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New Chelmsford housing estate has FTTP built in

Developers Countryside and L&Q deploy full fibre broadband services on their Beaulieu residential development in Chelmsford, Essex

In February 2016, the government announced it had parlayed BT’s local access network unit Openreach and the Home Builders’ Federation into an agreement that would make it significantly easier to deploy fibre-based broadband in new-build housing developments.

When taken at face value, the agreement appeared to address many of the problems surrounding broadband availability in new-build homes. Some of these issues have seen residents waiting months and being charged a large amount for internet access by Openreach, according to a recent investigation conducted by broadband comparison site Cable.co.uk.

The agreement established a joint funding model for fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) broadband, with Openreach setting up an online planning tool and the Home Builders’ Federation (HBF) undertaking to do more to talk up the need for superfast broadband among its members.

Subsequent to the original agreement – and following the results of Ofcom’s market review – BT has committed to making faster fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband available for free at developments of more than 250 properties.

However, the agreement was criticised because it included a number of loopholes. These give building companies a way out of deploying anything beyond the most basic – and slow – asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) technology if they did not want to fund superfast services.

But at least one more forward-looking developer has seen the way the wind is blowing when it comes to the need for superfast broadband provision. Together with Openreach, the developer is moving forward with a major FTTP network build covering 3,600 properties.

Countryside, a developer of large-scale strategic housebuilding projects around the UK, is currently working alongside joint venture partner L&Q on a large-scale project to create a district of Chelmsford in Essex called Beaulieu.

Decade-long build

Owing to the lengthy timescales inherent in delivery of sizeable green-field building projects – it is expected to take 10 years from completion of the first house to completion of the last – David Potter, technical director at Countryside, says it is imperative that all the necessary infrastructure is not only baked-in at the beginning of the build, but is future-proofed across the lifecycle of the development.

“There is a growing need for superfast broadband to meet the lifecycle needs of the properties,” he explained. “So on our timeline we had to look at what the requirements of residents will be 10, 20 years out.

“At Beaulieu, we’re not sure how fast the technology will advance. But it is clear there will be more demand for superfast broadband, for streaming and for gaming. Superfast is the fourth utility, and we wanted to differentiate our product and sites.”

Open to all

Countryside selected Openreach to supply the fibre backbone underpinning Beaulieu because it wanted to ensure its residents had freedom of choice when it came to selecting their internet service provider (ISP).

However, said Potter, before work began he had to convince Openreach that there was a commercial case for investing in FTTP at Beaulieu. Eventually, Openreach contributed a tranche of funding, while the developers dug the ducts and installed the infrastructure.

To date, 100 units have been constructed at Beaulieu, with around 50 occupied and uptake standing at 100%. However, this is because there is no copper infrastructure at all on the site, noted Potter.

The lack of copper wiring meant Countryside had to take steps to enable residents to call the emergency services in case of a power cut. It has installed back-up, lithium-ion battery powered repeaters in each house to cover such an eventuality.

Residents Matthew and Sarah Stringer and their young family were some of the development’s first residents under the government’s Help to Buy scheme.

“Another attraction was the outstanding network connectivity available. Fast, reliable broadband is essential as Sarah works from home throughout the week and I often work late in the evenings to support my US client base,” said Matthew Stringer.

“All the properties at Beaulieu are being built with BT’s FTTP wiring, which delivers speeds of up to 330Mbps, considerably faster than anything else available. It’s simply unbeatable and more than anyone currently needs.”

Pioneers

With a lengthy lead-time on new housing developments – and others of a similar scale to Beaulieu in the pipeline – Potter said that, having established a direct relationship with Openreach, he could approach BT on a site-by-site basis for future developments.

“There is a lot of collaboration with BT Openreach on sites coming forward,” said Potter. “We are pioneers, in a way.”

Potter added that he saw the HBF agreement as more of a means to address the broader church of smaller developers, working on sites where there may be as few as two or three homes. Larger house-builders, such as Countryside, should already be acting.

“Obviously others are not yet in tune with that idea, but you would be foolhardy not to do it,” he said.

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