Openreach, the national broadband network infrastructure builder, has already begun to explore how, and when, it might be able to start to switch off its copper broadband delivery network, according to chairman Mike McTighe.
Speaking exclusively to Computer Weekly ahead of a panel appearance at the annual Fibre to the Home Conference in Amsterdam, which is taking place from 12-14 March 2019, McTighe said the eventual switch-off of the copper network was a challenge that Openreach needed to begin to prepare for, even though it will not happen for at least 15 years, and possibly not for much longer.
“We’re working with the government and the regulator on questions like, ‘If we accelerate the full-fibre build how do we switch off the copper network, what does that look like?’ That’s quite a challenge, but clearly it heavily influences the economics – if we do switch off the copper network, how do we compensate, how do we recover the assets that we are still putting into the ground?” he said.
Although the past 12 months have seen the quasi-independent firm throw its weight firmly behind the ultrafast full-fibre future, it has not stopped installing copper broadband infrastructure as it tries to get penetration of superfast broadband – defined by the government as a service delivering download speeds of over 24Mbps – from its current level of around 30% to 80%.
“That’s a good thing for the country, but to do that, we’re spending hundreds of millions of pounds, so we need to make sure that if we’re then going to come along in the next five to 10 years and build a full-fibre network, the money we are now spending and will continue to spend can be recovered,” said McTighe.
Openreach is currently investing hundreds of millions in superfast copper-based broadband delivery technology, including VDSL services and Gfast.
McTighe revealed that in 2018, roughly 50% of new-build homes – around 100,000 in total – still had copper lines put into them, in spite of efforts to give all new-build properties access to full-fibre broadband.
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Asked if Openreach had a specific date in mind for the final switch-off of copper, McTighe said it would be unwise to commit to a firm date, and that the copper switch-off would have to be staged, probably on an exchange-by-exchange basis.
“We’re going to posit a case to our stakeholders [including BT] and hear what the industry has to say, and then we will posit some timescales, but it won’t be a big bang,” said McTighe.
“A big bang would be a disaster. It’s not going to be good for the UK and it’s certainly not going to be good for Openreach. The switch-off has to be successive, at some sort of level that people can get their minds around, and it will take, I don’t know how long, but quite a while.”
In a speech delivered to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in May 2018, chancellor Philip Hammond pledged to have a national full-fibre broadband network in place by 2033, and said that, as part of that, he would look at how to “sharpen incentives” for the industry to move away from copper services.
McTighe said Openreach could “just about” build a national full-fibre broadband network by 2033, but that it was unlikely it would be adopted to the extent that copper switch-off was viable in the same timeframe. “What was Hammond saying when he said that? Was he talking about building it or was he talking about the whole nation being on it? It is ambiguous,” he said.
“Do I think the objectives the government set are achievable? I think we can do the lion’s share of it with the right conditions, but we need to work with our [communication service provider] customers to get people to adopt it, and it may well be that adoption takes somewhat longer.”
Mike McTighe discusses progress on the national fibre broadband roll-out, the impact of both Brexit and the Huawei spying allegations, how to reach the digitally excluded, and why dark fibre isn’t the cure-all some might want it to be, in our full interview appearing later this week.