The slippery challenges of installing broadband

Bill Murphy

Bill Murphy, Managing Director of Next General Access for BT Group tells us about rural broadband delivery and some of the unusual experiences they’ve had.

“We’re fond of telling people how the UK is a digital success story. And for good reason – this is one of the most competitive communications markets in the world. And at BT, we’re proud to have played our part.

Our engineers have spent more than 10 million man hours rolling out fibre and driven 72 million miles – the equivalent of 150 return trips to the moon – to build a new fibre network now reaching over 25 million homes and businesses with high speed broadband and another 27,000 added each week.

What we don’t hear about so much are the countless challenges and obstacles thrown in the path of the army of Openreach engineers tasked with getting this vital stuff in the ground. Some of the challenges we face are distinctly unusual, and, from my own perspective as an anglicised New Yorker – seem to have a quintessentially British character to them.

For where else in the world would engineers have to down tools after their excavation work uncovered 150-year-old human remains buried underneath? This is what happened during work to install a new green fibre cabinet in Padiham, Lancs. The bones were believed to have come from an unmarked grave in an old cemetery attached to the church next to the roadside cabinet.

In Wales drains stopped play when Openreach engineers installing a cab outside Castle Conwy discovered that underneath their preferred spot was a 13th century sewer that no-one, including the castle historians – knew was there.

Animal rights

And up in the rugged rural Scottish Borders you might expect a geological obstacle or two, but recently engineers in Coldingham faced a more slippery problem, after discovering a family of rare Great Crested newts had set up home amongst the fibre cables inside a manhole. Work continued once a new watery home could be found for them.

Great Crested newts are great!

Nature intervened again in Easingwold, in North Yorkshire, when engineering work to connect up 450 premises with fibre broadband in the area was stopped in its tracks after badger setts were discovered inside junction boxes directly along the planned route for the cable. Work had to.. err.. paws while a specialist badger consultant was called in to advise on whether the setts were active. Badgers are an endangered species and it is illegal to interfere, disturb or restrict access to a badger’s sett.

Badgers, cute, right?

Suffice to say – rolling out our new fibre network involves a bit more than just being able to flick a few switches. The above examples are thankfully rare but with a rollout on such a massive scale – one of the biggest and fastest of its kind anywhere in the world – our engineers still face a host of complications and potential stumbling blocks, which can change from day to day.

Going the extra mile

What doesn’t change is the attitude that no hurdle or hindrance we encounter is insurmountable. Our army of engineers and planners will always go the extra mile to reach the homes and businesses waiting to be connected – sometimes literally when, for example, engineers in East Yorkshire built a record breaking 45-mile long continuous stretch of fibre optic cable or ‘spine’ to reach 1,500 remote village homes and businesses. More recently, in Cumbria, a specialist team laid submarine cable across Windermere to supply superfast to remote village properties on the other side of the lake, after reaching them by digging cable into the ground had proved too difficult.

But it’s not just the physical process of fibre deployment that we are creative with to expand the reach of fibre broadband – we’re also busy finding ways of tweaking the technology itself in order to get to those harder to reach places. A great example is the use of wireless technology to beam a broadband signal through the air where digging fibre into the ground proves too difficult.

The technology uses a special transmitter dish to send a broadband signal – using radio waves – from an exchange to a receiver attached to a street cabinet which can be several kilometres away. In Northern Ireland the innovation was used to link up businesses on the remote Rathlin Island. And in Gloucestershire engineers used the technology to straddle the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal to connect up premises in the picturesque village of Longney.

The UK is the leading digital economy in the G20 with the highest superfast broadband coverage and take up in the EU ‘big five’ and more than ninety per cent of UK premises can access superfast broadband – set to rise to 95 per cent by the end of 2017. The numbers are impressive but it is always worth the remembering the daily dedication and hard work that goes on behind the scenes to deliver them.”

BT will be speaking and exhibitiing at Broadband World Forum this month, 18-20 October, at London’s ExCel Convention Centre. On the agenda BT representatives will speak on Creating End-To-End Networks for The Future whilst BT CEO Gavin Patterson will be interviewed on The UK’s Digital Future: Live Interview by CNBC’s Karen Tso. Sign up for a free visitor pass whilst stocks last!



3 thoughts on “The slippery challenges of installing broadband

  1. Except when Bill talks about ‘fibre broadband’ he means the feed to the cabinets, from which he supplies ‘copper broadband’ through phone lines. It is all a part of the superfarce that is Digital Britain, and it isn’t fibre broadband at all. If it comes down a phone line it is not fibre broadband. Sorry, but this is just a PR exercise, not a real report.

    1. Thanks for your comment Chris. BT has responded,

      “Fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) IS a fibre broadband technology and it’s officially recognised as such by the telecoms regulator Ofcom as well as countless international bodies.

      Rolling out FTTC in the UK has been a great success, because we’ve been able to get superfast speeds to the largest possible number of homes, in the fastest possible timeframe.

      Of course we’ve also rolled out more Fibre to the Premises technology than any other company too, but if we’d concentrated purely on FTTP then we would’ve reached far fewer homes and businesses in the same amount of time. It’s also unlikely the UK could’ve remained the leading digital economy in the G20 for the last five years.

      Looking forward, the great thing about the technology that we’re pioneering is that it can repeat the success of FTTC. We’ll combine with FTTP in a mixed technology approach that will get ultrafast speeds to 12 million homes and businesses by the end of 2020 – which is a rapid by anyone’s standards.

      The fact is, most people don’t care which technology connects their home – they just want affordable broadband that’s fast and reliable enough to do whatever they want to do online. Our fibre network offers that to the vast majority of people today (9 out 10 UK homes can order a superfast service), and we’re still rolling it out to 20,000 premises a week.

      Meanwhile the plans we’ve made to move from superfast to ultrafast will keep us well ahead of the speeds that the experts predict we’ll need.”

  2. That sounds like the typical bT response, and if you believe that then you will believe anything. It is not fibre broadband if it comes down a phone line, it is just protecting the copper assets and flogging a failing donkey. It is a superfarce, and we only compare to similar countries doing exactly the same thing, whereas other countries are laying proper fibre networks, not leaching the victorian phone network assets and rebranding the donkey as a supersonic jet.

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