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Connected Britain 2017 – The four main points in the Next Generation debate

Ben Allwright, CEO
18.06.2017

The recently held Connected Britain conference in London brought together experts from the operator community, government and beyond. Through keynote speeches, panel discussions and roundtables, Flomatik engaged with the industry’s leading people and came away with some new ideas, opinions and relationships. 

Broadband for everyone

Serving the remaining 300 000 UK homes without ‘broadband’, most of which lie in rural locations, was a central conference theme. Ofcom recently completed a Wholesale Local Access (WLA) review and put forward proposals for ‘full digital inclusion’ by 2020. This target is to be met via a universal service obligation (USO) of 10Mbts-1 (minimum) / home. Funding remains contentious though, with BT Openreach being the only viable provider in many instances, this exposing the UK taxpayer, once again, to further funding of a private enterprise. One part of the technical solution will be long range VDSL, which utilizes lower operating frequencies to extend the existing copper cables’ reach from 2-4KMs. However, FttP will remain a more credible alternative in the most remote areas, with fixed wireless access (FWA) probably having a role to play too.

5G

5G is a much-lauded advancement in wireless technology, with Mobile and Fixed Wireless Access (Broadband), rural and urban applications. Still undergoing development, 5G promises speed, coverage and reliability enhancements, at a time when mobile data traffic is rising ~50%/yr. Within urban environments, 5G cells are deployed more frequently (are smaller), when compared to traditional 2G/3G/4G mobile networks, leading to ‘network densification’.

But, the practicalities of deploying 5G are many, with participants raising the need for more ubiquitous fibre backhaul, putting forward concerns over current planning and wayleave processes, both street-side and on-building, and potential network disruption during upgrades. There was also debate regarding the overall commercial viability; mobile data prices continue to fall, mobile spectrum carries huge fees  and deployments are costly. Which begs the question – should operators share spectrum?

With 5G a potential enabler for the Internet of Things (IoT), such as Smart Cities and Autonomous Vehicles, there’s clearly much to consider and play for with 5G.

Next Generation ‘deep fibre’ and FttX

Constructing the Next Generation of fibre is a cripplingly expensive business. The pros and cons of Open Access networks (multiple operator users) and co-investment (shared ownership, versus competition) were debated at length. Some successful European models were given, demonstrating State intervention and utility-like city-wide investments into fibre.

Sweden was offered as one example where State Fibre is ‘Open’, served by many operators and widely adopted. Given the scale of the endeavor, a pure competition model, with multiple operators making parallel investments, does seem increasingly tenuous unless consumers value a FttX service at higher levels than they do today. Within Ofcom’s WLA review, as mentioned earlier, Ofcom drove down the wholesale price of BTOR’s 40Mb service to improve take-up, but clearly this may affect consumers’ interest and value attribution of other, faster services offered.

It is noteworthy that in Sweden consumers were often prepared to pay €100’s to get Fibre networks to their homes… Perhaps a change in UK mindset is required?

PIA/DPA

The availability of cheaper, alternative infrastructure via the BT Openreach PIA/DPA products (Physical Infrastructure Access / Duct & Poles Access) was of great interest, with Flomatik well placed to make extensive comment on this important area of Ofcom regulatory work. With operators and business owners able to lay cables faster and more cheaply than digging the roads, fibre rollout could be significantly accelerated. This regulation continues its evolution with Flomatik’s support and aims to yield more results after the summer, 2017.

Overall, Connected Britain was a well-attended and thought-provoking conference – worth attending again in 2018.