Page Impressions Ltd Blogcetera: When will Next Generation Broadband start to deliver for the UK?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

When will Next Generation Broadband start to deliver for the UK?

If we are to enjoy the plethora of digital services such as IPTV in a quality comparable to HD delivered via the internet we will need the bandwidth that only the Next Generation Broadband known as Fibre to the home (FTTH) can offer. FTTH projects are being rolled out around the world it seems the UK is lagging far behind our developed world competitors. Except for a small trail announced by BT Openreach in Kent which will target up to 9,500 new homes and offices in an area of 1,000 acres. This at a time in Japan where FTTH installations are poised to pass a now declining ADSL userbase. FTTH is a form of fibre-optic communication delivery in which an optical fibre is run directly onto the customers' premises. Traditionally only the network to the local exchange was fibre and methods such as copper wires or coaxial cable for "last mile" delivery.

The advantages of FTTH are huge.

For customers, it offers virtually unlimited bandwidth capacity and truly integrated voice, data, and video.

For providers, the ability to offer integrated services could mean higher profits and no electronics in the field means less maintenance. In addition, the costs of implementing technology are dropping and are similar to costs of deploying copper, but the payoff is much larger.

So how does FTTH work?

The Internet "backbone" is made up of fibre optic cables (very thin glass filaments) that have enormous bandwidth and use light pulses to carry information. Most customers, however, connect to the backbone through copper-based technologies like twisted pair and DSL or Hybrid Fibre Coax cable, which have limited bandwidth and limited capacity to carry integrated voice, video, and data services. This creates a speed and service bottleneck in the "last mile," the distance between the fibre optic backbone and customers.

Providers primarily offer FTTH through two types of architectures, point-to-point and passive optical network (PON). Point-to-point requires providers to install an optical transceiver in the provider's central office for each customer. PON uses a single transceiver with a splitter to serve up to 32 businesses and residential customers who share the bandwidth. The splitter is located up to 9km from the exchange, and a single strand of fibre can carry the signal another 1km to the customer. Once the fibre reaches the customer's home or business, an optical electrical converter (OEC) on the side of the building converts the optical signal to an electrical signal that can interface with existing copper wiring.

Some providers are also using Gigabit Ethernet over fibre to provide customers with broadband access.


Fibre optic cables can currently carry information at speeds greater than 2.5 gigabits per second. Residential/business FTTH typically offers speeds from 10 mbps to over 100 mbps, which is a hundred times faster than most cable or DSL service and over twice as fast as a T3 connection.

What is happening elsewhere?

In Europe, the majority of live fibre customers are in Italy, Sweden and Denmark. While a number of incumbents have announced plans fibre deployments, these have generally been for their backbone infrastructure rather than direct to the consumer - e.g. Deutsche Telekom's (DT) rollout of a €3.3bn fibre/VDSL network offers uses fibre for the back end and VDSL for the final connection to the home. DT expects the service to be live in 50 cities by year-end 2007. Many fibre rollouts in Europe are also still only in Greenfield and pilot stages like BT. Moreover, the majority of projects involving fibre are developed by utility and municipal organisations rather than the incumbents themselves.

Comparing Europe with the Japan shows how pathetic our efforts in the UK really are. By the middle of 2008, Japan’s
MultiMedia Research Institute forecasts that FTTH installations are forecasted to surpass traditional ADSL reaching 19 million lines by 2009 out of a total instaled broadband base of 35 million. This suggests that by 2009, that the majority of the Japanese population will be accessing the new range of high definition IPTV, real-time video phone and a huge range of fast integrated services making the UK look like we are still using Prestel for our on-line service!

So What?

Ten years ago I wrote my Masters’ dissertation on the need to create a national fibre infrastructure taking fibre to the doorstep of every home and business in the UK. At the time I estimated the cost to be in the region of £24bn and that given the local loop or last mile to be considered a natural monopoly we should seek to establish a common business, such as BT Openreach is today, to set-up and run the infrastructure allowing for commercial organisations to deliver the range of new and exciting services. This network would form the basis of a new “Information Society”. Looking back at my cost estimate, this now seems to pale into insignificance given the money that government seems prepared to waste on supporting inefficient banks such as Northern Rock.

We never seem to have the will to take the risk of investing in infrastructure that are key to our economic wellbeing until we get to the point that we face the collapse of key services. Just look at our railways, The London Underground, even our airports and compare them to what you find in Europe and the Far East. The UK seems content to operate on a piecemeal second rate basis.

If the UK is to prosper in the 21st Century, we will need to start to work in a strategic manner and not rely on the occasional prestige project such as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link to demonstrate our commitment to the future delivered ten years late and for twice the original projected cost.

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