BT Puts at Heart of Ultra-Fast Broadband Plans

Thanks to recent technology improvements, a UK-wide deployment based largely on FTTC now looks commercially viable.

Iain Morris, International Editor

January 30, 2015

6 Min Read
BT Puts at Heart of Ultra-Fast Broadband Plans

UK fixed-line incumbent BT has revealed plans to roll out a nationwide ultra-fast broadband service using the bandwidth-boosting standard.

The announcement, which accompanied the publication of results for the October-to-December quarter, will give a huge spur to the industry and may convince other big operators to throw their weight behind the emerging technology. (See BT Plots Rollout, Mobile Launch.) essentially works by supercharging the final copper connections into customer premises, allowing operators to provide fiber-like connection speeds without having to make costly investments in fiber-to-the-home technology. To be truly effective, however, needs to be used after fiber has been extended as far as the distribution points that reside near buildings. (See The Dawn of Gigabit Copper?.)

At least, that has been the conventional view. Earlier today, BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) CEO Gavin Patterson told analysts that -- following technology improvements during the past six months -- BT would be able to use effectively over much longer copper loops than it had originally thought possible.

"There has been a breakthrough on in the last quarter and we now see a way to deliver it from street cabinets rather than just distribution points," he said. "That means we can build on existing investments."

Besides prompting other broadband operators to re-examine the use of, this clearly has major implications for in the UK. BT manages as many as 4 million distribution points up and down the country, compared with just 90,000 cabinets. Moreover, its cabinets are already kitted out with the electronics and other equipment needed for "superfast" broadband.

By using in conjunction with both fiber-to-the-cabinet and fiber-to-the-distribution-point technologies, the operator believes it will be able to provide 500Mbit/s services to most UK homes over the next 10 years. But it is also confident it will be able to support services of up to 1 Gbit/s for more demanding customers.

Figure 1: Source: BT Source: BT

This marks a considerable improvement on the 800 Mbit/s BT managed to achieve over loop lengths of just 19 meters during tests at its Adastral Park research facility last year. (See BT Takes a Step Closer to

While many of the specifics have yet to be ironed out, BT plans to begin trials this summer covering about 4,000 premises in the towns of Huntingdon (Cambridgeshire) and Gosforth (Newcastle). Should those pilots prove successful, it will start work on a nationwide rollout next year. By 2020, it aims to be providing speeds of a few hundred megabits per second to "millions of homes and businesses."

That constitutes a major opportunity for vendors Adtran Inc. (Nasdaq: ADTN), Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) and Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. , all of which have been involved in BT's tests.

The rollout of gigabit broadband access networks is spreading. Find out what's happening where in our dedicated Gigabit Cities content channel here on Light Reading.

Patterson is also insisting that BT will only commit to if the "appropriate regulatory environment is in place". UK regulators are keeping a close eye on whether BT is "squeezing" its broadband competitors by setting its wholesale prices too high or its retail charges too low. Having complained about growing regulatory scrutiny of its pricing activities, BT seems to be telling authorities to back off or give up hoping it will roll out ultra-fast services. (See Eurobites: BT Faces New Rules on Access Charges.)

Even so, a deployment based largely on FTTC would not require eye-watering expenditure, according to BT. Although Patterson would not provide any detailed guidance on how much a rollout would cost, he reckons it could be managed within BT's "existing capex envelope" (the operator spent £1.65 billion -- $2.5 billion -- in capital expenditure between April and December -- 7% less than in the same period of 2013).

" will coexist with VDSL2+ for many years," said Clive Selley, BT's chief information officer, in explaining some of the operator's cost rationale. "The strategy is about reusing existing assets and street furniture. Copper that runs between cabinets and homes will continue to be used for VDSL2+ and"

BT flagged impressive growth in its fiber broadband business in the October-to-December quarter, adding 209,000 retail customers to give it more 2.7 million in total. That means more than 35% of the operator's broadband customers are now making use of fiber services.

Figure 2: Source: BT Source: BT

Nevertheless, the operator faces growing competitive challenges in the superfast broadband market and its ability to influence regulatory decisions may be diminishing.

Its top-tier broadband service is only about half as fast as a rival offering from cable operator Virgin Media Inc. (Nasdaq: VMED), while a joint venture involving Sky , TalkTalk and CityFibre plans to launch 1Gbit/s services later this year. Although that service will be limited to part of the city of York, TalkTalk has said it could ultimately be extended to as many as 10 million UK homes. (See CityFibre Aims for BT's Wholesale Business and TalkTalk's Small Fiber Beginnings.)

Besides preparing for the future launch of ultra-fast broadband services, BT is also planning a return to the UK's mobile market through a £12.5 billion takeover of mobile operator EE , with which it is currently holding "exclusive" talks. (See BT Offers $19.5B to Buy EE, Why BT + EE Makes More Sense and Convergence: All the Rage in 2015.)

"We're very close to the end of the due diligence process and subject to that we'll make an announcement shortly," said Patterson.

BT's move would create a giant in the UK's fixed and mobile markets and seemed to galvanize Hong Kong's Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. (Hong Kong: 0013; Pink Sheets: HUWHY), which already owns EE rival Three UK , to make its own £9.25 billion ($13.9 billion) offer for Telefónica UK Ltd. , another mobile network operator, earlier this month. By merging Telefónica UK (known as O2) with 3, Hutchison aims to create the country's biggest mobile operator by customer numbers. (See Hutchison Offers $13.9B for UK's O2 and Hutchison in Talks to Buy UK's O2 – Report.)

Patterson, however, is skeptical that such a deal will secure the approval of UK competition authorities. "It will reduce the mobile market from four players to three and that will be challenging to justify," he said.

— Iain Morris, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, News Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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