Live in a UK city? You may have noticed a lot more adverts for superfast fibre broadband through your door in the last few months. The flyers promise scarily fast connections for a simple switchover to “full-fibre broadband”. But why is it happening?
The answer is a simple one: telecoms companies are laying out new fibre optic broadband connections across the country that take broadband right to the door of properties – replacing the old “fibre to the cabinet” connections. The change stops data travelling at superfast speeds up to the point of a street-level telephone cabinet getting itself stuck in traffic as it tries to get through creaky old-fashioned copper connections from the cabinet to homes.
“The physical properties of copper are such that you won’t get good connectivity,” says Paolo Gerli of Northumbria University, who has researched the spread of broadband in rural areas. The need to replace old copper connections is becoming more urgent as our data consumption swells – more streaming and connected devices increases demand.
The UK’s internet infrastructure has so far failed to keep-up. The evolution of telecoms equipment started in the 1980s with the installation of fibre connections into exchanges – around 5,500 regional centres responsible for connecting phone calls in a geographical area. The fibre rollout then continued in a second generation where the superfast upgrade brought fibre from the exchanges to the cabinet.
“The third stage is what they call the last mile,” explains Dan Lewis of UpFibre, a broadband lobby group, who formerly worked for the Institute of Directors on broadband infrastructure. “This is the most awkward bit of all, because this is where you actually have to get permission to go into buildings and bring fibre to the premises,” he says.
A surprisingly large number of people refuse to get fibre connections to the premises, Lewis says – a peril of short-sightedness. “Just as you wouldn’t buy a smartphone 12 years ago because there wasn’t a 3G or 4G network and there would be no apps to download, you could say I don’t need it – and that’s true, for now,” he says. So instead people stick with the copper connections from the cabinet near their premises, and the throttling of data that ensues.
“Ratios of how much data you can pump through copper are an issue,” says Lewis – “particularly on uploads.” And that’s a problem. “It’s not just that data consumption is growing by about 40 per cent in a year,” says Lewis. “It’s that the travel of the data is changing as well. There’s more stuff being uploaded.”
We no longer just download files from the internet: we also send data up internet connections – and in large amounts. “A lot of people back up things,” explains Lewis. “We access cloud services, too.” Every time you save a file connected to Dropbox, that change is uploaded to cloud servers.
The issue is going to get worse, as uptake of such services increases and Internet of Things (IoT) devices communicate in both directions using data connections.
So improvement is needed to the UK’s broadband infrastructure. “It’s one of these things where you can do lots of incremental upgrades, or you can just spend once,” says Lewis. “You spend once and it’s going to be cheaper thereafter, and have a much longer life.” Unlike copper cables, no one is going to try and dig up fibre optic cables and sell them on the black market.
Upgrading the entire country to full-fibre broadband – at present, seven per cent of the UK is covered, according to official statistics – would be a costly exercise. It’d need an estimated £33.4 billion of investment over the next 30 years, says the National Infrastructure Commission. Getting full-fibre in a one-and-done upgrade (that would take years) would cost £11.5bn more than iterative improvements to the existing copper cables, but would be netted off with £5.1bn of savings in future operating and running costs. As a result, the National Infrastructure Commission believe it’s worth doing.
Politicians agree. The government has set a target of 2033 to connect everyone in Britain to full-fibre broadband, while Boris Johnson has set a goal of 2025 in his Conservative leadership campaign (something that “clearly is pretty ambitious,” says Lewis).
But there are drawbacks. The high cost of setting up fibre to people’s doors – up to £3,000 per building in remote, rural areas, compared to around £150 for urban locations – means that there’ll be little “overbuild”, or competition between suppliers who build infrastructure in the same area. Consumers will be given the option of using the virtual monopoly supplier in that area for full-fibre, or not having it at all.
And the cost of rural connections means they’ll likely be the last to be connected – perpetuating the already-wide digital divide. “For rural communities, broadband can make a massive difference,” says Gerli. “If you’re not online, you’re really isolated. And you’re already isolated for geographic reasons anyway.”
Having the full-fibre rollout carried out by private companies disadvantages rural areas, where the cost of setting up the infrastructure is greater. Some community-based projects have managed to bring full-fibre connections to rural areas, but it’s working around the fringes. “There is a risk that if the government doesn’t intervene, the connectivity gap will widen, because commercial investment will focus on urban areas,” says Gerli. Until that time, people living in the countryside will wait a while for leaflets hawking lightning fast connections to pop through their door.
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