Report: Copper switch off can drive infrastructure convergence

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A report from advisory firm Arthur D Little assessing the main issues that operators face in managing the legacy copper network switch-off processes concludes that having a clear, long-term infrastructure upgrade blueprint that is not just about fibre rollout, but pragmatically considers all potential future-oriented technology solutions, including fixed wireless access and other solutions, is a necessary condition before announcing legacy network switch-off plans.

The report, Copper switch off: Opportunity to drive infrastructure convergence? How to successfully manage the migration from copper to future-proof technologies, suggests the main driver to decommission legacy copper networks is not only to save costs on running an expensive, energy-hungry, operationally inefficient legacy technology but also to free up capital and resources to be redeployed to focus on delivering gigabit broadband with the most efficient future-proof technologies – namely fibre, 5G, and others.

“While there is general agreement that copper needs to be switched off, challenges still remain, including decisions like when to start switching off the legacy network; how to manage the various stakeholders, including the regulator, municipalities, wholesale, and retail customers; and how to manage the migration process to ensure churn minimisation while also enhancing customer experience and customer value,” says the report.

“The COVID-19-fueled necessity of home office, home schooling, and home entertainment will continue to drive the need not just for higher speeds, but also for lower latency and increased data volume consumption driven by increased use of video calls, cloud services, and media,” it adds.

“While legacy copper networks can still deliver speeds in the range of 100 Mbps, they do so inefficiently and with high costs, high energy consumption, and constraints like short local loop lengths (just a few hundred meters of copper wires, on average) and higher fault rates,” says the report. As speeds continue to increase, legacy copper networks either will be unable to keep up or only able to do so at a much higher cost than alternative fibre-based technologies.

Although copper switch off is on management’s agenda for most incumbent operators, not many have convincingly kickstarted the switch-off process, suggests Arthur D Little. Lessons learned from successful switch-off programmes across the world can provide guideposts to other operators to replicate and improve, it says.

Having a clear, long-term infrastructure upgrade blueprint that is not just about fibre rollout but pragmatically considers all potential future-oriented technology solutions, including fixed wireless access and other solutions, is a necessary condition before announcing legacy network switch-off plans.

A bottom-up, municipality-by-municipality, street-by-street, home-by-home approach is unavoidable, and incumbents must engage each and every municipality and related government entities and communicate with customers to ensure buy-in to the program. They must also use this opportunity to negotiate concessions with authorities to ease not just fibre upgrades but also potential network expansion projects.

The copper switch-off programme can act as a catalyst for other organisational synergies within the incumbent, breaking down silos between the fixed and mobile business units and enabling implementation of converged infrastructure, processes, and end-user solutions.

The switch-off programme should have a clear set of KPIs that triggers sequencing of upgrades and selection of future-proof replacement technology solutions, so that the entire project functions smoothly within predetermined financial targets and time is not wasted waiting for case-by-case financial approvals during execution of the programme.

Incumbents should be receptive to open access fibre business models through partnerships with third-party financial investors, non-telco strategic investors (e.g., municipalities, energy companies), or even with competitors rolling out fibre. Such partnerships can lead not only to additional funding capacity but also may provide strategic capabilities (e.g., reuse of existing infrastructure) and reduce expensive footprint overbuild.

Engaging actively with operators during the copper switch-off process and providing clear guidelines in terms of permissions and planning cannot only ease the actual switch-off process but can also open new areas for collaboration, such as extending the infrastructure footprint and resolving coverage gaps.

Additionally, the switch-off process can create opportunities for joint investment or joint operations of special rural open access fibre entities. Regulators should have clear notice period regulations in place that not only seek to protect existing wholesale customers of legacy products, but also seek to accelerate migration to future-proof technologies by encouraging both the incumbent and the wholesale customer to migrate faster. Copper switch off also fosters lower energy usage, promoting greater environmental sustainability for the telecom sector.


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