The FTTH Council Europe has today published a new report that examines what progress has been made across the UK and Europe on the transition from older copper broadband networks to new “full fibre” (FTTH / FTTP) infrastructure. Suffice to say that some big barriers remain in the UK.
Pure fibre optic networks typically run their optical fibre cables all the way to your doorstep, which use laser light to deliver significantly faster speeds (e.g. multi-Gigabit) and a much more reliable service. At present a lot of countries are busy deploying FTTP networks like this and at some point that means the older, slower and less reliable copper lines will need to be switched off (too costly to keep both running side-by-side).
The new study from WIK analyses the different stages of copper switch-off in 10 EU Member States and identifies benefits as well as enablers, incentives, challenges and barriers to switching from copper to fibre networks. Overall it notes that there has only been “limited progress” toward copper switch-off in Europe thus far, which isn’t much of a surprise since many countries are still in the process of deploying FTTP.
For example, in the United Kingdom only around 6%+ of premises can access an FTTP network today (Ofcom) and the Government doesn’t expect to achieve nationwide coverage until 2033 (currently just an aspiration). By comparison a number of other EU states have been busy deploying the technology, at scale, for many years and are thus already approaching the finish line (here).
The report correctly notes that the UK doesn’t yet have a solid plan for switching off copper networks, although like many other countries it is making progress toward transitioning consumers to all-IP (e.g. VoIP) networks and disabling old analogue phone (voice) services by 2025 (here). This is often considered an important prerequisite to the eventual copper switch-off.
Benefits of Copper Switch-Off (WIK Report)
Reliability: fibre is 70%-80% more reliable than copper resulting is lower fault rates;
Energy efficiency: copper switch results in 40-60% energy savings due to the lower power consumption of fibre;
Cost efficiency: 40-60% lower maintenance costs;
Better deal for consumers: surveyed consumers were more satisfied with fibre (82% happy vs 50% on DSL), quoted higher bandwidth, wider range of services and better value for money as key benefits.
Better deal for investors: evidence suggests that clarity on copper switch off can improve the business case for fibre.
The main factor delaying migration to FTTP in several countries, according to WIK, is the continued reliance by incumbent operators on copper rather than investing in or accessing FTTP networks. But this is an over simplification and the challenges often tend to be a lot deeper and more complicated.
Openreach have previously indicated that they’d like the ability to migrate customers from copper to FTTP as the new network is deployed, which would cut their upkeep costs for the old legacy network and thus turn “full fibre” into a much more attractive investment. Consumers would obviously benefit from the significantly faster and more reliable broadband.
As usual there are some big obstacles in terms of both regulation and competition. For example, FTTP is a more expensive service and not all customers will be happy about being forced to pay extra for something that they might not want. A lot of modern regulation is also based around copper infrastructure and will need to be overhauled.
Several ISPs have also invested heavily in unbundled copper lines (e.g. Sky Broadband, TalkTalk, Vodafone) and might be reluctant to let go, which is further complicated by the fact that some of those same providers have plans to build their own rival FTTP networks. Competitive interests and regulatory complexity are tricky areas to unpick, leaving plenty of scope for the odd legal challenge.
Copper Switch-Off – Overview of Barriers (WIK Report)
* The leading country for copper switch-off to FTTH (Estonia with 70% of copper exchanges closed in 2018 and plans to remove copper access for 60% of broadband subscribers by 2020) benefits from incumbent FTTH deployment, absence of regulatory barriers and limited wholesale copper reliance.
* The gradual pace of incumbent FTTH deployment and reliance on copper upgrade technologies is a core factor delaying switch-off in UK, DE and IT.
* Strict conditions or a lack of precise guidance on conditions for exchange closure may be hampering switch-off in PT and FR. No rules have yet been established in the UK.
* The reluctance of customers may be hampering switch-off in FR, PL. This was managed in EE through “plug and play” equipment and support for legacy equipment.
* Transitioning of critical legacy equipment continues to be a concern in SE, PL, UK, NL.
* Copper access obligations such as Wholesale Line Rental (WLR) persist in the UK.
* Line powering obligations were a barrier to switch-off in some countries, but this issue has now been addressed in all the countries studied.
Naturally those who aren’t reached by FTTP in the UK until 2033 will still need to use that copper network (e.g. FTTC, G.fast broadband), which means a complete switch-off would be unlikely to happen until after FTTP has reached all corners of the country. Lest we forget the tedious question of Virgin Media’s hybrid fibre coax network, which doesn’t strictly need to be switched-off as it will soon support Gigabit speeds via DOCSIS 3.1.
The exception might be KCOM in Hull, which dominates the local market and will have achieved almost total FTTP coverage by March 2019. In other words, they have less competition to worry about and may be able to switch-off their copper lines far sooner than Openreach (they aim to be the first in the UK to do it).
Ronan Kelly, President of the FTTH Council Europe, said:
“This study about copper switch-off is of tremendous importance for the FTTH Council Europe. The telecom market is in a transitional phase, it is moving from an old copper-based infrastructure to new fibre-based networks. There is a technology change and all eyes are on 5G but we should not forget that fibre is the foundation of all technologies for connectivity. Policy is lagging behind the market developments, and it is important that it catches up.”
The UK Government, Ofcom and Openreach have already begun discussing the challenge of transitioning away from copper networks and on to fibre optic lines. Inevitably this will be a gradual process and nobody has yet been so bold as to set a solid time-scale, although we suspect there will still be copper lines around even in 2033 and probably for a few years after that date.
Hopefully by the end of 2019, once various industry consultations have run their course, then we might have a better idea of how this process will be handled in the UK.