New Zealand reaps fibre benefits as copper-choked UK risks digital exclusion

Telecoms and technology consultant, futurist and ex-BT CTO Peter Cochrane highlights the urgency for the UK to consider FTTP if it wants to maintain its place in the world economy

The UK started building out fibre-optic networks to the home in the late 1980s, but by the early 1990s the programme had already been abandoned in favour of squeezing more bandwidth from copper cables and investing in mobile networks.

Today, while other countries are beginning to realise the great benefits to society, commerce and industry from having invested in fibre, the UK is being left behind, unable to compete with countries where a fast connection is ubiquitous thanks to fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP). The case study presented by New Zealand highlights the urgency for the UK to consider FTTP if it wants to maintain its place in the world economy.

Fibre in New Zealand is providing first-class broadband and mobile coverage throughout the country. The Kiwis’ policy has been to replace fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) with FTTP to 75% of the population, with an open access policy for everyone, backed up by rolling fibre deeper into rural areas with a view to building FTTP in the future.

Oh, how this contrasts with the UK government’s recent decision to abandon one million rural homes and not even deliver on its promise of superfast broadband (which was, in actual fact, a super-low ambition in any event). New Zealand appears to have been working to a clear vision – that without fibre everywhere, you will be left behind. Judging by its flourishing economy, international commerce and growth of its technology sector, it has been a sound plan.

Sadly, in the Western world, FTTP is progressing at a snail’s pace despite visible and increasing demand. Copper and mobile networks are now on the back foot – unable to meet demand for the service levels needed, and even ‘developed’ countries risk falling behind through exclusion from services and world markets. FTTP with bandwidths of 1Gbps both ways is now assumed to be a base requirement to support future industries, commerce and government.

This begs the question: how much more efficient and better connected would the UK be if there had been one clear vision decades ago?

Future-looking economies need fibre

Without super-fast networks, countries simply cannot compete in environments of cloud computing, the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, smart communities and cities, healthcare and education. Businesses are migrating to FTTP connected countries to stay competitive and empower new technology centres.

What is more, telecoms operators in FTTP-installed countries are far more profitable and, as a result, are able to invest in broader portfolios of services, with these countries’ GDPs seeing impressive upturns as a result.

Fibre-optic networks are also more energy-efficient and easier to run. They require 80-90% less buildings, and are significantly more reliable and resilient, requiring less repairs and maintenance and use 80-90% less energy than their copper counterparts. More importantly, fibre networks are future-proofed for decades to come, providing infinite bandwidth by today’s measures. 

5G mobile – simply no substitute

In the UK, we have tried to convince ourselves that 5G will be the future. But this simply isn’t the case. 5G cannot sustain the network demands of today and will fail to satisfy our communications and ecological demands in the future.

The 5G standard itself is not due to be finalised until at least 2018, with roll-out expected to take many more years – that is, of course, if communities will sanction the 10-fold (or more) increase in masts needed to deliver 5G.

But even without cross-examining its potential technical failings, we might observe that 2G, 3G and 4G have failed to deliver adequate bandwidth, so why would we expect 5G to be any different?

Need for energy-efficient networks

Aside from network capacity issues, network energy consumption is a major problem. Today the internet, including all our mobile and fixed devices, consumes an estimated 5-10% of all global energy generated – and we are about to move from more than 10 billion computing devices and seven billion mobiles, to an IoT world where a further 50-250 billion wireless ‘things’ are coming on line.

This makes the economics of energy crucially important to our long-term infrastructure technology decisions.  

Fortunately, the opportunity to drastically reduce energy demands does exist and consists of exploiting the inverse square law for electromagnetic waves.

Essentially, by connecting wireless networks via micro and picocells to the fibre network, mobile and Wi-Fi networks are enabled almost free of charge – and, importantly, without the need for energy-hungry masts and towers.

The choice is ours

Fibre is not an alternative, but an essential network technology needed to meet the ever-increasing demands, both mobile and fixed, of all homes and businesses today and into the future.

The choice before us seems simple: do we want to be in the future game or not? Do we want to empower the few or the many? Are we to be an inclusive or exclusive society?

New Zealand has the right network strategy, the right plan and is well progressed toward completion. The UK needs to follow this example and seriously consider fibre or risk jeopardising its economic, cultural and social standing in the world.

Peter Cochrane is former CTO at BT, a consultant engineer, technologist, futurist, entrepreneur and adviser to industry and governments with over 40 years’ experience in industry and academia.

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