Openreach: The Pit and the Pendulum

© BT

© BT

  • UK government dangles £5  billion broadband bait, BT bites
  • Trial of new excavation technologies in 13 rural areas
  • First to benefit: deepest Devon and the Highlands of Scotland 
  • GeoRippers and diamond disc cutters will slice through anything

In Britain Openreach digs trenches and holes in the ground and deploys fibre broadband infrastructure, but not anywhere near quickly enough according to many critics. Its reputation was at the bottom of a deep pit for years but the pendulum of industry and public opinion is at last swinging towards guarded and limited approval as Openreach seems to be learning from the mistakes of the past and is markedly improving its performance.

Openreach, is the quasi-independent, 'arms-length' arm of the UK's incumbent telco BT. It builds-out, maintains and manages the local access network and the cables, wires, ducts, cabinets and exchanges that connect the majority of homes and enterprises in Britain to the national broadband and phone network.

For years BT was widely regarded as having routinely abused its Openreach monopoly, of deliberately underinvesting in the country's broadband infrastructure, of price-gouging and overseeing a regime of truly abysmal customer service. 

Then, when it was revealed that Openreach has contributed a massive 35 per cent of BT's profits in 2016 the crescendo of opprobrium hit an all-time high and in November of that year the national regulator, Ofcom, ordered BT to legally spin-out and separate the Openreach division from the rest of the company.

However, although Openreach would have its own staff and management structure it would remain under the umbrella of the BT Group. It was a fudge, and a messy one, but, in the summer of last year, Ofcom published a report, "Progress on delivering a more independent Openreach" which found "there has been broadly satisfactory progress towards legal separation, but some steps have still not been completed."

Nonetheless. and despite a few missteps and glitches along the way, it is generally accepted that Openreach is now actually is largely independent of its parent company and has taken steps to speed-up the deployment of much-needed high-speed broadband infrastructure, although there have been complaints that has been far too slow to install fibre in Britain's underserved remote and rural areas.

Now though things are on the cusp of a step-change. The British government recently announced that it will provide £5 billion to help facilitate the expansion of rural broadband availability and in response BT is trialling "a range of new tools and techniques" as it rushes to deploy fast fibre in 13 rural areas. 

The initiative, Openreach says, is but the first manifestation of a planned major and expedited programme to bring real, usable, broadband to the parts of the countery that have been digitally disenfranchised for far too long. Currently more than 17 per cent of the population (that's 11 million people) live in rural areas and have minimal, if any, broadband access - and what they do have is usually limited, pitifully slow, inadequate and expensive.

The UK's current prime minister, Boris Johnson, has, among a welter of expensive promises, vowed to bring "full fibre" to all UK homes by 2025, a pledge that many within the telecoms industry have already said cannot possibly be redeemed within that time frame.

At last week's Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester, Sajid Javid, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) of the embattled minority government announced the availability of the five billion smackers which, he said, will be used to bring "gigabit-capable" broadband infrastructure to the 20 per cent of the country which is the most difficult and expensive to reach.

However, he was short on detail of when and where the money would go, saying only that full details of the plan will be revealed later this year when the much-vaunted National Infrastructure Strategy will be revealed - allegedly.

Money talks

Nonetheless, Openreach is taking Mr. Javid at face value and, understandably keen to get its slice of subsidy pie, will try out various leading edge tools as it begins work in the 13 rural areas (ranging from deepest Devon to the Scottish Highlands) and for the 50,000 homes that will be the first to get proper broadband. Some wags are already suggesting that perhaps new shovels featuring actual handles will be issued to the Openreach workforce but the reality is rather more than that. 

Amongst the technologies that Openreach will use are ground penetrating radar, micro-ducting (a technique that enable the rapid digging of a small trench along sidewalks to deploy reinforced micro-ducting carrying fibre-optic cables), the use of a time-saving, digital, real-time mobile planning app, Orion, that will allow Openreach engineers to review and update work in-progress as the excavations take place.

Then there is the splendidly-named GeoRipper, a high-tech trench digger for use on soft, open ground such as fields. It is best described as a massive chainsaw that can, very quickly, cut a channel of up to 150 metres in length. And then, for tougher circumstances, Openreach will also use a huge, rotating, circular diamond disc cutter than will make short work of ripping up streets and pavements and will slice through rock like a hot knife through butter - for a while at least.

Use of the new equipment should see Openreach teams installing an average of 700 metres of cabling a day. That is 20 times more than by the traditional methodology of digging and drilling. In addition to using the new kit, Openreach what it calls "remote nodes" whereby fibres are built-out from adapted street and roadside cabinets. 

Commenting on the new initiative, Clive Selley, CEO of Openreach, said the economics of deploying rural broadband networks "are clearly challenging but we do want to do more. The trials will give us a much clearer picture of what the technical challenges in these kinds of rural areas are."

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