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Hyperoptic CEO on Consolidation and Obstacles to Urban Full Fibre Builds

Tuesday, April 19th, 2022 (12:01 am) - Score 6,072
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From “lofty goals” to becoming one of the UK’s largest full fibre (FTTP/B) broadband ISPs and network builders, Hyperoptic has come a long way in the last 11 years and they’re now embarking on a new plan to cover 2 million homes by the end of 2023. We chat to CEO and Co-Founder, Dana Tobak, about their plans and perspective.

Hyperoptic is one of the country’s oldest and most respected pioneers of alternative “full fibre” networks. The company first sprang into life in 2011 with a plan to connect large residential (MDU) and office buildings in London to one of the UK’s first ever gigabit speed broadband services and they’ve since grown to cover 825,000 premises (across parts of 57 towns and cities), with 230,000 customers connected and over 1,800 staff.

NOTE: Hyperoptic was co-founded in 2010 by Dana Tobak and business partner Boris Ivanovic, who had both previously setup the successful ISP BE Broadband (BE Unlimited), which in 2006 was gobbled up by O2, before ultimately becoming part of Sky Broadband.

Admittedly, despite being one of the largest full fibre operators in the country, things haven’t always quite gone to plan. “We set ourselves some pretty lofty goals in our early days. Since then, we have learnt an incredible amount about scaling our build method [and adapting] our build model,” said Dana, while referencing their previous aim of covering 2 million homes by 2021 and 5 million by 2024.

However, while the operator may have started out as one of the market’s first alternative network providers for full fibre, they are now just one amongst a sea of a hundred or more other AltNets. But unlike many of those, Hyperoptic has an established customer base with strong revenues of £51.70m to the end of 2020 (up 32%). Yet Dana doesn’t expect all of those AltNets to survive and we’d tend to agree.

If you add up all of the claims being made, we’re going to be able to service the country three times over. It is inevitable that some will fail and some will make it. No one expects in the long term for there to be more than three or four networks, so it then just becomes a case of who fails, who buys whom, and when. … Thousands of Km of fibre in the ground is only valuable if it’s being used to provide a service and generate return,” said Dana.

Naturally, as an operator that is much more focused on cities and towns, Hyperoptic’s boss said they’re “unlikely to bid for tenders” under the Government’s new rural-focused £5bn Project Gigabit broadband rollout programme. But at the same time, Dana warns that there are still many poorly served urban areas that are at risk of being neglected.

In these cases, it may well be that [public] subsidy is not required, but rather clarity of whether other operators intend to upgrade or roll out to these locations,” said Dana. The statement is referencing what is known as the “hold up problem“, whereby AltNets “defer investment in a specific location due to a lack of clarity of what other operators, particularly the incumbent [Openreach], will do.” So far there has not been an easy solution to this, since urban areas are aggressively competitive and thus largely left up to the market to fix.

The full interview goes into this in a bit more detail and also covers various other areas, such as their future plans for multi-gigabit broadband speeds (or lack thereof), the problem with harnessing Openreach’s existing cable ducts and poles at scale (Physical Infrastructure Access) and more..

The Interview

1. Firstly, can you share with us a quick update on the status of your network coverage (premises passed so far etc.) and how much total investment Hyperoptic has managed to attract?

ANSWER:

Hyperoptic’s network now extends to over 825,000 homes and businesses. We are also fast approaching the milestone of a quarter of a million customers.

So far, £600m in debt has been raised to fund Hyperoptics growth. KKR acquired a majority 75% equity stake in 2019 for an Undisclosed Amount.

2. For many years Hyperoptic’s primary deployment focus seemed to be on large residential buildings (Multi-Dwelling Units) and office blocks, usually those comprising of at least 50 units (flats). But in recent years you’ve begun to branch out into housing / Single-Dwelling Units (new build and existing sites).

How much of a role do you expect SDUs to play in your plans going forward, particularly given that the opportunities in the MDU space are somewhat more finite and SDUs are more challenging?

ANSWER:

You’re right, SDUs and smaller MDUs are becoming a larger proportion of our footprint. In our early days we focused on connecting large blocks of flats and as we scaled, the company evolved its business model to service smaller sites, as well as new build housing developments. Particularly where we could leverage our pre-existing footprint. As an example of that, we now have nationwide partnerships with the UK housebuilders like Barratt Homes, CALA Homes, and Avant Homes.

3. Hyperoptic, like a lot of alternative networks, are benefitting from greater access to run new fibre via Openreach’s existing ducts and poles (Physical Infrastructure Access), which has become much more attractive since Ofcom made a number of key regulatory changes a few years ago.

How big is the role of PIA in your future plans today vs five years ago and are there any particular areas where you think PIA still needs to be improved?

ANSWER:

PIA is a critical enabler of our network. We were one of the first network operators to use PIA and our usage continues to grow in line with our rollout plans – particularly as we grow to service smaller MDUs and SDUs. With that said, it can be difficult to use PIA at scale to underpin a larger network rollout. Many of its processes do not readily automate and so it can be cumbersome to administer at scale.

Restrictions and controls on access and cost sharing also inhibit our ability to use Openreach ducting and poles in the same way that Openreach itself would. We are part of an industry forum that reviews the performance of the PIA remedies and look forward to some of these barriers being addressed in the future.

4. The market that Hyperoptic first entered into in 2011 has change dramatically in the last decade. Back then you were a pioneer in the alternative network space. With the odd exception (e.g. B4RN), nobody else was trying to build gigabit-capable fibre in the way and at the scale you were. But today there are masses of alternative networks and it seems to be a lot easier to attract investment for such projects, thanks to various regulatory and government changes.

Given the aggressive competition you now face from Openreach and all those AltNets in urban areas – particularly via the likes of CityFibre, G.Network, CommunityFibre and others – do you think that the market is becoming more of a challenge as the threat from overbuild rises, and how do you manage that?

ANSWER:

If you add up all of the claims being made, we’re going to be able to service the country three times over. It is inevitable that some will fail and some will make it. No one expects in the long term for there to be more than three or four networks, so it then just becomes a case of who fails, who buys whom, and when.

The reality is that investors are going to become increasingly focused on their return. It’s all well and good making big claims and declaring premises passed, but the proof point is whether you are providing a service that people are willing to pay for.

When you compare Hyperoptic’s revenues to those you have listed, we are considerably larger. Despite our market being more competitive we think this proof of customer attractiveness and return-on-investment positions us well for the future. Thousands of Km of fibre in the ground is only valuable if it’s being used to provide a service and generate return.

Please flick over to page 2 to read the remaining interview.

Leave a Comment
5 Responses
  1. James™ says:

    Good read! Thanks Mark

  2. John says:

    So 800k homes in 11 years but an additional 1.2m in 20 months is not lofty?

    1. Peter F says:

      Could also be a lot do with their “nationwide partnerships with the UK housebuilders like Barratt Homes, CALA Homes, and Avant Homes.” Would probably be a few 100s

  3. Jeremy_da_best says:

    They’ve had those relationships for years and years so would only be new builds which would add additional homes from them (i used to work in wayleave sales for them)

  4. A_Builder says:

    Few issues with business customer service.

    Hyper – for reasons best known to only themselves changed our block of fixed IP’s last week to a single IP. So completely stuffed some of outwards facing main servers.

    Getting it reverted back or being set up with a fresh block of IP’s, not ideal as would need to set DNS up again and wait for it to propagate is like banging your head against a wall.

    No sense of urgency or apology at all.

    It is a shame but it is an inevitable part of scaling that CS suffers as a small dedicated team can’t manage it and it then goes to a blob of software that gets in the way of doing the right thing.

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