Looking for help with the Online Safety Act - Ofcom consultations? Please get in touch. 

Is fibre to the premises based on a false premise?

The UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, is proposing a strategic shift to fibre optic networks to carry our broadband services. A key plank of the strategy is that British Telecom (BT ) should open up its ducts to competitive broadband providers in order to get fibre to the home. This post argues that there is a serious flaw in this reasoning.

The regulator is trying to incentivise the telecoms industry to meet government targets for super-fast broadband. Here is the opening statement of Ofcom's 10 year review document, released at the end of last month.

As part of a strategic shift to fibre, [we] will encourage encourage the roll-out of new fibre to the premise networks to homes, as an alternative to BT's planned innovation in copper-based technologies. BT will be required to open up its network allowing easier access for rivals to lay their own fibre cables [...] in its underground cable ducts.

The focus on fibre is therefore to be an important element in the plan to meet the government-set targets for superfast broadband. Moreover, government and industry both want to progress towards a new technology called ultrafast broadband. This is broadband with speeds of over 100Mbts/s . Pushing out fibre networks is essential to this goal, as the existing copper networks are limited in their ability to carry such high speed data - but note that reference to BT's 'planned innovation' - of which, more later.

It looks like a great plan, but here's the flaw.

Ducts are protective tubing or piping, usually made of plastic, which are laid in the ground and the telephone wire to the house is drawn through them. Ducts mean that the fragile wiring is protected against damage from water, limescale or corrosive substances in the earth. Ducts also mean that it is easier to find the wires again if repairs are needed, and they will usually be wide enough to contain more than one wire, so theoretically, additional wires could be laid through them. Ducts will certainly be essential in order to minimise the cost of laying new fibre lines to people's homes.

Now for the 'but'. In many parts of England, especially where there are large estates of houses built in 1960s, and there are no ducts. This includes the area where I live. Phone wires were laid duct-free, in the earth. They are sometimes buried deep, and impossible to find.

The lack of ducts creates problems for BT's local network division, Openreach, because maintaining these buried lines is difficult and can be expensive. For example, when one or more lines are connected onto the system, there is a joint and these joints are frequently under the pavement, in a small box. If a line is faulty and cannot be repaired, then a new line could be installed from the house to the joint box under the pavement and this costs £750. When the engineer cannot find a joint, and there is no record of where it is - what do they do? The track and trace engineer turns up, and when he cannot find it, they have to guess where to dig. Digging, I'm reliably told, costs £400-500 per hole (2014 prices). Failing to find a line or a joint could be a costly mistake.

I actually don't know how far-reaching the lack of ducting is. My knowledge is, I will admit, derived from serendipity. I uncovered this issue when my home phone line that carries my broadband suddenly and terminally died. Were it not for the abysmal and unspeakably bad service from BT, maybe I would never have found out the truth. But by the time the Openreach engineers arrived (plural - there were several visits) I was not minded to accept a bodged fix, so I had in-depth discussions about what they could do and what the underlying problem was. I repeatedly heard the same stories.

My hunch is that the lack of ducting could be more widespread than we think. It isn't just a matter of rural areas, because the 1960s housing that I am referring to is part of the typically English urban landscape. The scale of the problem certainly raises questions that are worth asking and indeed should be asked.

If my information is correct, then all of this means that there nothing there that a rival broadband provider would want to use. It also means that the only alternative to way to get fibre to the premises would be for BT or its competitors to dig up the streets and people's front gardens. This would be a very high cost strategy for fibre to the home, likely to run into the £billions.

BT obviously knows how big a problem it is, and that would explain why it is working on G-fast to deliver the "ultrafast" broadband services. G-fast is a copper-based technology to carry broadband over short distances ( less than 500 metres) in the local loop and deliver speeds of between 150 Mbit/s and 1 Gbit/s. (For more on G-Fast technology, see Wikipedia). The theory is that if G-fast works, then it could provide an alternative to fibre to the premises.

G-fast is major investment. It could be where the £1 billion carrot offered to Ofcom will go. BT would not be investing those kind of sums in Gfast technology, if the alternative was cheaper.

It is would seem therefore, that whilst opening up ducts is great in theory, in many oparts of the UK it will not be an alternative to BT's innovative technologies as suggested by the Ofcom review. Quite the contrary, Ofcom's positioning of fibre as an alternative to G-fast seems a bit miscontrued. Surely, G-fast is the alternative to laying fibre? G-fast will be the only possibility for many people, including myself, if they want ultrafast broadband direct to the home. Hence the flaw in Ofcom's reasoning.

It is in the national interest to have a superfast broadband network. These issues deserve a proper airing. We should have a public debate about the cost of upgrading the network and what we want, as a nation, for our future communications infrastructure. What's not acceptable is for the public to be left in the dark.


The Ofcom statement is here: Making communications work for everyone Initial conclusions from the Strategic Review of Digital Communications

See also UK telecoms review - is Openreach too hot to touch?

Ofcom review: Static on the line brings uncertainty for broadband industry

For a discussion of corporate power and the Internet see my new book The Closing of the Net to be published in March 2016. (Amazon currently only showing hardback - there is a paperback on the way!)

This is an original article from Iptegrity.com and reflects research that I have carried out. If you refer to it or to its content, please cite my name as the author, and provide a link back to iptegrity.com. Media and Academics - please cite as Monica Horten, 2016, Out for a duct: what chance for fibre to the home?, in Iptegrity.com, 3 March 2016. Commercial users - please contact me.


Iptegrity moves on!

May 2024: Iptegrity is being re-developed to upgrade the Joomla software.

Please bear with us until the new site is ready.

Find me on LinkedIn

About Iptegrity

Iptegrity.com is the website of Dr Monica Horten. I am an  independent policy advisor: online safety, technology and human rights. In April 2024, I was appointed as an independent expert on the Council of Europe Committee of Experts on online safety and empowerment of content creators and users. I am a published author, and post-doctoral scholar. I hold a PhD from the University of Westminster, and a DipM from the Chartered Institute of Marketing. I cover the UK and EU. I'm a former tech journalist, and an experienced panelist and Chair. My media credits include the BBC, iNews, Times, Guardian and Politico.

Iptegrity.com is made available free of charge for non-commercial use. Please link back and attribute Dr Monica Horten.  Contact me to use any of my content for commercial purposes.  

The politics of copyright

A Copyright Masquerade - How corporate lobbying threatens online freedoms

'timely and provocative' Entertainment Law Review