Estimates of £15 to £16 billion are often mentioned for the cost of rolling out fibre to the home (FTTH) which in theory should provide a fixed line solution to the home suitable for several generations. Until now no-one has really gone on record in a public manner looking at the benefits such a roll-out could have. Anthony Walker from the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) spoke to the BBC last week regarding the benefits of FTTH at Ebbsfleet Valley
The BSG has produced two documents, one providing a Framework for Evaluating the Value of Next Generation Broadband, and the second Models for efficient and effective public sector intervention in next generations broadband access networks. Both documents were launched at a Beyond Pipe Dreams conference today.
The massive £16bn figure which grabs the headlines would in theory provide FTTH to some 80% of UK homes. The report does recognise that there are differences in getting services to different parts of the country, namely that a pure commercial driver may mean parts of the country will never see the service and that roll-out is likely to be a lot slower than previous ADSL deployments.
So where is the UK in terms of fibre roll-outs? Well there is some greenfield activity like Ebbsfleet Valley, and H2O Networks are at the vanguard in terms of wiring up existing homes with its fibre through the sewer network. Ask4 is a fairly new entrant rolling out 25Mbps Metro-Ethernet connections in luxury city apartments (an opportunity we are surprised has taken so long to be taken up). Virgin Media (VM) with its DOCSIS 3.0 fibre/co-ax hybrid planned rollout in 2009 could see a reasonably large part of the UK having the option of access to a 50Mbps service, and if some TV channel space were taken over speeds of 100Mbps would be possible.
The obvious missing player is BT Group which keeps re-iterating the need to be able to justify to its shareholders that any such investment will yield a sufficient return. Some communications providers it is thought are looking at at a 'halfway house' Fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) deployment, which could see consumers in the UK finally getting access to VDSL2 which can run at 50Mbps not too dissimilar from VM's cable services, or even 100Mbps for short lines.
The level of diligence in planning any large scale roll-out of FTTH is well advised. Milton Keynes is a town suffering from what seemed to be very advanced thinking in its day seeing BT roll-out a cable TV service, but the current owner of that network, Virgin Media, is now stuck in a technology backwater.
The danger is that the UK will stay in that brilliant middle management tactic of endless committees without having to do any real work and the public believing action is being taken when in fact nothing is happening.
We look forward to being able to run news on announcements of FTTH deployments, but there is a real worry that we may simply see developments in the major cities and towns only to find in 2020 still have 30 to 40% of telephone lines running on ADSL.
Of one thing we are relatively certain--Fibre is the future. It is possible at present to deliver multiple wavelengths of 10Gbps or more through a single optical fibre and faster services are just around the corner. It is likely that any developments in the fields of communications will exploit the properties of fibre networks, so the investment, and potential benefits are most certainly long term ones. Whether such an outlook is attractive to commercial operators in today's regulatory climate is a matter for the government to consider.