BT Preps 'Landmark' FTTC Investment

In an effort to live up to its promises of building a broadband-enabled Britain, BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) has announced a £132 million (US$208.8 million) broadband project that could see up to 250,000 people in southwest England, including some in rural areas, gain access to a fiber connection and downstream speeds of up to 100 Mbit/s by 2014. (See Fiber Boost for UK's West Country.)

The project is for the English county of Cornwall (1,376 square miles, slightly bigger than Rhode Island), home to 500,000 people, tens of thousands of small businesses, disused tin and copper mines, golden beaches, and the Beast of Bodmin. The project also covers the Isles of Scilly (pronounced "silly") that lie off the southwest tip of the county.

The county has, for decades, lacked much in the way of meaningful investment, and has one of the lowest rates of economic output per capita in the UK, making it eligible for external funding, which is coming in useful for this project.

The aim of BT, and Cornwall Council, is to lay 130,000 kilometers of fiber that, if everything goes to plan, will see half the region's homes and businesses (around 10,000 small and medium-sized enterprises) have access to a fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband connection (downstream broadband of up to 100 Mbit/s), a further 35 percent have access to copper-based broadband served by fiber-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) rollouts (up to 40 Mbit/s), and the remaining 15 percent is served, with faster broadband access speeds than they can get now, by other technologies such as satellite and "wireless" (of which more later).

The £132 million will (amazingly) cover the investment needed for all those technologies, including local exchanges equipment upgrades, and the laying of all the new fiber. Access vendor selection and determination of what needs to happen in the local exchanges will be made by Openreach , the BT division that manages the access network. BT chose Fujitsu Telecommunications Europe Ltd. and Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. as its multiservice access node (MSAN) providers when it awarded its 21CN contracts, but has since also turned to ECI Telecom Ltd. as its FTTX plans have developed during the past few years. (See ECI Opens Up on BT.)

BT Wholesale CEO Sally Davis told reporters in London today that while initial planning for the rollout had been done, there was still a lot of fine detail to sort out (such as exactly what upgrades will be required for the local exchanges and remote broadband street cabinets), but that the first customers should be connected to the new network by the end of March 2011. The resulting services will be made available to all UK service providers on a wholesale basis.

The British operator is stumping up £78.5 million ($124.2 million) of the required funds, while European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) will invest up to £53.5 million ($84.6 million). (Cornwall is one of only two regions in the UK eligible for ERDF funding, the other being Wales.)

BT's investment is in addition to the £2.5 billion that BT has pledged to invest in UK broadband in the coming years. (See BT Outlines 3-Year Plan and BT Ups Its FTTP Target.)

Davis says the project is a "landmark" as it will provide a "blueprint for next-generation broadband for rural areas in the UK," and, it is hoped, help create up to 4,000 new jobs in Cornwall, as the Council believes the improved broadband capabilities will attract and foster new businesses.

And according to Davis, it probably won't just be those in Cornwall's major towns and cities that get the chance to sign up for the fastest fiber-based broadband. "Once we look at the details, we could even be running fiber to some remote farms," she stated. [Ed. note: Fiber-to-the-barn?]

BT's plans to boost bandwidth provision to the expected 15 percent of Cornish homes and businesses that won't get either FTTP or FTTC are less clear, though. Davis said the satellite connections could be used, as well as wireless. So which wireless technology would that be? Public WiFi got a mention (though it's hard to see that improving anyone's lot), while Davis said the current plans didn't include the purchase of spectrum or the deployment of WiMax or TD-LTE technology.

A BT spokesman, though, added that if spectrum in the 800/900MHz band comes up for auction next year, the carrier would look again at its options. BT does not currently own any mobile operations or hold any spectrum licenses.

Quite how BT ends up providing improved, and potentially high-speed, broadband in this largely rural area of the UK will be of interest to many other operators in mature broadband markets, as taking fiber (either to the home or the curbside cabinet) anywhere outside urban areas has long been considered to be an uneconomic exercise with little or no return-on-investment rationale.

News of BT's plans comes in a busy week for the British broadband sector, following the announcement yesterday that Virgin Media Business Ltd. , part of UK cable giant Virgin Media Inc. (Nasdaq: VMED), is gunning hard to win business customers away from BT with a high-speed fiber-based symmetrical Ethernet services offering. (See Virgin's Business Broadband Broadside.) — Ray Le Maistre, International Managing Editor, Light Reading

Duh! 12/5/2012 | 4:22:14 PM
re: BT Preps 'Landmark' FTTC Investment

A few years back BT was driving a vision for extended reach PON, which got standardized in G.984.6.  The big idea was that cost savings from CO consolidation would pay for a big part of the infrastructure.   Any idea whether they're using reach extenders in this deployment?

shygye75 12/5/2012 | 4:22:12 PM
re: BT Preps 'Landmark' FTTC Investment

Wow -- I knew Peter Heywood amassed a lot of power as co-founder of Light Reading, but I had no idea he could get BT to spend this kind of money to bring broadband to his Cornwall estate.

Gabriel Brown 12/5/2012 | 4:22:10 PM
re: BT Preps 'Landmark' FTTC Investment

Peter has leverage obviously. The question is what does he know?

I grew up in Cornwall. I'm a little sceptical of this all coming together, although with Peter on the case the odds have improved quite a bit. 

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