The head of BT’s Openreach division has pledged that the UK’s biggest broadband network will be able to cope with any increase in the Government’s planned minimum speed guarantee.
While 95% of the UK population will be covered by the firm’s super-fast fibre network, which offers speeds of 24Mbps or higher, around 5% of homes will be unable to benefit from the service.
To ensure slow connections don’t exclude households and businesses in more remote and rural parts of the country from the digital economy, ministers plan to guarantee all broadband customers a minimum download speed of 10Mbps by 2020.
Proposals to impose this Universal Service Obligation on ISPs were included in last month’s Queen’s Speech and ministers have suggested the minimum speed could be regularly increased as online services, such as video streaming, and remote working become ever more popular.
Openreach’s network is used by many of the UK’s leading broadband providers, including BT Retail, Sky, TalkTalk and Plusnet, and the firm is currently designing solutions to fulfil the USO.
On Monday CEO Clive Selley told an audience of technology and telecoms journalists that the firm needed to take a long-term approach to ensure the network could keep pace with any future speeds increases.
He said that while the planned 10Mbps USO would be sufficient in 2020, “you will want to have a different one for 2030,” adding: “as we design our solution for the 2020 timeframe we’ve got to be very mindful of the upgradability of it.”
Discussing a recent trial of long-reach VDSL, a solution which boosts speeds on very long copper lines, Mr Selley said: “Whilst we were pushing a few lines over 10Mbps, most lines were pushed way higher.
“I’m looking for solutions that don’t push those final few percent [of lines] just over the 10meg boundary, that would be short-termist. I’m looking for solutions that would push, either in the first instance, well above 10 megs, or through technology innovation over time could be expected to go well above 10 meg.”
Selley also told SEENIT that plans to bring direct fibre connections – known as Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) – to many of Britain’s high streets would also benefit premises connected directly to the exchange which are currently unable to access super-fast speeds.
Shortly after he was appointed CEO in January, Selley committed Openreach to expanding the availability of FTTP which he says will be deployed alongside G-Fast technology, which boosts speeds available on existing copper and fibre connections, to bring ultra-fast speeds of 100Mbps and above to around 10m premises by 2020.
Last month some rivals criticised BT’s over-reliance on copper, with Sky claiming “fibre to the premise broadband will bypass almost every existing UK home.”
During Monday’s briefing Selley defended the twin technology approach and insisted G.Fast was “very important to the UK” as it uses infrastructure already installed as part of the super-fast roll-out and so could be deployed “very quickly”.
He added that trials showed the technology could deliver speeds as high as “5Gbps”, results which suggest the existing copper infrastructure could play an important part in the UK’s internet connectivity for some time to come.
However Selley said he was working with developers to ensure new “most” new build homes, including flats and those on brownfield homes, have FTTP as standard.
He commented: “It’s sort of a no-brainer really, because if I didn’t do it that way I’d have to be laying brand new copper cables. Why deliver copper when you can deliver fibre?”
Mr Selley also used Monday’s briefing to recommit Openreach to halving the number of missed appointments and boosting the service customers, both communication companies and end users, receive.
“Raising service levels is absolutely key for Openreach,” he said before adding that he considered Ofcom’s mandated service levels to be “minima and not targets”.
The firm plans to boost the number of engineers it employs and Selley said he would be looking to expand his workforce’s skill-set so that individual workers can handle a wider range of jobs.
Selley also revealed that talks were still ongoing between Openreach and Ofcom over plans to allow rival communications providers and their subcontractors access to BT’s extensive network of ducts.
He commented: “I have to work hard to make sure that workmanship is done to the right standard, with my own people and perhaps a local contractor that I use in a given area.
“Going to a position where there are multiple CPs, particularly with their subcontractors, how will we control quality? And by quality I mean collateral damage as others, particularly in cities, use congested infrastructure.
“You can do a lot of damage if you attempt to pull a cable through a duct that’s very full if you don’t obey a set of process rules. How do we police that together?
“So I’m very happy with [Physical Infrastructure Access], if that’s what Ofcom want us to do that’s what we’ll be doing, but we do need to protect services for all customers and we need to be careful that we figure out how to do that.”