UK copper switch-off requires collaboration and cooperation

(Image credit: Shutterstock) (Image credit: Shutterstock)

In March this year the UK reached a small but significant milestone. For the first time, it breached the one per cent penetration threshold required to be included in the FTTH Council Europe’s Ultrafast Broadband Rankings.

While the rate of 1.5 per cent is significantly lower than the majority of the continent, it is evidence that Britain’s ‘fibre-first’ strategy is taking effect.

The government wants ‘full fibre’ to be the default connectivity for the vast majority of the country, while Virgin Media and a number of ‘altnet’ providers like CityFibre are investing in Fibre to the Premise (FTTP) infrastructure.

Switching off copper

Openreach, after years of sweating its copper assets through Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) and G.Fast technology, is now rolling out FTTP as a more independent organisation. To date, it has connected more than 1.2 million premises across the UK.

Its commitment is such that it has increased its rollout targets to four million by 2021 and 15 million by the mid-2020s.

But perhaps the biggest sign of this shift is that Openreach is actively consulting with its wholesale customers – such as Sky and TalkTalk – to determine the best way to migrate the UK from copper to fibre infrastructure with a view to switching off the analogue network entirely.

A collaborative approach is welcomed by the industry, which believes a framework for such a migration is essential to maximising the efficiencies and revenue opportunities promised by fibre. Indeed, some think agreeing on a plan is essential to driving the adoption rates required.

A pan-European approach

She added that there was a lot that governments and regulators could do to facilitate migration and the ultimate switch off of analogue networks. These include the switch from Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) to all-digital IP systems, the elimination of barriers to infrastructure rollout, and raising consumer awareness of the benefits of fire services

“Obviously, take up of fibre is extremely important to support the business case and the one year growth in the UK has been quite phenomenal,” FTTH Council Europe Director General Erzsebet Fitori told Connected Britain.

“The number of subscriptions has grown by 83 per cent. I think what we can observe with the UK market is that although it has started at a low base, things have started to move quite fast.

“We firmly believe the fate of copper and how we treat it is an important [factor in] the business case.”

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

(Image credit: Shutterstock) (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Customer view

 “We want a solution for the whole of Britain which is why we’re working with Openreach to agree a model to migrate our customers from copper,” added TalkTalk CEO Tristia Harrison.

“We’re very pleased to hear Openreach increase its target – that shows real commitment – but we have other considerations [when it comes to switchover] like vulnerable customers and a serious commercial framework.

“We haven’t talked much about copper switch off. We need to collaborate to do so as the commercial framework isn’t there yet. We can see it on a microscale basis: when the pricing works, the penetration comes. The cost to serve a fibre customer when they’re on the network is next to none – but this needs to happen nationally – on scale for consumers and basis.”

In an ideal world, the FTTH Europe Council would want to see a pan-European approach to migration, with common principles adopted across the EU.

Realistic goal

According to the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR), the British government itself wants nationwide coverage of fibre by 2033, at which point it would consider switching off the UK’s copper infrastructure. However, others, such as the Institute of Directors, believe a more ambitious timetable of 2025 would encourage fibre adoption and rollout.

This target has also been touted by Conservative leadership candidate Boris Johnson, although he did not offer any plan to achieve it. Selley says 2025 is “not unrealistic” but would depend entirely on factors such as legislation and favourable regulatory policies.

“Whichever target you look at, its ambitious,” he added. “We need the legislation coming through. It’s been a year since FTIR [was published], which is a great policy document, but we’ve not seen anything coming through.”

For the mobile industry, more fibre in the ground is essential to cope with growing traffic and to rollout 5G networks that require denser infrastructure. Although Three is adamant that Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) broadband can be a genuine alternative to fibre, CEO Dave Dyson is keen to stress the importance of fibre coverage to mobile operators.

“Fibre is still an incredibly important part of mobile connectivity,” he argued. “Competition in fibre is key so we can access fibre at the right price and quality when it makes sense to switch from mobile backhaul to fibre backhaul. Our target architecutre is to have dark fibre at sites.

“Where there isn’t competition, there needs to be a regulatory regime that allows access to fibre. It does worry me there’s a rush to install fibre in just one area.”

Amid legal wrangles, political lobbying, and grandstanding, it is clear that despite their differences, the major players in the UK are now committed to further fibre rollout and that copper migration needs to be an essential part of that process.

However, in telecoms, getting everyone on the same page is never that simple.

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.