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How Europe’s largest datacentre is helping to expand broadband access

NGD, the operator of the largest datacentre in Europe, is playing an unlikely role in helping expand access to full-fibre broadband in south Wales. We find out how, and why

Datacentre operator Next Generation Data (NGD) is emerging as an unlikely player in the race to roll out gigabit full-fibre – or fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) – broadband services to some of the most underserved and forgotten areas of the UK.

NGD is doing this through a recently established partnership with local broadband network builder and service wholesaler Nextgenaccess (NGA – no relation).

Housed on a 50-acre plot in Newport, south Wales, in a building originally built as a chip fab for LG – which never picked up the keys thanks to the 2008 financial crisis – NGD opened its doors with BT as its first anchor customer in 2009.

At the time, the site was billed as the largest operational datacentre in Europe, and a decade later this record has yet to be beaten.

Even with the addition of multiple clients (including one of the biggest cloud services providers in the world), its halls are still only a third full, giving NGD at least 10 more years of room to grow, if current trends continue.

Newport’s connectivity challenge

NGD’s success is undeniable, but for all that, Newport is still somewhat off the grid in terms of connectivity, with the exception of BT.

Over the years, this has led to some unique challenges that datacentres in more heavily trafficked parts of the country do not face, according to Ed Bissell, NGD’s business development manager.

“Traditionally, datacentres have had to put themselves near telecoms hubs for good reason – they need telecoms providers,” he says.

“With NGD being a pioneer of the out-of-town datacentre market, it was obviously a big risk at first because there’s not much in the way of network connectivity in the west, especially in Wales. Therefore, it’s a case of carriers having to come to you because that’s where the customers are.”

According to Bissell, the biggest problem for the sort of carriers NGD would want to tempt to bring services into its site – the likes of Colt, EU Networks or SSE Enterprise Telecoms – was getting them access to the site because a full civil dig between Bristol and Newport (the nearest big telecoms hub is at Bradley Stoke near Bristol) would be extremely expensive, and hard for them to justify.

“It’s almost untenable because 10 gigabit Ethernet (GbE) circuits cost in the region of £1,500 a month now, so it makes it very difficult to build the case to go to an out-of-town datacentre,” he says.

NGD got around this by buying its own 10GbE circuits from Openreach, and running a service it calls NGD Connect, enabling carriers to serve their existing customers in the datacentre. This continues to work just fine to some extent.

Ducts and poles hold the key

NGD also helped fund one carrier’s entry at the request of one of its biggest hyperscale customers, but found other carriers were reluctant to buy lit fibre services from it, and understandably it was reluctant to sell lit fibre services to its competitors, says Bissell.

“It meant we wanted to look at another way of allowing carriers to come in which was independent, not owned by a competing carrier, and everyone could have free access to that route,” he says.

This is where NGA comes in. Bissell describes the firm as a “new facilitator” for carriers because it uses BT’s ducts and poles to run its own dark fibre, which changes things up from a competitive standpoint.

“As a condition of using BT’s ducts and poles, you have to open up your network to other people. So carriers don’t want to go down the DPA (duct and pole access) route because it means they have to open their network and that takes away their ability to monopolise it,” says Bissell.

“Organisations like NGA don’t have the same kind of network so they are in a perfect position to go and use BT’s ducts and poles. The cost of running that fibre is infinitely cheaper than running a civil dig, so I think you’ll see more carriers and organisations like us using firms like NGA to facilitate a new fibre run.”

Building the network

So where did NGA come from? The Hatfield, Hertfordshire-based firm got its start towards the end of 2013, delivering dark fibre through DPA on a relatively small-scale basis.

It has been slowly and steadily expanding its presence over the past five years, and now connects into about 100 points of presence (PoPs) around the UK, according to technical director Kenny Roberts, out of which it serves both full-fibre and legacy fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) broadband services on a wholesale basis.

“Our direct access network is somewhat in its infancy,” Roberts tells Computer Weekly. “NGD will be the first big section of it that will have a significant volume of customers.”

Last year, the business received a cash injection of £22m from the National Digital Infrastructure Fund to further its national network goals, and it has used some of this to help fund the 80km fibre build between Bristol and Newport, including the tricky four kilometre Severn crossing section – which was completed first.

At the time, NGA managing director Mark Weller said the NDIF’s investment would allow the firm to accelerate scale deployment of an independent ultrafast network in underserved areas where it can provide ultrafast broadband access at a “proven lower cost than traditional operators”.

It hopes that internet service providers (ISPs) using its new fibre will be able to provide services to up to 4,000 small businesses in south Wales.

The route itself is not the most direct straight line one could draw on a map, rather it has been designed to pick up 10 BT exchange areas and the fibre cabinets within them as it goes, says Roberts, which hits NGA’s wider remit to provide full-fibre broadband and bring connectivity to the unconnected.

“The main bit we’ve finished for the moment is the big engineering challenge, the four kilometre motorway road crossing, which has been completed, so the rest of the build is really straightforward,” says Roberts.

The Severn crossing had historically been another reason for carriers not to want to run their own fibre into south Wales, due to the sheer inconvenience and cost of running new cables across one or other of the two suspension bridges.

“What we decided to do is help run this fibre and subsidise it, which means the carriers don’t have to eat that cost anymore, they can just rent the fibre, so it could be £3,000 a month rather than £30,000 a month because of the cost of the dig,” says Bissell.

“That allows carriers to come in on their own fibre, they don’t have to buy lit services, they can light their own fibre, and it opens up access because carriers want diverse routes,” he adds. “There are diverse routes into NGD anyway, but this is a route that allows carriers to buy fibre on it.”

“What we’re doing with NGA means we can say to the customer, ‘OK, you can take a dark fibre connection from NGD to Bradley Stoke and interconnect with a carrier of your choice to go anywhere you need to go’.”

Since completion of the Severn crossing late in 2018, Bissell says the two partners have seen extremely fast progress. Traditionally, a route of this length could take anywhere between nine and 12 months to complete – NGA and NGD signed their contracts in September and are still, at the time of writing, hoping to complete the roll-out during the second quarter, shaving three months off the delivery time.

Consumer options

As NGA’s primary focus is wholesale broadband services to partners specialising in small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) connectivity, Roberts says the organisation has no plans to deliver services direct to user consumers, however, he is open to conversations with residential ISPs.

“If we have other specialised residential players like Gigaclear, etc, interested in connecting into our network to get to an exchange area or expand their connectivity, we’ll do that,” he says.

“Generally, we won’t deliver direct services to end-user residents unless there’s a project based on us delivering the fibre, and a retail provider delivering the service.

“We are working with a number of partners local to Bristol and the south West, and have signed a number of contracts with them, so when the network is ready they’ll be ready to run services across it,” he adds.

Outside of the three main urban areas in the target area – Cardiff, Chepstow and Newport – south Wales is one of the more poorly served areas for both consumer and SME broadband in the UK, government-backed roll-outs have passed by many communities in the region.

Although still a work in progress, it is hoped that the collaboration will help kick-start efforts to redress the disparities, and help ensure nobody is left out of the digital economy.

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