Bringing agility to infrastructure

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The UK may officially be working towards a target of gigabit connectivity by 2025, but consumer demand for superior connections is outstripping the pace of the national infrastructure build. The result? A growing community of alternative providers, with a £6.6 billion budget. Melanie Mingas reports

Last year, the UK’s independent network operators (INOs) increased the number of premises they cover by 50%, following a 23% increase the year prior.

Predominantly using a ultrafast fibre-to-the-premises or home (FTTP/H), fibre-to-the-building (FTTB) and, in a growing number of cases fixed WAN technology, in total INOs are estimated to cover 3.5 million premises across the country, according to figures from the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA).

When it comes to live connections to superfast and ultrafast fixed networks, INOs increased their reach 23% year on year to account for an estimated total of 366,000 live connections.

In total, independent operators accounted for an estimated 476,000 live connections at 2019-end, up 17% year-on-year. However, there is potential to go further, with Community Fibre CEO Graeme Oxby, advising local authorities in the country to “use their influence to enable the industry to continue making progress”. 

“Local city authorities are usually the largest landowner in any given area, so they can lead the way in future-proofing their properties by granting wayleaves to full fibre network operators. Community Fibre has worked with dozens of London’s largest landlords to connect 70% of Wandsworth and 57% of Southwark council-owned properties — clear evidence of the benefits INOs can continue to bring to communities across the country,” he says.

“Full fibre installation can cause less disruption than traditional copper or hybrid networks, as many of those existing copper or hybrid networks are in need of a complete overhaul in the next 10 years. Landlords can minimise disruption and get ahead of the upgrade pressures by installing full fibre now,” Oxby adds. 

Data released by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in March confirmed that nine out of 37 OECD countries had “full fibre” for more than 50% of total fixed broadband connections. Penetration in each of the top countries varied from Norway (ninth place) at 50.74%, to South Korea (first place) at 81.65%. However, in 33rd place the UK recorded a mere 2.33% penetration.

In mid-2019 the UK government switched its rhetoric from the promise of full fibre broadband to “gigabit connectivity by 2025”, despite investment in fibre broadband being central to Conservative party pledges for some months.

Turning a rhetoric shift into a war of words, then digital minister Matt Hancock was quoted by the Financial Times as warning BT he was “on the side of the challenger”.

“The apparently simple re-labelling from full fibre to gigabit broadband hides a material shift in policy,” says Oxby.

From a fibre-perspective the situation brings its owns loopholes. Oxby explains that 1 gigabit services will rapidly outdate, becoming “insufficient and limiting in just a few years’ time”, whereas multi-gigabit services would ensure “the UK does not slip behind the world in terms of broadband once again.”

“Unfortunately, changing the target will mean that networks that only just reach the 1GB target will be seen as acceptable recipients of subsidies and support, when in fact, they are only taking one small step towards achieving what this country truly needs in the long term. Full fibre is the only viable network technology to deliver multi-gigabit networks in an affordable way,” he adds.

However, for James Bristow, EMEA senior vice president at Cradlepoint, the shift says more.

“I think it’s a declaration that the original goal of fibre everywhere is not practical. I was in Scotland recently and there just isn’t the physical infrastructure for broadband in a lot of areas and there never will be because it’s just not economic to do that.

“It’s a recognition, a declaration of that, but I also feel when they talk about gigabit now there may be some recognition that wireless is going to be the superior technology. it’s going to be dominant, it’s in your pocket, it’s in your home, in your car, it’s in the air and even on aircraft,” he adds.

The alternative’s alternative

Bristow is not alone is his view and when it comes to fibre alternatives, the INCA estimates that 110,000 of the UK’s 366,000 live connections are made via independent FWA infrastructure. And that isn’t the only solution.

Voneus CEO Steven Leighton says the UK’s focus on fibre has side-lined the use of more cost-effective and easier to implement alternatives, such as FWA — which already covers more than 2.3 million UK premises — 5G, and even microwave links to reach remote islands off the coast of Scotland.

“Depending on whose data you read a maximum of 12% of properties in the UK have got access to fibre. Compare that Romania and Poland, and their numbers are up in the 70% to 80% bracket. You can see there’s a long way to go to catch up.

“In terms of the rural areas, the problem is magnified. Because of course there is an investment going on currently, but most of it is in the urban areas and the rural guys are being left even further behind,” he adds.

The rural piece

These issues aren’t unique to the UK, but they do have the potential to mute the economic ambitions set out for the post-Brexit economy.

Realising the challenge, this year the £1 billion Shared Rural Network (SRN) was announced to improve coverage in rural areas of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (for the full story in Ireland, see page 20). In Scotland, coverage once the SRN is complete will be 91% from at least one operator and 74% from all four operators — compared with today’s 80% and 42% respectively.

The SRN was part of a £6 billion package announced to boost Britain’s digital infrastructure. Without it? a potential digital divide.

“A digital divide by definition is an uneven distribution of internet access across the socioeconomic geographic lines,” Bristow explains.

“We can see in the UK that there are essentially no go zones for certain service providers — they don’t find it economically viable, or they don’t have a priority to reach certain potential subscribers with their solutions. I get why it’s prioritised based on urban and rural and the density of population, but …. it’s probably not realistic in terms of the effort and the resource that are necessary to deliver these solutions with fibre optics,” he adds.

Although the interest behind the statement is clear, so too is the maths.

“What infrastructure needs is all the civil engineering and then you have lengthy delivery times,” he says, adding skills, labour and other costs to the list.

Citing the transition through wireline services, MPLS and now wireless WAN — “or what we call the wireless edge” — he says the pendulum swing from centralised to de-centralised data requires a highly functional edge, offering reliability and access to information without the need to reverse into the core of the network.

“What a lot of companies are finding is that it’s time to cut the wire. In the way it is designed, delivered and the economics of it, broadband will never be the same,” Bristow says.

Follow the money

While it may not quite be the network that was promised, what the INOs are delivering generates significant levels of investment.

According to INCA, across the sector £6.6 billion in private investment and funding has been confirmed; of which £936 million came in 2019 and early 2020. A promising development given their contribution to the digital future of one of the world’s largest economies.

The money is also flowing out, with “at least part” of the INO sector expected to achieve CAPEX spends in the region of £5.4 billion to 2025.

As such, fixed superfast or ultrafast infrastructure supplied by INOs is expected to reach 2.4 million premises by the end of this year, with an estimated 804,000 live connections and, by 2025-end operators could cover as many as 15.7 million homes and businesses, with around 4.3 million live connections.

Driving demand further, in March it was announced that home developers across the UK will soon be legally required to install gigabit-speed internet connections in all newbuild homes.

“INOs boost the UK’s economic productivity by acting as smart enablers, accelerating digital transformation in government and small business. Faster, reliable connections have never been more important than they are today,” says Oxby, citing that INOs are now even connecting government and small business to cloud-based services so they can access data remotely and on demand.

“Governments can build on full fibre networks to power smart cities that use data to drive efficiencies, improve the quality of public welfare and transform the way UK citizens interact with public services,” he adds.

However, debate continues, not least around the role of Openreach et al, access to skilled labour, and the choice of technology, with Bristow saying: “When you can get that type of performance from wireless, why go and invest in all that physical infrastructure?”

While a question mark hangs over the details of how the UK will achieve is connectivity targets, one thing that can be considered a certainty is that competition is alive and well in the independent sector.

The case for connectivity as infrastructure has found new strength in recent weeks, but the attitude towards infrastructure builds is a cultural mismatch for the world of tech, marred by inefficiencies and bureaucracy.

To build a national gigabit-capable network, fit to meet the demands of 2025, the consensus is that a new level of agility will be required.

Bristow says: “The need for connectivity in the last few months, in particular with Covid-19, has proven that we need a high-performance network with agility, to support us wherever we are. Any time, any place anywhere, with the ability to support high-performance applications.”

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