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BT to Extract 200 Tonnes of UK Copper Cable in 2023 UPDATE

Friday, Jun 9th, 2023 (11:11 am) - Score 19,768
copper cable pile

As the UK rollout of full fibre (FTTP) broadband gathers pace, BT are increasingly turning their attention to the challenge of how to extract all of that valuable copper leftover from their legacy phone network. Initial trials have already taken place, and they now expect to extract over 200 tonnes of copper cable this year.

The complete extraction of BT and Openreach’s legacy cables and kit will be a slow process because some parts of the UK are still likely to need them for many years longer, while consumers also have to be given time to migrate. Nevertheless, Openreach’s new Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network already covers 10.27 million premises, and they aim to reach 25 million by December 2026. But they recently hinted that this might grow up to 30 million by 2030 (here), which would only leave a tiny portion of premises stuck on ancient copper, or even aluminium, lines.

NOTE: The main focus of copper extraction will be on bigger core cables, since it may not always be viable to remove the small bits of twisted-pair lines that make up the final drop into homes.

The process of moving end-users away from copper and on to fibre optic infrastructure is already underway and that will only expand over the coming years, albeit very gradually. BT recently stated that it remained “confident” of being able to “recover” an estimated 200,000 tonnes of copper from their old legacy network through the 2030s.

In terms of value, we’ve seen a lot of wild figures over the years, although it’s worth remembering that the extraction process alone will cost a fair bit of money. In terms of the raw material value, at the moment some traders report that 1kg of copper is worth about £7, which suggests that 200,000 tonnes might be worth £1.4bn, but this varies with time and issues of purity also have an impact (we’d allow a range of £800m to £1.6bn).

However, we should point out that the BT Group aren’t merely looking to recycle old coppers cables, but also older electronic equipment from their fixed line and EE mobile network. “We’re looking at ways to remove, reuse and recycle our old legacy networks, such as the PSTN (public switched telephone network) and 3G, which are some of the larger drivers of energy consumption,” said Matt Manning, BT Group’s Head of Circular Economy.

In an effort to reduce BT Group’s e-waste, the operator has now created an Exchange Clearance Operation (ECO) programme, which involves recovering, recycling, and reselling equipment from old telephone exchanges, “allowing us to close-down those ageing, inefficient networks and to downsize the number of buildings we have.”

NOTE: Openreach has around 5,600 exchanges, but hybrid fibre (FTTC, G.fast) and full fibre (FTTP) services are supplied via different exchanges (c.1,000 of that 5,600 total) – so up to 4,600 may eventually close (after 2030) – see here, here and here.

Matt Manning said:

“To do this we have teamed up with N2S2 and TXO3, European leaders in recycling telecoms equipment and enabling re-use. TXO has offered BT Group its invaluable expertise in promoting internal re-use, as well as its ability to resell equipment into the global market, keeping equipment in use.

We’re also embracing innovative processes. Working with N2S we are exploring the potential of bioleaching – a process used to extract and recover precious metals from technology equipment, for re-use.

This year alone, the programme will extract over 200 tonnes of copper cable, (equivalent to the weight of over 140 Ford Focus cars), will see over 2,000 tonnes of lead batteries recycled and will generate £4m with these combined activities in addition to recycling & resale of redundant network equipment.”

At the end of the day, the operator’s old copper does have plenty of value, albeit probably not as much as some people expect. We have also asked Openreach for an update on the trials they undertook last year to “better understand the costs associated” with extracting their old cable, since this will have a significant bearing on the final benefit returned.

UPDATE 2:40pm

Just to clarify. The Exchange Clearance Operation (ECO) programme is a BT Group initiative rather than Openreach and the copper being recovered will be from BT kit in the exchange, although it all feeds into the same overall task.

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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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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Comments
48 Responses
  1. Avatar photo John says:

    Wonder if wacko environmental loonies will consider this an evil mine that must be stopped because god forbid extracting resources as it will yield more copper than the actual mines

    1. Avatar photo Iain says:

      There’s no need to invent boogeymen.

    2. Avatar photo XGS Is On says:

      I think that one was a lot funnier in your head, John.

    3. Avatar photo Phil says:

      They just as insane as the 5g causes corona mob, probably even more because they want everyone to be poor and keep blocking roads believing it will make the weather better

      Would not put it past them

    4. Avatar photo Aled says:

      Uhh… normally those types of people are well into the whole sustainability/reuse/recycle circular economy stuff. I doubt they’ed campaign against their own policies.

    5. Avatar photo John says:

      If they were about actual sustainability they would not be against nuclear power and yes blocking roads does not make sense as it causes congestion

      You always see the JSO knobs using tons of plastics

      They are a lunatic destructive cult and the state is on their side. There’s even a video of the police dragging one back to the road and there’s an article about a judge who says he’s “with them” even though they are criminals

    6. Avatar photo Dan says:

      Why would anyone complain about a sustainable recycling program that removes the need for actual mines, which damage both the planet and communities? Plonker.

    7. Avatar photo Alistair says:

      Why would anyone complain about transportation and believe blocking roads makes the weather less hot/less cold (depending on the season)

      There are crazies for everything. There’s a new video every day now with a working class raging about these spoilt brats preventing them from making money

    8. Avatar photo charles says:

      @John

      Their Head nutter, I mean “Leader” drives an old 3Ltr Diesel..

      Says it all

  2. Avatar photo MilesT says:

    It’s a pity that the money recovered from recycling the copper wouldn’t cover the provision of FTTP (or near equivalents)

    1. Avatar photo XGS Is On says:

      It really isn’t: the cost of copper would have to be insanely high for it to cover the bill. Given how much we depend on the metal we’d be in a fair bit of trouble

    2. Avatar photo Andrew G says:

      Or maybe it is.

      https://www.theregister.com/2011/09/22/bt_copper_cable_theft/

      Let’s assume that the Reg estimates were 30% too high, and that 10% of the copper’s already been removed. They’re still sitting on around 6 million tonnes of the stuff. Further assume that a third of it is for various reasons beyond economic recovery (eg direct burial). That’s still 4m tonnes. At current spot prices that’s around £32bn. Let’s assume that the cost of recovery and processing is a third of that (it really shouldn’t be anything like so high), and there’s still £20bn+ of money that could go one heck of a long way towards national FTTP coverage.

      I expect that it will instead go into BT’s corporate coffers, and be used for anything except better service customers.

    3. Avatar photo The witcher says:

      Openreach did a national cable recovery of redundant copper junction cables about 10 years ago, after the register article.
      Don’t underestimate the difficulties of extraction. Pulling out lengths of copper that is intertwined with fibre will be a hazardous and potentially costly exercise

    4. Avatar photo Andrew G says:

      Indeed, that’s why I knocked the Reg estimate down from 10m tonnes to a miserly 4m tonnes.

  3. Avatar photo JimH says:

    Should go a little towards helping plug the deficit in the BT pension fund. Although, I don’t think there is enough copper for this.

  4. Avatar photo Chris Jones says:

    Maybe Openreach will consider reusing this copper by replacing aluminium (and steel) wires in many rural telephone connections. If this is done, my FTTC download speed would probably increase by as much as 50% to 25Mbps.

    I will probably get FTTP before Openreach decide how to make use of all that surplus copper wire, though.

    1. Avatar photo Jonny says:

      The expense of rural FTTP isn’t that the fibre cable costs a lot, it’s the labour required compared to the potential revenue. It would make no sense to pay engineers to install life-expired copper cabling.

    2. Avatar photo Simon Farnsworth says:

      The only reason to keep using metallic cables for Internet service is that they’re in place; fibre costs less than the scrap value of the same length of copper, and the remaining costs of installing a new wire are about the same whether you install fibre or copper.

      Once fibre is fitted, it’s cheaper to run than copper for the same grade of service; thus, given that the net cost of installing fibre is going to be lower than the cost of reusing copper lines, and the running cost of fibre is lower than that of copper, I’d be surprised if BT replaced aluminium or steel with scrap copper in preference to scrapping it and giving you FTTP instead.

  5. Avatar photo Chris Sayers says:

    I’m sure there will be a cost reward exercise taking place, there will be copper that is well worth recovering, I was surprised that our overhead copper was not recovered at the time of FTTP, and that appears to be the evident on our estate because the home’s that have been enabled, the copper line is still in place, the comment from our installer was there were no intentions to remove.

    1. Avatar photo Winston Smith says:

      Openreach have to install FTTP *and* the customer needs to take the service before the copper can be recovered. Also, it won’t be economical to remove copper one customer at a time.

    2. Avatar photo Andrew G says:

      In which case, Openreach need to install FTTP area by area, with all properties going FTTP and complete removal of copper. The alternative appears to be to leave £20bn+ of copper in situ because nobody’s clever enough to plan a proper FTTP roll out accompanied by scrapping of copper connections.

    3. Avatar photo Alex A says:

      The line from your house to the pole is a fraction of the overall run. Openreach will be interested in selling the larger copper cables from particularly PCPs to Exchanges and the pole to PCP cables will have a decent value. Openreach will also want to remove redundant copper equipment from the poles to free up space.

      I am suprised that they don’t remove the copper pair when fibre is installed though…

    4. Avatar photo Winston Smith says:

      Openreach will be able to remove copper running from the exchange to cabinets that have been migrated to FTTC after PSTN switch off, regardless of FTTP coverage.

    5. Avatar photo charles says:

      “I am surprised that they don’t remove the copper pair when fibre is installed though…”

      Every time I have offered I have been told no they want to keep it in case they need it – and then we remove it from the DP anyway – people don’t understand the switch off

    6. Avatar photo Ad47uk says:

      Agree with Andrew G, from the pole outside my house, there are two houses that have fibre via Openreach, would it not have been a good idea to get rid of the copper cable that is not used? What is works is that the new fibre cable also have a copper cable in them, looking at how thick they are.
      There is also two zzoomm fibre cables and I realise that Zzoomm is not allowed to take the copper cables down, but then if the cable is not in use, Openreach should. I doubt any one will go back to FTTC after having fibre.

    7. Avatar photo The witcher says:

      I believe openreach have stopped using hybrid fibre/copper cable.

    8. Avatar photo Ad47uk says:

      @The witcher, Are you sure they have stopped using Hybrid cable? My next door neighbour had Fibre around 3 months ago, maybe a little longer, and the cable that is used is pretty thick, certainly thicker than what Zzoomm uses. It is certainly openreach fibre and I presume she is still with BT, going by the routers around here and strength of signal.

  6. Avatar photo mwood says:

    Perhaps BT could dramatically reduce the cost of recovery by employing the criminals who who currently disrupt the service. If they don’t the crims will do the job anyway reducing BT’s estimated revenue.

    1. Avatar photo John says:

      Then the criminals would just get regular labour wages out of the taxpayer funded copper network. Openreach wants to be the one stealing those natural resources

    2. Avatar photo The witcher says:

      They would probably prefer to avoid all the collateral damage

  7. Avatar photo Ex Telecom Engineer says:

    Does the 200,000 tons include all the 2003/2002 coaxial cables possibly still used in the Exchanges and legacy network areas? Which would be far easier to recover than cables in ducts. Also, as alluded to in the article, circuit boards contain small amounts of precious metals and possibly some rare earth elements, the PSTN switch off will free up many many tons of circuit board scrap with an, as yet, undetermined value. Many have speculated how much BT’s scrap would be worth, as FTTP and cloud replaces legacy, although I’d think much of the legacy SDH Transmission network has already been replaced by DWDM.

    1. Avatar photo XGS Is On says:

      Coax is usually copper coated steel. Dielectric effect leaves most of the cable unused during transmission.

      Recovering metals from PCBs is certainly doable.

    2. Avatar photo FibreBubble says:

      The 2002 / 2003 coax is all copper and is double copper braid screened too.

    3. Avatar photo XGS Is On says:

      Excellent. This may end up kinda lucrative.

      I may buy more stock before Altice get it all.

    4. Avatar photo Clive Tanner says:

      Maybe a good PR effort could be to put some of the copper to use by making life-size copper sculpture of Greta Thunberg

  8. Avatar photo Steve says:

    Should probably contact Fast2Fibre who have an already proven extraction process.woukd save a lot of time and money.

  9. Avatar photo EDWARD SPENCER says:

    I too have heard of Fast2Fibre and their copper extraction technology.last I heard it has been field tested.
    They are linked with Ridgecrest PLC and in advanced talk of an RTO.
    This could be just the job for them.

  10. Avatar photo Chris Owen says:

    These copper wires were mostly laid and paid for by the GPO, the forerunner of todays BT.
    Therefore, are they not owned by the public, and so should any windfall be returned to them ?

    1. Avatar photo XGS Is On says:

      No. The copper is owned by BT’s shareholders.

    2. Avatar photo Andrew G says:

      That’s unfortunately true. Interestingly, BT’s privatisation raised £15bn, and that was probably only the scrap value of the network at the time. Between 1984 when the first tranche of BT shares were sold, and then subsequent tranches in 1987 and 1991, the copper price was about a quarter of its current value, combine that with the Reg tonnage estimates, and seems we sold off the copper at market value, and threw in one of the world’s largest and most advanced telecoms companies for free. If you see Sid, tell him.

    3. Avatar photo FibreBubble says:

      ..and nearly 40 years that £15Bn adjusted for inflation would be £45Bn. Instead BT capitalises today at £15Bn. BT shareholders need all the help they can get!

  11. Avatar photo TrueFibre says:

    I am so glad I made the switch from copper to full fibre not just for speed but manly for super reliable connection

    1. Avatar photo Ad47uk says:

      Was your FTTC that bad in reliability? I had a problem with mine a few years ago where for some reason the only thing that would sync was a Huawei Modem, even ECI modem that Plusnet sent me when I first had FTTC would not sync. I had to borrow my next door neighbour’s old Huawei modem to get online, which is how I knew it was only a Huawei modem that would connect. My hub one would not either.
      Openreach sent some people up and spent a week trying to solve the problem even their test equipment would not sync, here are at the cabinet. In the end, they more or less gave up and said just to keep the Huawei modem inline.i got a second hand one from Ebay so I could give the one back to my neighbour. Plusnet sent me a Zyxel router to see if that would work, it did for a week and then went the same way, so Huawei modem back on and the Wan from router to that.

      at some point, the fault must have been fixed or something changed in the cabinet as i tried the Zyxel directly again, a while back and it worked fine, the old ECI modem would not, the hub one did.
      so i went back to using the Zyxel for a while until that went belly up and then the hub one.

      now I got myself a new router and put the Hauwie modem back in line.

      That was the only problem I have had and got around it for a year.
      FTTC here is now fine and have been for at least a couple of years.
      I am changing to fibre, reluctantly because it is cheaper than staying with FTTC, and also it is a 12-month contract.
      I just hope things go better this week with installation than last week.

  12. Avatar photo Buggerlugz says:

    If only they’d extract the copper from the telegraph poles twisted pairs eh……

    1. Avatar photo XGS Is On says:

      Ofcom don’t allow it.

  13. Avatar photo FibreBubble says:

    Seen this happening at one of the local large exchanges ( Digital Main Switching Unit). They are lifting anything metal. Fridges, tables, trolleys etc. As well as electronics and cable

    There is not a massive amount but with the scale of BT it all adds up.

    I have also seen local main cables being offloaded into other cables on gradual breakdown where they used to be replaced. This is very labour intensive. On complicated tied frames it can take weeks.

  14. Avatar photo Nicholas Roberts says:

    Expect lots of other sub-terranean services to have unexpected outages as Project Ripper get underway.
    As many scars on the infrastructure than North-Sea Gas ?

  15. Avatar photo Manajemen says:

    What initiatives is the BT Group taking to address environmental concerns related to old legacy networks, such as the PSTN and 3G, and how do they plan to remove, reuse, and recycle the associated equipment?
    Visit us telkom university

Comments are closed

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