Tackling the 330Mbps Speed Limit in Some Openreach FTTP Areas

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One of the little known gripes against Openreach’s on-going rollout of “gigabit capable” Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) broadband technology is that some newly deployed areas are still limiting the network to a top download speed of 330Mbps (50Mbps upload), rather than supporting 1Gbps speeds.

At present Openreach aims to cover 4 million UK homes and businesses with their ultrafast “full fibre” broadband ISP network by March 2021 (1.3 million have already been completed) and there’s an ambition for 15 million by around 2025. After that they also have an aspiration to reach “the majority of the UK, if the right conditions to invest are in place.” All good news.

The network is often promoted as being “gigabit capable” and indeed the operator’s top FTTP tier does offer a Gigabit download rate of 1000Mbps (220Mbps upload). On top of that ISPreview.co.uk recently revealed that they were preparing to conduct trials of several new symmetric speed Gigabit packages via XGS-PON technology (here); their older FTTP network uses GPON and 1Gbps areas can be upgraded to the newer XG-PON standard.

All of this represents a marked improvement over their pre-Fibre First deployments, which were limited to 330Mbps. Nevertheless some consumers and communities continue to be left surprised by the fact that a few recent deployments can sometimes be limited to a maximum speed of 330Mbps and it’s unclear whether they’ll ever be upgraded.

NOTE: GPON means Gigabit Passive Optical Network, while XG-PON is faster and XGS-PON faster still (we won’t go into the details as they vary by implementation).

Extract from a Complaint to ISPreview (one of several)

“We signed up with Openreach last August for a community fibre partnership (a 200 house estate). The project has been a long drawn out shambles but is now finally meandering to a conclusion. We are “surprised” to find that the ‘Gigabit capable’ network we were sold is only an ‘up to’ 300Mbps down.”

Generally this problem can stem from three particular issues or a combination of those. The first issue is the simple matter of ISP choice and consumer awareness about what’s available. At present most Openreach based ISPs with an FTTP product will only offer the top 330Mbps tier because this is comparatively affordable for consumers and capacity / costs to the ISP should be manageable (similar story with G.fast).

Meanwhile only a small number of ISPs offer their 500Mbps and 1Gbps tiers (e.g. Spectrum Internet, Cerberus Networks, FluidOne and Syscomm), which are more expensive (£500 +vat connection fee etc.) and aimed at small businesses (Openreach isn’t pricing them for residential use). Some of the ISPs that do offer this are also more regional in their focus and so may not serve all 1Gbps capable areas.

NOTE: The £500 +vat setup fee for 500Mbps and 1Gbps tiers actually forms part of a reserve, which is put aside to cover a future upgrade to XG-PON technology (i.e. when capacity on the existing PON is exceeded).

The second issue is one of capacity (backhaul). In some areas 1Gbps may in fact be possible via Openreach’s side of the infrastructure but we note that certain checkers / networks, such as BT Wholesale’s, may only report 330Mbps initially; at least until the capacity has been upgraded to support faster speeds (varies from location to location).

The final issue, which is perhaps the hardest to resolve, relates to the constraints of ECI based Optical Line Termination (OLT) kit. The 500Mbps and 1Gbps tiers are deployed nationally using a Huawei head-end, which supports 10Gbps capable GEA cablelinks (capacity supply). The problem is that areas with ECI OLTs don’t support those Cablelinks, which restricts how fast certain areas can go.

Any attempt to upgrade the ECI side of things to Huawei, or that of another supplier like Nokia (Huawei’s fate in the UK is presently somewhat uncertain), would be hugely complicated. For example, the operator might have to go into every premises connected to the PON on the same day (or face lengthy downtime) and all so that only a few customers who want 500Mbps or 1Gbps can get it (almost impossible to arrange).

Suffice to say that at present Openreach does not appear to have any plans for an upgrade, which isn’t such an issue now but further down the road it may become more of a problem. On the upside we understand that the operator doesn’t use ECI anymore in their new “fibre cities” (Nokia and Huawei) and are not deploying ECI FTTP (BDUK areas and New sites also use Huawei), other than infill where they already have ECI PONs.

One final point to make is that the scale of this problem is still fairly small. We believe that well below 50,000 total homes passed are currently covered by ECI kit that cannot serve 500Mbps or 1Gbps and only some of those will even be connected to an active FTTP service. So while the volume of those in this boat may increase a little over the next few years, it’s not something that will impact the vast majority of their FTTP deployments.

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