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Openreach tests new digging tech for rural broadband builds

Openreach is testing new tools and techniques to roll out full-fibre broadband faster in rural areas

Openreach broadband engineers are testing out a range of new tools and techniques to bring full-fibre – or fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) – broadband to thousands of homes and small businesses in 13 villages and market towns, as it seeks to speed up the roll-out of ultrafast services in rural Britain.

The trials are part of a wider ambition at Openreach to extend its Fibre First initiative into parts of the country that would usually be more challenging to reach without state aid. If they succeed in this aim, it could make it much easier for both Openreach and other network builders to make a business case for commercial investment in rural broadband.

“At Openreach, we’ll never be just a city fibre provider,” said Openreach chief executive Clive Selley. “We’ve always worked hard to improve connections to isolated, less commercially attractive communities through inventive engineering and effective funding partnership models.

“In recent years, we’ve been extending our full-fibre network into rural areas – mostly in partnership with local authorities and government – but the economics are clearly challenging and we want to do more. We know that around 10% of the country will need the support of public subsidy, but these trials will help us test a bunch of new techniques that could help us in other rural areas.

“The trials will also give us a much clearer picture of what the technical challenges in these kinds of rural areas are. We hope they’ll go a long way towards developing the tools, skills and innovations required to make sure that nobody’s left behind in the full-fibre future.”

Among the cost-cutting tools being tested is a specialised trenching machine called a diamond cutter, which consists of a rotating circular blade with diamonds embedded in its edge to help it slice through the road surface, while the machine simultaneously feeds tubing for fibre cables as it moves along. There is also the GeoRipper, a more specialist piece of digging hardware that can tackle soft ground, such as fields, with relative ease using a chainsaw-like blade.

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Openreach reckons the diamond cutter machine can install 700m of cabling every day – 20 times as much as a two-person team using standard techniques – while the GeoRipper can move 10 times faster than manual diggers.

It is also using ground-penetrating radar to enable its engineers to plan and map routes without having to probe or conduct exploratory digs; and remote nodes, where fibre is built out from adapted roadside cabinets, piggybacking on the existing backhaul network to extend full-fibre to more than 1,000 properties while avoiding the time and cost involved in deploying new spines back to the exchange.

A recent report from the parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee found that while there have been significant improvements in access to fit-for-purpose broadband networks, as well as 4G mobile services, in rural areas of the UK, increasing demand for digital services among both consumers and businesses means that rural networks are struggling to keep up, so the digital divide between urban and rural areas remains as wide as ever.

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