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BT plans more rural FTTP digs as demand for ultrafast grows

At Broadband World Forum in London, BT showed off improved FTTP and broadband delivery technology, and set its sights on expanding ultrafast services to rural areas

BT’s arm’s-length infrastructure business, Openreach, has reaffirmed its commitment to expanding the national ultrafast broadband roll-out with a mix of and fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) delivery technology, and said it would begin rural FTTP digs in earnest.

BT had previously committed to hitting 12 million premises with some form of ultrafast broadband – meaning a service capable of delivering download speeds of 100Mbps and above – by 2020.

It plans to achieve this mostly by upgrading existing fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) services with bolt-on digital subscriber line access multiplexers (DSLAMs), with which it will hit about 10 million properties, with 2 million more to be passed by the biggest FTTP roll-out in the UK to date.

As previously reported, the FTTP build will mostly target commercially viable options such as new-build houses, multiple-occupancy dwellings and business customers.

However, Openreach chief engineer Andy Whale told Computer Weekly the company was keen to take the service to rural areas where very high bit rate digital subscriber line (VDSL) and services were “not effective”.

“It makes more sense to do FTTP in rural because you couldn’t do it with,” he said. “It goes back to needing the right technology for the right type of environment.”

Asked how Openreach planned to meet the higher costs of deploying FTTP in rural areas, Whale said BT was looking at a number of cost-cutting options. Until recently, Openreach had maintained that the expense of taking pure fibre broadband to a limited number of countryside dwellers has been the biggest barrier to building it.

BT’s cost-cutting options include a number of new technologies being made available to Openreach engineers that will enable them to work more effectively, and clear up problems in its underground ducts without digging up the streets.

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Fixing problems with underground ducts is one of the biggest cost sinks for Openreach, and a major source of delay and frustration to consumers. This is because much of its duct infrastructure is still built of earthenware – essentially the same substance that flowerpots are made of – which is vulnerable to water, soil and root ingress, and is easily broken.

To combat this, Openreach is deploying a number of new strategies and technologies. These include better cameras to identify problems; more efficient desilter and drilling equipment capable of getting through most obstructions; and thinner fibre cables, barely 2mm thick, will be able to fit through gaps they could not fit through before.

Above ground, a new breed of “plug-and-play” fibre connector means Openreach engineers will be able to connect a new FTTP customer in seconds, making their working lives more efficient.

As the annual Broadband World Forum industry event got under way in London this week, BT came out fighting as it waits for regulator Ofcom to decide whether or not to forcibly separate Openreach into a standalone business.

Speed boost

At the show, Openreach and network equipment supplier Huawei announced successful trials of a new type of broadband delivery technology that they claim could provide an extra speed boost for FTTP customers.

In tests conducted at BT’s development centre at Adastral Park in Suffolk, researchers used a 2.5Gbps gigabit passive optical network (GPON), a 10Gbps XGS-PON and a 40Gbps NG-PON2 fibre connection to deliver a cumulative 52Gbps service down a single standard FTTP cable.

This is significant because the most common GPON FTTP technology in use in the UK today – which happens to be Openreach’s – can only deliver speeds of 330Mbps with a single fibre transmitting 2.5Gbps of capacity, which is then shared between customers.

In this case, because the different fibre technologies use different wavelengths, all three can co-exist on the same network, massively boosting speeds without adding fibre.

“The demonstration shows that you can combine three different technologies and the underlying fibre doesn’t need to change,” said Whale. “Because FTTP can be continuously upgraded, it becomes very future-proof.”

Whale said that at this point in time, nobody really knows how fast FTTP technology can, or will, go. “We know we can put more and more capacity on it, and at the labs they are getting long-distance speeds of 34Tbps and over,” he said. “We are a long way off understanding what the limit is with fibre.”

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