Why Europe is coming round to BT's broadband thinking

by Ronan Kelly

BT has been in the UK headlines quite a lot these past few weeks. News of a rare service interruption aside, BT’s recent press cuttings file is par for the course. A little background chatter about potential regulatory tightening here; some more calls to accelerate faster and cheaper broadband services there…. Whatever they do for the UK’s broadband infrastructure never seems to be enough, and there’s a big problem with that narrative. It just isn’t true.

I’m not saying the media is manufacturing negative perceptions. Maybe it’s just the price you pay for having customers with high expectations and a reputation as one of the most respected telecom operators in the world.

No – BT isn’t religiously fanatical about FTTP

People who believe that BT is somehow opposed to fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) should pay close attention to the new deal struck between Openreach and the UK’s Home Builders Federation to ensure superfast/ultrafast broadband connections to newly-built homes. The move is proof of BT’s willingness to take advantage of the broadband economics of greenfield sites, and support FTTP where it is commercially viable. Even more tellingly, it adds to the evidence of BT as arch-pragmatist; recognising the importance of being prudent with new technology when it comes to mass-market deployment.

Everybody knows that the UK lags behind the other G8 nations in FTTP penetration, and there are numerous historic and on-going reasons for this. I for one advocate FTTP everywhere (I wouldn’t last long on the board of the FTTP Council Europe if I didn’t) but even I’m pragmatic enough to appreciate that such progress takes time.

Being responsible and pragmatic about broadband evolution can mean faster – not slower – progress for subscribers

National competitiveness is a recurring theme in the UK broadband debate, and earlier this month a prominent manufacturing lobby group added its voice to calls for ‘better connectivity’ to support this aim.

Working towards rather than against this aim, BT’s position appears to be that – other than in those local cases where commercial viability gives the green light to immediate roll out – progress toward the eventual goal of FTTP should be made to deliver sustainably incremental performance improvements. Such an approach, leveraging existing infrastructure – where possible – alongside innovative new technologies like G.fast, is infinitely preferable to telling subscribers they must tread water for the decade or more it could take an operator to deliver fully-fledged FTTP in their area.

Differing broadband views from abroad

Taking national competitiveness from a different perspective are those armchair experts who routinely like to contrast the broadband fortunes of UK with those of its closest neighbour, France. France has experienced something of a broadband renaissance in the last 12 months, with government support and the action of incumbent operators driving an upswing in the deployment of FTTP.

What a lot of people don’t know is that – until very recently – the French regulator (ARCEP) had essentially outlawed the use of VDSL technology. Why does this matter? Well, in the glaring absence of established VDSL estate, French operators are only now presented with the opportunity to build one from scratch and extend the utility of their copper networks. Creating one could bring benefits but would take perhaps three or four years to mature, by which time operators would be presiding over a 10 year old technology. This makes it far more logical for France to put greater impetus behind faster FTTx penetration than the UK. It also hammers home the argument that more flexible and faster-to-market broadband options are more readily available to environments with advanced copper infrastructure.

Among the rest of Europe (with the notable exception of Spain, which has other obstacles in the way of fully leveraging its copper network, as well as higher urban concentrations of MTUs) network topologies and regulatory climates are all far more sympathetic to the BT thinking around broadband.

BT has played it smart with G.fast – and the world waits with bated breath

When G.fast was first introduced a couple of years ago, the most popular application proposed was for Gigabit connectivity over very short loops. We’ve seen this vision realised to great effect in numerous markets and scenarios, but the truth is that this approach isn’t going to work for everyone.

What BT has done is pull those capabilities back to ‘sub-Gigabit’ levels to deliver highly competitive services over longer distances, with the net result delivering many times better performance than currently available over the same infrastructure. That’s far-sighted, innovative and – some might say – courageous. What’s more, it’s making an awful lot of other operators in other parts of the world start thinking differently about their journey to FTTP.

BT’s success has yet to be proven, and there are plenty of nay-sayers who’ll continue to kick up bad headlines until hard, long-term evidence proves them wrong.

BT doesn’t have all the answers, but I can’t really see any obstacles to them achieving what they’ve set out to achieve, and within the pretty aggressive timescales they’ve set themselves.

Ronan Kelly is CTO of EMA and APAC at Adtran