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UFO broadband network sees promising results from pilot testing

Trials of York’s Ultra Fibre Optic (UFO) broadband service is moving ahead, with early adopters proving enthusiastic about the speeds available

Tests of York’s Ultra Fibre Optic (UFO) fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband network are seeing encouraging results, and ISP TalkTalk is exploring the possibility of rolling the network out on a wider basis.

UFO – a joint venture between fibre backhaul supplier CityFibre, and internet service providers (ISPs) Sky and TalkTalk – was launched in 2015 with the intention of being the first gigabit FTTP service to be made available on a large scale in an urban area.

The partners also set out to prove that such a project would be well-accepted by users and be financially viable.

The network dig around the city has made steady progress, with 120km of fibre optic cable laid, connecting 500 homes. It is also testing with business customers. According to project head Richard Sinclair, the network has already had 70,000GB of data downloaded across it.

Sinclair said the work would not have been possible without the enthusiastic backing of York City Council.

“The council shares TalkTalk’s vision and passion that technology will transform our society,” said Sinclair. “The council is the de facto fourth partner in the venture and has been very supportive of our journey to make York UFO’s first city.”

York Council head of ICT Roy Grant said the service gave his city a chance to extend the so-called Northern Powerhouse beyond larger urban areas, such as Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester.

York already offers free city centre Wi-Fi and ultrafast connectivity to council facilities. Grant said he was particularly keen to beef up general connectivity to help convince more businesses to locate in the city, and to convince students at its university to build lives and careers there.

The free Wi-Fi has also proved particularly useful at attracting tourists, especially from China, where connectivity is a big factor in holidaymaker decision-making.

“Why does the tech powerhouse have to be Leeds and Manchester? What can’t it be here? There is no reason not to come stay, live and work in York, and this fibre footprint is a key enabler,” said Grant.

“Connectivity shouldn’t be a lottery. It shouldn’t matter where you live. It should be a given.”

Broadband lighthouse

In a new-build suburb of York, TalkTalk has set up a demonstration property designed to show off the potential of UFO to potential customers, broadband stakeholders and politicians both local and national. It is a standard modern terrace on a pleasant estate, and it is called the Lighthouse.

Inside, multiple devices tested by Computer Weekly and TalkTalk’s engineers were able to sustain download speeds of well over 200Mbps, on par with other FTTP services available.

The stable connection was perfectly able to stream 4K television, while supporting general domestic usage, home working and more bandwidth-intensive activities such as gaming simultaneously.

Anecdotally, gamers connected to UFO have reported seeing themselves shooting up the performance league tables on games such as Call of Duty, as the lack of latency now means they are able to perform as well as rivals in countries such as South Korea, where ultrafast broadband is virtually ubiquitous.

Outside the Lighthouse, the diggers have been using micro-trenching to install the cables just below the surface of the pavement, with a connection directly into each home.

TalkTalk claimed it can get the average homeowner up and running with the service in a couple of hours – although so far the project is still at a limited-enough stage that more personalised installations are feasible.

According to TalkTalk, take-up among those properties included in the project’s catchment area has been significantly ahead of what BT has seen on its FTTC roll-out.

Such as with many other gigabit fibre projects, the near neighbours of those that have received the service tend to become particularly vocal in demanding the service be extended. There is also talk of a positive impact on local house prices.

Resilient fibre network

According to Sinclair, one of the “knockout differences” TalkTalk has seen so far has been the resilience of the fibre network.

“One of the service challenges TalkTalk has seen in the past is that some of the infrastructure is up to 100 years old. It fails in poor weather and suffers all sorts of faults,” he said.

“The fault often sits on the Openreach network, but customers buying services from TalkTalk don’t care about that. With a TalkTalk-owned network, they only have one call to make.”

During the winter storms, when many Openreach cabinets in York were taken out by flooding, UFO customers opened their doors – and broadband connections – to their neighbours, said Sinclair.

He conceded that the UFO project still had its sceptics, but argued that those saying fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) was all that was needed to guarantee superfast connectivity were plain wrong.

“Demand for data and capacity is doubling every year. We need the flexibility, agility and connectivity that ultrafast brings. We’re trying to create an accessible digital revolution,” he said.

TalkTalk hopes it will be able to extend the UFO network into other cities, most likely inside the CityFibre network footprint, in the next 12 to 18 months.

Its next objective will be to see if it can manage the demands of two network builds at once, so that it can decide if a large-scale roll-out is feasible.

Read more about FTTP broadband

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Developers Countryside and L&Q deploy full fibre broadband services on their Beaulieu residential development in Chelmsford, Essex.

A team of researchers has developed a new design of optical receiver that they claim could dramatically reduce the costs of deploying FTTP broadband.

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