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For the past year, give or take, urban fibre network builder CityFibre has been billing itself as the only truly independent, alternative network operator to Openreach, usually in the boilerplate copy that it uses to accompany its press releases.
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But this may not be hyperbole anymore. Having grown at a steady clip for a number of years, its acquisition of Kcom’s long-distance and metro ducts and fibre networks in December 2015 utterly transformed the timetable for CityFibre’s growth expectations, and comparisons to Openreach, albeit on a smaller scale, start to look more apt.
For Clayton Nash, CityFibre head of product and a former Openreach man himself, the basic parallels are obvious in that both organisations have large fibre networks in the ground. However, for him the similarities end there.
“The key difference is not just that were building full fibre networks because lots of people have got fibre in the ground, the point is that ours are planned, not evolved,” says Nash.
“If you look at others in the UK that have these fibre networks, the networks have evolved over the course of 20 or 30 years to get to where they are now as a result of the applications they were thinking about 30 years ago.And 30 years ago, we weren’t really thinking about gigabit services or even fast services to the home,” he says.
Much of how CityFibre sees the national roll-out of metro and long-distance fibre networks comes back to planning. Indeed, its whole approach to network building is termed, internally and externally, the Well-Planned City Model.
Nash says: “We sit down and map the city and ask, ‘What would this network need to look like if I had to take fibre to every single building, including every home, in the city?’
“On top of that, we layer what we need to understand in terms of critical infrastructure – such as council buildings, mobile masts, large business parks – so we can see that we need to overlay a certain level of network to serve those.
“We don’t immediately build to tens of thousands of homes on day one, but we say where we want to end up [and question] what do we need to build today as a subset of that to deliver to the council or its anchor tenants.”
The key point, says Nash, is that CityFibre only builds part of a network, but it is planned out over a 30- to 40-year timescale so the basics are already in the ground, in the right locations, and can be easily extended if needed.
Furthermore, he continues, the network is not – as is typical of the Openreach network – built based on the location of BT’s telephone exchanges. This means it does not “spider” its way out from a central locus, but can instead incorporate multiple rings and routes, making it easier to patch if something gets broken.
Finally, says Nash, a network build that is not reliant on ducts that are often stuffed with copper wiring means there is plenty of room for as much fibre as you like, effectively future-proofing the infrastructure for many years to come.
“We essentially have ridiculous amounts of spare capacity in place to grow the network. Where we’ve built in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, we have enough capacity in the ground to cover every single building without ever putting another spade in the ground,” says Nash.
“We planned it out in advance to where we know we’re going to end up, so it’s just a question of when we end up doing it.”
How excess capacity fixes the contention problem
Bumping up the capacity also allows CityFibre to help its internet service provider (ISP) reseller customers deal with issues around user perception of service contention.
Naturally, fibre optic cables are shared between multiple users, but as soon as this is made clear, users become more pessimistic and start doubting that the service will live up to their expectations, or that they’ll get what they paid for, says Caroline Hughes, CityFibre’s head of wholesale channel and product marketing.
For the owners of many of the fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) networks in operation, the most popular choice is to split each strand of fibre 64 ways, so that they can get 64 customers onto the same piece of infrastructure.
“We’ve chosen to be much more aggressive about that simply because we’ve got so much capacity,” says Nash. “When we put these large ducts in we can split the fibre, at most, eight ways, and often most of those eight are not used right away. In the worst case scenario, it means there’s about 2.5 gigabits of bandwidth to share between eight people.
“That means to date we’ve never had an instance of anyone’s service being affected by contention; nobody has ever been slowed down on our network,” he says.
“It sounds weird given how many people complain about contention in the UK but, because there’s so much capacity, even if everyone jumps on the network at the same time they never see one another.”
“I’m connected to our partners on LinkedIn and I quite often see them posting Speedtest results from their customers, and their customers are getting, near as, the top line bandwidth that we’re promising,” says Hughes.
“One of the things we say to our partners is if they have a customer who feels they are being adversely affected by contention at any point, we will look into it and fix it. We believe people should get what they paid for and not have to worry that we’re going to share the network with consumers later on and suddenly they’ll be contended at 64 to one, which is what you do see on some of those contended networks.”
It is an accepted fact of network building that, at some point, someone is going to have to go outdoors and dig up a road to lay the physical infrastructure itself, so the planning process CityFibre goes through also extends to this aspect of the build.
“The first thing is we do it quick. We built Edinburgh in less than a year, we powered through the whole thing,” says Nash. “There is some disruption, you’re going to annoy people, but we do that for as little time as possible. It’s crucial you don’t do that thing everybody loves where you open the pavement then leave it for two weeks.”
The commercial reality of being a truly independent operator, adds Nash, means that once the fibre is in the ground it can be generating money for CityFibre, so it is in the business’ best interests to get the job done.
In the case of Edinburgh, a build that Computer Weekly tracked closely during its progress, CityFibre made a point of getting very close to the council to understand its agenda and priorities.
In this case, it turned out that Edinburgh Council was planning to resurface some of its pavements, so in those cases CityFibre was able to send its workers in to pull up the paving slabs, drop in the fibre ducts and cables, to then be followed by a team laying new slabs. “You don’t always get a serendipitous event like that, but where possible we do take advantage of them,” remarks Nash.
On another occasion, CityFibre’s dig was set to go down a cobbled street in the heart of the city – a Unesco World Heritage Site – its team removed the cobbles, kept them offsite at a secure location, and then took in experts to ensure they were relaid just the same as before.
It also negotiated an agreement with the council that during the period of the Edinburgh Festival in the summer, and for the Hogmanay celebrations at New Year’s, work ceased entirely, and all on-site equipment was removed.
“It sounds twee but we also have people in the city itself who are local, so they are aware of that particular road and its significance, for example,” says Nash.
“If you’re sitting in a planning office somewhere else you may not be aware that a particular road is critical for the school run or something like that. It’s simple stuff, there’s no secret sauce, just a set of smart people thinking everything through.”
CityFibre finds the benefits of embedding people in its host communities are substantial because it gives them a local point of contact for businesses and residents to pick up the phone and talk to if there’s a problem with an aspect of the dig. Eventually, when the network is expanded to encompass domestic broadband services, local goodwill already exists.
Hughes describes it as “sensitivity” to the host city. “It eases the way. We don’t get any special rights but when you’re willing to work flexibly and say, ‘We won’t dig that street up until next month because there’s an event planned, we’ll go elsewhere first’, I think it becomes a lot more palatable,” she says.
Coming to a home near you
CityFibre does not directly sell any broadband service itself to businesses or consumers. Except in the case of York, where it has been involved in constructing backhaul for TalkTalk’s Ultra Fibre Optic (UFO) testbed, CityFibre’s services are not yet available through consumer ISPs.
This won’t always be the case, however. The experience of York – where the CityFibre-TalkTalk network touches, at the time of writing, about 14,000 homes – has shown that its network is perfectly capable of delivering consumer broadband cost-effectively and at scale.
“We’ve always said at some point fibre-to-the-home [FTTH] is in our plans. York is great for us because it let us really get deep into the guts of how you build that network and how you bring the costs down to the right point,” says Nash.
“It was also perfect because it was a wholesale process – we supplied into certain carriers and they touch the user and that’s the way we like to do things, everything’s through a wholesale channel.
“It was a great learning experience and we got the numbers down to the right point as far as we’re concerned – we can still go lower but we’re in the right place in terms of cost to build. In terms of take-up, we’ve been pretty delighted with where that is. We’re very happy with that, but we’ve not said we’re going to do that anywhere else yet,” he says.
When it does happen, it will mark CityFibre’s coming of age as a network provider, and may well worry Openreach, but for now, says Hughes, the firm is focused on building its network right first time.
“We won’t put a spade in the ground unless we have a contract in place, and that is what allows us to build the network in the right places to give us that core asset that we can then expand out from,” she says.
“Once that initial commitment is met, the network has spare capacity that sits there and can be used in a number of different ways to provide dark fibre or split and shared and used to bring affordable services to businesses, then the rest is capacity that sits there waiting for when we need it to serve other needs,” says Hughes.
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