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Superfast broadband rollout often 'invisible' to frustrated consumers, says BT boss

Friday, June 12th 2015 by Ellen Branagh

The rollout of superfast broadband is "largely invisible" to consumers, leaving them frustrated when it appears that nothing is being done, according to one of BT's regional managers.

But Simon Roberson, BT’s regional partnership director for the North East, said the project is "astonishing" both in its scale and the challenges it is overcoming to reach remote areas.

The telecoms giant has most of the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) contracts across the country, making it responsible for the bulk of the government's fibre broadband rollout.

Mr Roberson said engineers face an array of challenges, from badger setts to medieval bridges, as they work to extend the fibre broadband network in increasingly remote areas.

“I think it’s an astonishing project especially when you consider the scale of it across the whole of the UK,” he told Cable.co.uk.

“If you had told me five years ago that we would get to some of the villages in Northumberland that we are reaching, I wouldn’t have believed you."

“Both because there are some quite small villages and because they are very remote and difficult to access.”

Asked about the challenges faced by BT when it comes to rolling out a superfast network, he said while they may not look vast when taken individually, they are much larger when taken together.

'Level of detail'

“I think the key thing is it’s not like building an aircraft carrier or the Forth Bridge where you can see one big thing," he said.

“It’s a lot of things at quite low level of detail spread around the UK.”

He said they are “retrofitting” fibre into existing infrastructure, making the project as economical as possible.

“It means that we are upgrading exchanges and opening up ducts and manholes in some cases that haven’t been touched since they switched over from analogue to digital telephony 30 years ago,” Mr Roberson said.

At Warkworth Castle, Northumberland, engineers had to find the right place to locate a cabinet to not obstruct views

Many of those ducts have been crushed by volumes of traffic, flooded with silt over time, or are already full and cannot accommodate any more fibre, he said.

“It’s also largely invisible to the public, they don’t see a great big new structure, they see engineers shoving things down a hole in the ground or some vans parked outside an exchange."

“So it’s hard to appreciate the level of work that goes in or the amount of planning that goes in for a couple of months to turn up to lay a bit of fibre.”

Challenges include the sheer scale of the rollout – in some places there have been up to 10km of new duct to lay underground.

Traffic management also proves a problem, he said, as roads are dug up to lay fibre optic cables.

'Weird and wonderful'

And then there is the “weird and wonderful stuff”, he added, saying three major issues are wildlife; historical and archaeological structures; and discovering when they get to a site that cable cannot be laid as planned.

In Northumberland, engineers had to site a cabinet near medieval Warkworth Castle in just the right place so it did not obstruct views, he said.

And when it came to laying fibre across medieval Hartburn Bridge near Morpeth, they had to have an archaeologist supervising to make sure the ancient structure was not damaged.

In 2013, it was widely reported that work to lay fibre in Easingwold, north Yorkshire, was brought to a halt when badger setts were found along the planned route.

In one high-profile case, the discovery of badger setts held up the whole rollout of fibre broadband

Mr Roberson said he had come across several 'wildlife' hazards experienced by engineers in the fibre rollout from bee swarms to rat infestations in underground chambers.

He said they also often have to look for alternative solutions when they get to an area to discover the original plan won’t be possible.

“That’s often to do with where there is some geographical discovery, often bridges over a river or railway line.”

In some areas, new innovative solutions have been developed to deal with problems.

Miniature cabinet

The remote village of Westow on the North Yorkshire Moors was hooked up to speeds of up to 80Mbps using a 3km microwave radio link, instead of digging fibre optic cable into the ground.

BT also used fibre to the remote node (FFTrN) to take superfast speeds to all 16 homes and businesses in the village of Ulshaw, Lower Wensleydale in the Yorkshire Dales.

The technology works by installing a fibre optic cable, which runs from the local telephone exchange, much closer to the properties and using a small box called a ‘Remote Node’ which acts like a miniature cabinet.

The box can be put on telegraph poles, inside manholes or in various other locations, so can be used where space is at a premium or where a traditional approach is too complex or expensive.

Cherry-picking

BT has previously been accused of ‘cherry-picking’ only the most lucrative or geographically least challenging areas for upgrade.

But Mr Roberson said taking fibre to the most remote and hard-to-reach areas first would not be economically sustainable.

“It’s a rollout and it’s a network so it’s not only because it’s easier for us, but it’s actually the only economically sustainable way to do it."

“And if we look at some of the rural projects where they have tried to reach the most difficult bits first, they have not actually been economically sustainable."

“They spend the capital, they can’t get enough users on the network because there isn’t the density and when they have to replace the wireless kit in five years time, it’s not economically viable to do it.”

Engineers have to get fibre cable across bridges without damaging places of historical significance

Mr Roberson said while some remote and rural areas may need broadband upgrades, rolling out to the most populated areas first generates the best economic return both for BT and for the public sector.

He added: “We think we’re doing a fantastic job."

“We do appreciate that everyone wants it and we want to get as far as we possibly can."

“We can understand why people are impatient when they see people getting it and they aren’t.”

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