Engineers at UK digital infrastructure business Openreach are trialling a range of new tools and techniques as they work to upgrade 13 of the UK’s rural communities to faster, more reliable and future-proof broadband technology.
The trials are part of the company’s ambition to extend its new ‘full’ fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) network into areas that are more challenging for a commercial investment programme. Engineers will be deploying full fibre to upgrade 50,000 homes and businesses in villages and market towns stretching from Scotland to Devon including: Cranfield; West Calder; Flockton; Hesketh Bank; Kentford; Lingfield; Lundin Links; Mickle Trafford; Okehampton; Ottery St Mary; Parbold; Seal; and Tarporley.
Some customers have already been connected and the first homes and businesses across other pilot locations should be able to order their new FTTP broadband services in time for Christmas 2019. Building work across the 13 locations is expected to be finished for just over half the customers across all the pilot sites by the end of March 2020.
If the pilots prove successful, it could mean some hundreds of thousands more homes and businesses across the UK – those in smaller, less accessible locations that were considered more difficult or expensive for the private sector to upgrade commercially – could potentially become eligible for being included in Openreach’s ‘Fibre First’ investment programme in the years ahead – if the right investment conditions are met.
“At Openreach, we’ll never be just a city fibre provider,” asserted Clive Selley, Chief Executive of Openreach. “We’ve always worked hard to improve connections to isolated, less commercially attractive communities through inventive engineering and effective funding partnership models.”
“In recent years we’ve been extending our full fibre network into rural areas – mostly in partnership with local authorities and Government – but the economics are clearly challenging and we want to do more. We know that around 10 per cent of the country will need to the support of public subsidy, but these trials will help us test a bunch of new techniques that could help us in other rural areas.”
“The trials will also give us a much clearer picture of what the technical challenges in these kinds of rural areas are. We hope they’ll go a long way towards developing the tools, skills and innovations required to make sure that nobody’s left behind in the full fibre future.”
According to recent government statistics, around 11 million people in the UK, or approximately 17 per cent of the population, live in rural areas.
Openreach engineers will be testing a number of cost-busting tools in the 13 locations, including a specialised trench digging tool called a diamond cutter – a giant rotating circular blade with diamonds embedded in the metal coating on its edge – enabling it to slice through carriageway or footway leaving a neat channel into which the machine simultaneously feeds in tubing for fibre-optic cables as it moves along the ground. The specialist kit is capable of installing 700 metres of cabling a day – more than 20 times that by a standard two-person civils team using traditional methods of drilling and excavation, slashing the time taken to deploy fibre by months.
The company is also trialling ‘remote nodes’ – where fibre-optic cables can be built out from specially-adapted existing green roadside cabinets. Specialised broadband-boosting equipment installed inside the cabinet enables full fibre connections to extend by more than one and a half times their current reach, with the capacity to connect more than 1,000 premises. By ‘piggy-backing’ on our existing network, engineers can take full fibre further and faster – while avoiding up to six months in time and associated cost involved in deploying new fibre cables or ‘spines’ from an exchange to remote rural areas,
The rural pilot locations have been carefully chosen to be representative of a wider number of geographic areas across the UK and in order to test different build scenarios.
Openreach is on track to reach its full fibre build target of reaching four million homes and businesses by the end of March 2021 – and it is currently passing around 22,000 premises a week with fibre – or one every 28 seconds. However, the company wants to go much further – to reach 15 million by the mid-2020s and ultimately the majority of the UK if the right investment conditions are in place.
The business doubled its FTTP footprint in 2018 and today, more than 1.8 million UK homes and businesses have access to faster, more reliable full fibre services over the Openreach network.