Openreach in consultation over next stage in transition to fibre

BT-owned UK broadband provision firm accelerates plan to stop selling copper-based broadband and traditional voice services, aiming to use five pilot areas to develop and test approaches for mass-migrating end-users to new digital offers

UK broadband provider Openreach has unveiled the latest part of its plans to stop selling legacy analogue copper-based services and instead focus on providing full-fibre connections to deliver digital services, announcing a consultation to help further develop and test approaches for mass-migrating end-users to new digital services using five pilot exchanges.

The general strategy for Openreach is that by December 2025, the old analogue phone network (PSTN) will have reached end of life and new, digital services will be in use. To make good on its plan nationally, the company is transitioning more than 14 million traditional lines across the UK onto new digital services. 

Following the decision to shut down the PSTN, it was agreed to test processes for migrating customers to fibre services and, ultimately, withdrawing legacy copper services and the wholesale line rental (WLR) products that rely on them. The programme is intended to result in homes and businesses not being able to buy copper broadband if they are upgrading, regrading or switching telecoms provider, and instead will only be able to order fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP or full-fibre) broadband networks. Voice services will be an add-on to broadband, rather than a service in its own right.

When 75% of the homes and businesses connected to a particular exchange can get full-fibre, end-users will not be able to buy the old copper products if full-fibre is available at their premises. Salisbury was the first exchange in the UK to move to stop-sell status in December 2020, and in May 2021 a trial began in the Suffolk town of Mildenhall.

Openreach chose these test sites because it regarded them as typical exchange areas, representative of others across the UK in terms of geography, the range of communications providers (such as BT, PlusNet, Sky, TalkTalk and Zen) offering Openreach services and the mix of businesses and consumers.

In December 2020, Openreach asked its communications provider (CP) customers for their views on plans to close 4,600 exchanges supporting traditional copper-based phone and broadband throughout the UK. Openreach confirmed to the CPs that as the UK is upgraded from analogue copper-based services to digital fibre-based ones, many exchanges will eventually become unviable for them to operate from, so closing them down is a natural next step.

Openreach originally proposed to focus on 100 exchanges where the benefits of closure were highest and it aims to close these buildings by December 2030, with most of the remaining 4,500 closing in the early 2030s.

The new pilot exchange consultation is now open, with responses from CPs and interested parties requested by 21 January 2022. Openreach said it would respond to consultation feedback on 18 February 2022. In the consultation, among the issues that CPs are invited to comment on include Openreach’s proposed pilot governance and how CPs will manage the pilots from their perspective.

Openreach proposes to have five pilot exchanges – Deddington, Oxfordshire; Kenton Road, Greater London; Carrickfergus, Ballyclare, Glengormley, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, which will be “child” exchanges served from the same parent, Whiteabbey exchange. Openreach elected these pilot exchanges because they will have been announced as FTTP stop-sell exchanges by the beginning of the trial period, and will have a good mix of CPs and end-customers

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The pilots will begin in April 2022, with most stop-sell implementations from June 2022 (excluding those not already covered by any FTTP stop-sell), and final withdrawal in December 2023 (Deddington) and June 2024 (all other exchanges). Over the proposed migration period, CPs will need to take appropriate steps, including the consumption of new products, shift/rearrange circuits and migrate end-customers to new technologies.

CPs using any Openreach product served from the pilot exchange – including exchange-based services or circuits that pass through the exchange – will be impacted, as will downstream customers using those services.

Weighing up the task ahead, Openreach strategy and transformation director David Belcher said the company was under no illusion that this will be a hugely complex programme to plan and deliver.

“We also know from speaking to CPs that these timescales will be challenging, so we’re now consulting them on plans to develop and test approaches to mass-migrating their customers using five pilot exchanges,” he said. “We’ll continue to work closely with our customers and the wider industry to develop our strategy and deliver a smooth digital upgrade throughout the UK.”

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