The great copper switch-off: still a work in progress

Ian Scales
By Ian Scales

Dec 3, 2020

via Flickr © brewbooks (CC BY-SA 2.0)

via Flickr © brewbooks (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • The Fibre To The Home Council reports European progress is “fragmented”
  • Plans to schedule national switch-offs are still being developed 
  • But for the telcos themselves, it may be a case of ‘What’s your hurry?’

Nothing seems to excite low-key fury in telecoms quite as much as copper networks ‘holding out’ against fibre. I was once asked what had happened to me in my childhood that had warped me to the point of endorsing a DSL through the air scheme. Perhaps I should have retorted that I had been molested by a deranged fibre advocate, but then you never think of the well-honed putdown on the spot, do you?  And clearly I can’t even think of one now. 

The Fibre To The Home (FTTH)  Council of Europe has been demonstrating the power of fibre by holding  a virtual conference on its benefits to everyone - the entire economy and society - of accelerating the “copper switch-off”. After years - decades - of  lobbying on the ultimate wonders of fibre it’s apparently still worth pursuing the copper enemy to its last redoubt, even though the argument has clearly been won several times over. 

We all know about the advantages of fibre - certainly the relevant people within the telcos do - they include reduced CO2 emissions an economic boost (apparently) from increased fibre penetration, service reliability, Despite all the cajoling and the huge stack of advantages to fibre (fibre sales are, of course, really what the copper-bothering is all about)  telcos appear to be taking their time about it 

The FTTH  reports that  switching off Europe’s copper networks is still a fragmented effort and the pace of switch-off has been slow.  There are some bright switch-off spots. Estonia has been ripping it out (80 per cent of copper exchanges now switched off) while Sweden is not far behind. 

The Council reports that, “Concrete plans to shut copper off have been put in place in France and the Netherlands and discussions are currently taking place in the UK. In the meantime, despite high FTTH penetration levels, the pace of copper switch-off has been slow in Spain and Portugal. Countries such as Germany and Poland have not announced a concrete plan yet, however the completion of PSTN switch-off in Germany is likely to facilitate migration when fibre is widespread.”

There are clearly a complex set of reasons as to why telcos are “fragmented in their approach”, as the  FTTH Council sees it.  There’s the little matter of customers being quite happy, thankyou, with the copper service they have - a speedy VDSL2 is perfectly good for many customers (I have one of those myself and it’s performed well for several years). That leads directly to the thorny issues around retiring copper-based services - of which there are many. 

Up until recently it may not have been economical for a telco to deploy fibre to the home, based on the simple fact that not enough broadband penetration could be expected to make it worth the investment. Those calculations and governments’ interest in accelerating broadband may have changed that calculus...  or soon will.

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