months. I then either wait on rolling monthly VDSL (with much higher monthly cost), or do another 12 month VDSL contract, but then end up paying for both VDSL and Full fibre for some/many months.
      It’s all the more frustrating because the pavement duct ends *literally* 20 metres from my house!

  12. Ralph says:

    Had fiber cables installed in every street in our area for the last year still waiting for it to be installed in buildings can’t find any one to tell us when it will be installed

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