20 December 2018
Five per cent of the UK still lacks access to broadband connectivity. RAHIEL NASIR looks at the progress service providers are making in rolling out networks.
At the start of the year, the government declared it had achieved its manifesto promise of extending superfast broadband to 95 per cent of the UK by the end of 2017. In an announcement made at the end of January, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said the £1.7bn superfast broadband rollout had so far reached more than 4.5m premises, mainly in rural areas (see Networking+ Feb 2018 issue).
Citing figures published by Thinkbroadband, DCMS said more than 19 out of 20 homes and businesses now have the opportunity to upgrade their internet connections to speeds of 24Mbps or faster. It said that’s more than double Ofcom’s recommendation for a typical family home.
But according to Thinkbroadband, the 1.4m premises that make up the remaining five per cent are still struggling with no speed option above 24Mbps. Editor Andrew Ferguson said: “Although rural areas make up a large portion of the five per cent, there are many areas within major cities also struggling with broadband speeds. Ironically, Westminster is one of those areas which finds itself behind the curve, alongside areas of Manchester, Liverpool, Bangor, Glasgow and Belfast. Clearly more needs to be done to ensure no premises are left behind as we continue on the road to a superfast Britain.”
Ferguson also pointed out that the technology itself isn’t the problem: “The parts of the UK with slow broadband speeds need more work to roll out better services. Those areas must therefore overcome the obstacles of time limitations and installation costs before superfast broadband is available.”
Bridging the divide
One specialist provider that is helping to overcome the challenges of connecting Britain’s rural areas with full fibre is Gigaclear Networks. Established in 2010, the Oxfordshire-based company said its network currently reaches more than 200 communities across 20 counties including, Essex, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, among others. Its ultimate aim is to reach 500,000 rural residential and business properties by 2022.
For example in East Berkshire, Gigaclear is giving more than 6,000 homes and businesses in rural parts of the country access to its ultrafast network. As part of the Superfast Berkshire project, the company has been awarded the contract to help extend better broadband coverage to more than 99.5 per cent of the county over the next two years. The contract, awarded by West Berkshire Council under its phase 3 programme, means that premises will have access to speeds of up to 1,000Mbps. Gigaclear has also been working with Superfast Berkshire under the phase 2 contract to connect nearly 12,000 homes and businesses in West Berkshire to ultrafast broadband.
In a separate deployment in South West England, in April Gigaclear announced it had become the first utility provider since 1935 to cross the Clifton Suspension Bridge. The company said it laid fibre underneath the bridge to avoid any disruption to locals or the bridge itself. The fibre runs in a tray fixed to the wooden beams that make up the decking which, as well as protecting it from the elements also provides a stable network. Gigaclear says the aim is to provide a future-proof broadband solution to the “forgotten communities” that are “untouched” by other broadband rivals and have previously struggled with antique copper-based networks. It added that the investment will spell the end to the “clear disparity” between the fibre-rich city of Bristol and the digitally stagnant surrounding villages, with many residents limited and struggling with speeds as slow as 1Mbps. The full initial area of North Somerset is scheduled to be connected by late 2019.
Separately, Gigaclear is also working with rural community broadband specialist Voneus to speed up the adoption of ultrafast services in areas that have either poor or no connectivity. Under a partnership agreement signed earlier this year, Voneus will offer residential and business customers a wide range of broadband services over Gigaclear’s fibre network, with the ability to deliver ultrafast speeds of up to 1Gbps. For Gigaclear, the agreement will enable it to expand its existing ultrafast FTTH.
Voneus’ fixed wireless broadband services are currently available in around 50 rural communities spanning Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cheshire, Devon, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Somerset, South Wales, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Northamptonshire and Wiltshire. In February, it was granted powers by Ofcom under the Electronics Communications Code that will help it accelerate the rollout of superfast services to hard-to-reach communities. Speaking at the time, Alan Seddon, the company’s operations director, said: “There are numerous rural communities across the UK that are still struggling to get access to superfast broadband; many are stuck on lengthy waiting lists, in the hope that broadband will eventually reach their neighbourhoods. These Code Powers will cut the wait for the communities we serve. They make it simpler for us to expand our infrastructure into new places, meaning we can more quickly bring superfast broadband to more homes and businesses.”
Voneus reckons it can install broadband quickly and cost effectively, while delivering speeds of between 35Mbps and 50Mbps using ‘Wireless FTTH’ solutions that include the installation of an antenna to the customer’s premises and a dedicated router.
Seddon adds that not only is the company focused on bringing superfast broadband to more villages, it is also committed to ensuring its network infrastructure blends in with the environment. Wherever possible, it uses telegraph poles or existing buildings to mount its antennae and, as Seddon explained, while many villages are desperate for broadband, they don’t want ugly masts blighting the landscape. “Our idea has always been to build out networks that are sympathetic to the surrounding environment, making use of existing buildings like churches and village halls wherever we can.”
Another company that is working to connect rural areas is Worcesterbased ISP Airband. It claims to operate a large mast network which currently offers ultrafast connectivity to more than 20,000 premises in Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, North and South Wales, Devon, Somerset and Shropshire.
Airband’s Shropshire and Devon deployments are part of the government’s superfast broadband rollouts – under contracts worth £11.2m and £8m respectively, it plans deliver superfast connectivity to 30,000 premises across these counties by 2020.
For instance in June, the company said it had completed a three-year project to deliver superfast broadband access to 5,800 premises in the Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks, where it used fixed wireless technology to overcome the challenging terrain and protected status of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Meanwhile in February, Airband announced that the first customer on the Connecting Shropshire project has gone live. The initiative is part of the government’s superfast broadband rollout and is supported by the Marches Local Enterprise Partnership which has an £11.2m contract to connect more than 14,000 local premises by 2020.
Airband project manager Dave Lloyd said: “The project will be going live in five phases. Phase 1 is due to complete in the spring and involves 28 transmitter sites. During this period, Airband will be making superfast broadband available to 7,000 homes. Further areas will be going live incrementally as the network is created.”
The ISP’s deployment of fixed wireless broadband works by sending a radio signal from a transmitter site to a small receiver attached to the customer’s property. A cable is then run into the building allowing the end-user to access the internet in the same way as any other broadband connection. The transmitter provides 30Mbps connectivity to parts of Sheriffhales and Shifnal parishes as well as other communities further east.
Airband’s first customers went live just a few weeks after the launch of its first transmitter site which serves more than 300 homes and businesses. IT security manager Andrew Lee and his wife Sulayma live in a village outside Shifnal and had been waiting for faster broadband for four years.
Speaking at the time, Lee said: “We live in a tiny village with just 46 houses three miles from Shifnal, close to Cosford airbase, but our communications have always been poor. When BT upgraded the exchange in Albrighton it didn’t make any difference to us, so we were really keen to get a better connection with Airband.
“It’s a challenging location so installation wasn’t straightforward. I think this is because we are in a valley and it took a while to establish line-of-sight connection and also because our house is a listed building.”
He continued by saying that prior to the Airband connection, internet download speeds were 2.5Mbps which meant video streaming was always buffering and working from home was almost impossible. Now, the couple are said to have a broadband connection that offers 30Mbps.
Since then, Airband has received £16m investment from the Amber Infrastructure-managed National Digital Infrastructure Fund to help connect more rural homes and businesses with high-speed broadband. The firm said the funding will enable it to expand its network to an additional 50,000 business and residential premises in England and Wales by 2021. Airband added that it will also be used to drive further technology investment as it prepares to roll out RuralOptic, its FTTP broadband solution.
Relying on “antediluvian”copper lines
Another company that has recently received multimillion backing for rolling out its fibre networks is TrueSpeed Communications. Established in 2015, TrueSpeed claims it has already passed more than 5,000 rural households and businesses in villages in North-East Somerset, and is on track to pass more than 12,000 by the end of the year, with an ultimate goal of passing 220,000 properties by 2025.
Aviva Investors has committed £75m to supporting the introduction of TrueSpeed’s ultrafast full fibre broadband network across South West England. TrueSpeed says the funding will enable it to accelerate its expansion strategy to pass up to 75,000 homes and businesses in the region.
According to CEO Evan Wienburg, the lack of fibre broadband for rural businesses is an area of concern given the vital role they play in the UK’s economy. Citing the latest statistics from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he said such businesses account for around 24 per cent of all registered businesses and employ 3.5m people.
He added: “We recently conducted a study into the state of broadband in South West England, an area characterised by dispersed, rural communities. It revealed a region blighted by slow, intermittent broadband and a desire for faster broadband access that even outranked other vital local infrastructure investments such as new bus or rail transport links (44 per cent), new roads (42 per cent) and more electric car charging points (22 per cent). High-speed connectivity is today fundamental to regional growth.”
Wienburg believes that the notion of superfast broadband, with its reliance on “antediluvian” copper lines, is a poorly labelled interim fix. He also believes that the Advertising Standards Authority should reconsider its decision to permit part-fibre services to be advertised as ‘fibre’ broadband. “The decision allows the industry behemoths to continue to promote sub-standard part-copper broadband to businesses and to further bamboozle consumers, rather than focusing on building out their full fibre networks.”
John Mitchell, product management director at Sorrento Networks, is likely to support this view. Based in Belfast, Sorrento specialises in optical network solutions and also manufactures its own wavelength-division multiplexing products. When asked if the government’s claim of reaching 95 per cent of the country with superfast broadband is accurate, Mitchell said: “This is an accurate statement. The definition of superfast is download speeds of >30Mbps. It is important to note that 95 per cent UK coverage is recognised as the maximum limit of superfast rollout due to physical network constraints.
“Superfast, as deployed by Openreach, is based on FTTC technology. This is a part-optical fibre/part-copper wire architecture, where the feeder cable from the exchange to the street cabinet is optical fibre and the drop cable from the street cabinet to the customer’s premise is the existing twisted pair copper telephone wire. The limit to download speed is the length of the drop copper cable.”
Mitchell explained that in standard ADSL broadband, the active electronics driving the copper drop cable are located in the operator’s exchange or POP. This is typically up to 7km in length, but can be 20km in worst case scenarios. He said the longer the copper drop cable, the greater the signal attenuation, thus diminishing the download and upload speeds and to almost nothing in the case of very long copper cable lengths.
“In the FTTC architecture the active equipment, which drives the copper drop cable, is moved to street cabinet. This shortens the copper drop cable length to typically within 500m – the majority of urban street cabinets have this span of reach. Operating within this span, FTTC technology is able to offer at least 30Mbps and in some cases up to 80Mbps, thus fulfilling the definition of ‘superfast’.
Outside urban environments, Mitchell points out that the typical FTTC span increases significantly. “Where the copper drop cable from street cabinet to customer premise exceeds 1km there is little significant improvement, if any, in deploying FTTC technology over standard ADSL technology as current operates from operator exchange/POP locations. Therefore the current wave of superfast rollouts have not, and cannot, address the needs of the rural and semi-rural environment that is the remaining five per cent.”
According to Mitchell, the solution here lies in technologies which give the same download and upload speeds and quality of service independent of distance. This is perhaps where service providers such as TrueSpeed come in as it uses Active Ethernet technology to provide multigigabit capable symmetrical speeds through a full fibre network.
TrueSpeed also believes that making digital infrastructure projects the top priority would also help overcome the challenges. Wienburg said: “The National Infrastructure Assessment report from the [National Infrastructure Commission] argued last summer that Britain’s future lies in digital infrastructure such as 5G and fibre rather than in an extension of Victorian-era railway lines (e.g. HS2).”
Overcoming the challenges
The UK Fibre Connectivity Forum (UKFCF) is helping to overcome the challenges by working towards identifying the issues regarding the roll out to rural and remote areas, and says it has been lobbying for this cause over the past year. Its chairman Askar Sheibani – who is also CEO of the Comtek Group as well as chair of Deeside Business Forum – said by bringing together all stakeholders, the forum has pushed activity forward at a grass roots level at a faster pace than may otherwise have occurred.
“Our campaign has been launched in North Wales and has brought together, public sector, businesses, MPs, AMs, local government and community representatives across the six counties under the North Wales Economic Ambition Board.
“The board now has a strategy in place to ensure that North Wales will have ultra-fast broadband not only in the towns but also in the most remote communities. We applied for and won funding from the government as part of the North Wales Growth Deal. We are in the process of applying for LFFNF from the DCMS and the result of this will be known soon.”
The government launched its £190m LFFNF (Local Full Fibre Network) Challenge Fund a year ago in an effort to stimulate commercial investment in full fibre networks across the whole of the UK, including rural and urban locations. It aims to support companies who demonstrate approaches that encourage additional private investment and by making sustainable commercial deployments viable.
For Sorrento Networks, the challenges for rural broadband enhancement are driven not only by investment but also by technology. Mitchell said: “Copper lines are now redundant when faced with the bandwidth demands of the 21st century. Fibre optic-based connectivity will have to be expanded through a conjunction of existing fibre assets and new fibre plant deployments. The former will need legislation and drive from the regulator to open up duct, pole and dark fibre assets from the incumbent operators to the open market.”
Sheibani is likely to support this view: “Businesses cannot connect to the BT infrastructure in terms of leasing dark fibre. BT has a monopoly and chokes progress with restrictive rules and regulations which need government intervention to overcome them. The unfair hold which BT has over the roll out of broadband is a major obstruction in the creation of a level playing field for competition which would make the end product far more affordable for consumers.”
Wienburg pointed out that TrueSpeed and other challenger firms are demonstrating that it is possible to run a commercial business connecting the unconnected and poorly connected to full fibre broadband in areas previously considered too difficult to do without subsidy. And he certainly doesn’t mince his words when he says that the priority has to be extending full fibre coverage to everyone in the UK.
“Instead of wasting time – and a considerable amount of taxpayers’ money – on inadequate broadband roll outs, large and small providers alike should be rolling out full fibre networks to every household and business in the UK.
“The priority has to be extending full fibre coverage to everyone in the UK, that’s why its important that local government ensures these providers are not allowed to use taxpayers’ money to overbuild in areas where there is already full fibre provision.”