FTTP Broadband Overbuild Disruption Frustrates Edinburgh MSP

cityfibre street works fibre optic urban

The Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western, Alex Cole-Hamilton, has called for more co-ordination between “full fibre” broadband ISPs in the city because “residents … are at the end of their tether” due to repetitive roadworks being used to build the same type of optical fibre network several times over.

In commercially competitive urban areas it’s quite normal for broadband operators to end up overbuilding each other with rival infrastructure, which is something that has occurred in the past between Openreach (BT) and UK cable operator Virgin Media. Such work can be very disruptive to local life, particularly in terms of noise, physical obstruction and travel delays.

However the increasingly rapid growth of competition in the new market for Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) infrastructure is slowly recreating that disruption for a new generation and may even magnify it. For example, in Edinburgh alone we’ve seen Openreach, Virgin Media, Cityfibre (Vodafone) and Hyperoptic all working to deploy Gigabit capable broadband networks and a lot of that will occur in the same areas.

On the one hand this is a potentially huge benefit to consumers who will find themselves with a much wider choice of broadband infrastructure. On the other hand, aside from the issues mentioned above, it can also create a problem for the ISPs as such networks are very expensive to build and it may thus become harder to gain a return on their investment.

Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP said (Edinburgh News):

“Residents in Edinburgh are understandably at the end of their tether after year upon year of roadworks which don’t seem to be well co-ordinated and see the same stretch of road dug up frequently. Installation of FTTP is a good thing but it needs to be co-ordinated in a way that means pavements are not dug up more than once.”

Achieving co-ordination between such bitter rivals, which each tend to have their own build philosophies, regulatory considerations, standards, competitive interests and engineering teams (or contractors), would not be an easy task (like trying to herd lions and hyenas together). Nevertheless if this could be achieved then in theory all of the players might stand to save money and could focus more on achieving wider coverage, but for now it looks like a forlorn hope.

Instead the UK Government has so far chosen not to take any action that would discourage overbuild (here), while Cityfibre and other alternative network providers have called for tougher measures to be used against arch rival Openreach (here). Meanwhile Openreach themselves have said they’re using new techniques to avoid “double digging” wherever possible and have tried to co-ordinate works with other utilities (arguably more of a reference to non-broadband utilities, like water, electricity or gas).

In the end overbuild is inevitable in such an aggressively competitive market, which usually results in winners and losers (can vary depending upon the area). However there is clearly some appetite for the Government to help facilitate a more co-ordinated approach, yet it remains to see whether a compromise is possible or even if this is an avenue that will be pursued by politicians.

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