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FTTx

BT Ramps Up Its FTTX Speeds

While other European incumbents get agitated with the European Commission's Neelie Kroes over her plans to boost fiber access network investments across the continent, BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) is forging ahead with its fiber rollout and is set to unveil a 300Mbit/s downstream service in about six months' time. (See Euronews: Kroes Plan Is Krazy, Say Telcos.)

The operator's Openreach access network division, which provides fixed broadband services to the U.K.'s retail ISPs (including its sister division, BT Retail), expects to make its fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) services, also known as Generic Ethernet Access over FTTP (GEA-FTTP), available from Oct. 31 in at least six local markets around the U.K. (See BT's Openreach Launches FTTP.)

Initial downstream peak speeds will be 110 Mbit/s with 30 Mbit/s upstream, but by Spring 2012 (so, any time from March to June) that speed will be ratcheted up to 300 Mbit/s downstream. The operator is also trialing a 1Gbit/s downstream link in the eastern county of Suffolk, near to its Martlesham R&D facilities.

The move is part of BT's £2.5 billion (US$3.9 billion) investment in what it calls "superfast" broadband, though the majority of its rollout is fiber-to-the-curb (FTTC), with copper tails running from remote DSLAMs, not fiber all the way to the customer. (See BT Ramps FTTx Plans, Turns a Profit.)

But even its FTTC offer is getting a boost. BT says it has been given clearance to use different frequencies that, starting some time in 2012, will allow it to increase the maximum speed of its FTTC downstream service to 80 Mbit/s from 40 Mbit/s.

BT currently offers its FTTC service in U.K. markets passing 5 million homes, about 20 percent of the total. In mid-September it announced that a further 114 local exchange areas are being upgraded for FTTC provision during the coming year, taking the total to 1,243 of BT's total 5,600 local exchanges that will have been upgraded. By 2015, BT plans to make its FTTC/FTTP services available to 66 percent of British homes.

The operator's broadband access infrastructure suppliers for these upgrades are Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. (a long-time access supplier) and ECI Telecom Ltd. , which joined the broadband upgrade program more recently. (See ECI Opens Up on BT.)

BT is keen to be seen as offering broadband connectivity better than fierce cable operator rival Virgin Media Inc. (Nasdaq: VMED), which has been deploying Docsis 3.0 technology to offer commercial 100Mbit/s services while trialing services of even greater speeds. (See Virgin Widens 100-Meg Footprint, Tests 1.5-Gig .)

The key issue is that BT's new FTTC infrastructure can actually deliver average downstream speeds quite close to the advertised maximum, something that Virgin Media has been doing for a while. A recent report from regulator Ofcom showed that while the cable company continues to deliver the speeds it advertises with its 30 Mbit/s service, BT has been achieving a creditable average downstream speed of 34 Mbit/s with its FTTC offer (sold as "Infinity broadband") that advertises a maximum of 40 Mbit/s. (See UK Broadband Not So Fast.)

However, regular DSL services (over copper lines running from local exchanges) fare much worse, with broadband services marketed at "up to" 24 Mbit/s delivering on average only 6.6 Mbit/s.

Virgin Media has been advertising its services aggressively during the past year or so and has built its broadband customer base to more than 4 million, compared with BT Retail's 5.8 million. Currently, just 200,000 of those BT broadband customers have signed up to the FTTC Infinity service.

Clearly, though, BT is getting much better results from its new broadband infrastructure and, most likely, greater customer satisfaction and an increased opportunity to sell value-added services that require significant bandwidth, such as high-definition on-demand video. Accelerating its broadband upgrades and boosting its speeds clearly makes sense for the incumbent operator, especially in the face of intense competition for triple play customers.

— Ray Le Maistre, International Managing Editor, Light Reading

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