Feature

Innovation Blog: More fibre needed

Rural fibre
Rural fibre in northern England

Owners of ageing suburban coaxial cable networks are saying they can be good providers of broadband. Others say fixed wireless access is as good as fibre. Alan Burkitt-Gray says they’re both wrong

What is the best way to deliver reliable, fast broadband to someone’s home, whether they’re in a busy city centre, a low-density suburb where you need a car to get to the corner store, or a farmhouse?

The answer, as it’s been clear for years, is fibre: right through the wall into the home. It’s not fibre to a cabinet at the bottom of the road, from where VDSL over copper takes over.

Fibre telecommunications has been one of the industry’s transformative innovations, from the moment it was invented in Harlow in Essex, north of London, half a century ago.

Hype that’s right

For once, the hype around a new technology lived up to its promise: fibre can carry huge amounts of data as light, and replacing the optoelectronics at each end of a fibre allows its data capacity to be increased again and again.

But there have been wobbles. People have emerged suggesting fibre is not the answer everywhere. No, they say, what you need for some applications is fixed wireless access (FWA).

But why? Well, cynics might say that vendors of 4G and 5G wireless kit have a surplus and they’d love to expand the market. They’re already doing this with private 4G and 5G services – networks for research campuses, factories, oil and gas production platforms, and other facilities, where it makes sense to have a network that’s physically separate from those available to the public. But FWA?

Let’s look at the arguments for it. Mostly they come from someone with a business interest in it. Nothing wrong in that, of course.

But it was interesting that at the start of 2022 Capacity received a number of submissions from people in the industry suggesting we write about FWA or other upgrades of ageing technology, such as the old coaxial cables that delivered the joys of CNN, MTV and The Movie Channel to our homes, at a suitable monthly price, from the 1980s.

In January, one person emailing us said “cable assets” (that is, coaxial cables that are strung from poles through the North American suburbs and buried underground in Europe) “are also worthy of your attention”, as – with suitable upgrades to their electronics – they can “allow for download speeds of up to 1Gbps and upload speeds approaching 300Mbps”. Those upgrades mean not only new electronics at each end of the cable, but also at other nodes in the network.

Coaxial cables are made of copper, and copper has a big flaw: it conducts electricity. Yes, of course, that’s why it’s so good, but water also conducts electricity, so copper cables short-circuit in damp conditions – like when it rains.

Copper is also valuable. The London Metal Exchange quotes prices for new copper at $9.90 a kilogram. Even a scrapyard in Manchester, England, pays £6 a kilogram for old copper wiring. Pull a cable out of the ground and you have quite a recycling opportunity.

Back in the early days of cable TV in the US, the companies had one main function – to deliver TV channels broadcast from cities to people who lived too far away from terrestrial transmitters to get good over-the-air reception.

Paying customers

Cable companies built tall antennas and amplifiers to pick up channels and relayed them via coaxial cables, laid along streets, to paying customers. Later, cable-only channels were added (who today recalls that ‘CNN’ originally stood for ‘Cable News Network’?)

Their experience offers a useful parallel for today’s efforts to expand fibre broadband.

Back then, commercially funded cable companies connected homes where they could, in order to make a profit, but no further. Beyond that, there was no cable service, so residents in small towns and villages had no more than a fading signal from transmissions from the nearest metropolis.

At that point, enterprising developers invented a way to use high-frequency wireless signals to relay terrestrial and cable-only channels to customers who, until then, had been deprived of the glories of CNN and MTV.

Cable without wires

Because these customers understood the idea of “cable TV”, these entrepreneurs created the term “wireless cable” to describe their offer.

It’s a nonsense phrase, of course: you can either be wireless, with no wires or cables, or you can be wired, connected via one sort of cable or another, but not both at the same time.

Wireless cable was never really a success, and was eventually replaced by direct-to-home satellite TV services, such as DirecTV, and today’s streaming over broadband (but, if you have no broadband, you can have no streaming).

And this is where the parallel with FWA emerges. I suspect FWA is 2022’s version of wireless cable. In a few years, we’ll see it as a time-limited quick fix that didn’t fix much.

If you’re in a rural area, it’s actually relatively cheap to dig trenches through fields and along the grass verges lining country roads. Put some fibre there now and it can deliver 1Gbps tomorrow. And as it can be left safe in its duct, unaffected by weather and impervious to rain, in 25 years’ time the same fibre will be able to deliver who knows how much data?

Optical fibre is the resilient, long-term solution. As for those 30-year-old coaxial cables strung along neighbourhood utility poles? Their owners should pull them down and sell the copper to their local scrap dealers, and put that cash towards installing decent fibre.