H2 2018 – Rise in Full to Capacity FTTC Broadband Street Cabinets

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A new report has estimated that around 4.6% of premises in the United Kingdom could be affected by full to capacity FTTC (VDSL2) based “fibre broadband” street cabinets on Openreach’s (BT) network, which is up from 4.1% in April 2018 and might stop you from being able to order a new service.

We first covered the challenges of “full” street cabinets and their impact upon consumers in 2016 (here), which explained why such cabinets fill up, the problems that it can cause and how long it may take to resolve via upgrades (i.e. anything from a few weeks for a simple line card change to several months or possibly longer if additional civil engineering is required).

During that same year we understood that 1,970 of the then 77,033 live VDSL2 street cabinets were full and awaiting an upgrade (around 2.6%). Back in March 2018 several ISPs informed us that Openreach’s official figure was around 3% for cabinets stuck on a waiting list and a report from September 2018 said the same.

Meanwhile Thinkbroadband have continued to run their own independent analysis, which in April 2018 put the figure at 4.1% (here) and this has now risen to 4.6% (i.e. it impacts 3,120 out of the 81,409 VDSL2 cabinets in their database). The data found that around 90.2% of the UK can order a superfast broadband (30Mbps+) service via Openreach’s network, but this drops by -4.5% points due to full cabinets.

NOTE: The “all tech” figure below includes the impact upon availability when considering all networks, not only Openreach’s.

Standard Coverage FiguresChange Due to Capacity Issues
Region% 30Mbps+
(all tech)
% Openreach
(any speed)
% Openreach 30Mbps+30Mbps+ (all tech)Openreach (any speed)Openreach 30Mbps+
UK95.493.290.2-2.5-4.6-4.5
London9791.790.6-1.5-4.1-4
Northern Ireland87.397.285.2-2.8-3.5-3.3
Scotland93.492.488.4-3.1-4.4-4.3
Wales94.596.393-3.1-3.9-3.7

Take note that TBB’s data only considers the impact of capacity via Openreach’s national network and not that of other platforms. Different networks handle different types of capacity issues in different ways and not all are as transparent about such issues.

Unfortunately if you happen to live in such an area then this can cause frustration when attempting to order a new Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC / VDSL2) based package or migrating your service, particularly if the ISP accepts the order and begins the switch only to later tell you that they cannot complete it.

Mercifully ISPs have got better at reporting when cabinets are stuck in the waiting queue for new capacity, but support staff don’t always correctly reflect this to new customers. On top of that there remains a lot of uncertainty over the question of how long consumers will have to wait before the issue is resolved.

An Openreach Spokesperson said:

“Resolving issues that can cause delay in adding extra customer capacity in our network is a top priority for us and we have made significant progress over the year in reducing average waiting times. We have introduced a number of innovations such as fibre connectivity that uses power from one existing fibre cabinet to power a second cabinet – which has helped reduce the build time taken to commission and build new fibre cabinets by up to 12 weeks.

We’ve also introduced a raft of new measures to help speed up the building of extra capacity into our copper cabinets, such as cabinet top boxes which extend the size of our cabinets creating space for the extra connections required to provide additional fibre capacity.

In addition, we are working closely with our vendors Huawei and Nokia to develop quicker alternatives to building new fibre cabinets – which can traditionally take up to nine months to complete. We are about to launch technical trials for a fibre cabinet side-pod and new fibre cabinet equipment capable of supporting double the current capacity. Following successful trials we are aiming to start deploying this kit in the next financial year.

We continue to invest heavily in our fibre broadband network and have already upgraded and increased capacity on more than 25 per cent of our entire estate – over 22,700 fibre cabinets . We plan to have upgraded more than 40,000 fibre cabinets by the end of this financial year.”

We should point out that in some cases Openreach’s may need to build an entirely new cabinet in order to cater for rising demand, which can be problematic due to labour / hardware costs, the need to seek planning permission, permits for road access, wayleave agreements, power supply requirements, local objections and so forth.

In addition, local demand is something that can go up as well as down, particularly if a rival network enters the area and steals away some of Openreach’s users. Installing more capacity than needed can carry an extra cost and so this is one of the reasons why big operators often prefer to scale as demand grows, rather than cater for 100% of local lines from day one.

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