Roll on Digital Britain with full fiber and 5G services for all. Clearly, the more fiber in the ground, the easier it will be for carriers and operators to deliver these services everywhere. The resulting benefits are considerable – greater mobility, reduced carbon emissions, increased business productivity, new services enablement and a better quality of life, to name but a few.
So, just how quickly can all this extra fiber capacity be delivered? What of the smaller and harder-to-reach regions of the country?
Certainly, Ofcom's new five-year Fixed Telecoms Market Review (from April 2021 to 2026) appears supportive of the Government's aim to boost full fiber network and 5G coverage. Furthermore, BT Openreach is already targeting to reach 4 million premises by early next year and potentially 15 million by 2025 – approximately 80% of the total. Then there's Virgin Media and CityFibre, which will add a few more million.
But away from the more obvious "quick wins" in metro areas, there are less accessible pockets of the UK where businesses, local authorities and whole communities could be in danger of being left behind – effectively bypassed. Due to the time, labor resources and complexities involved, these are likely to be seen as less cost-effective for the frontline fiber players to address as priorities – in the short to medium term at least.
However, for businesses and consumers in such locations, the need for access to ultrafast services and 5G is just as pressing as it is for those in larger metro ones – in many instances, more so. With the arrival of 5G this year, mobile operators now need much more dark fiber capacity for their growing backhaul requirements in support of their radio access network (RAN) overhauls.
Then there are the hyperscalers such as Amazon, Facebook, Google and Netflix, all of which are demanding more diverse high-speed fiber connections into data centers, to bring their content closer to consumers more reliably and at the lowest possible latency.
On all counts, therefore, the jury is still out on how quickly and easily it will be to actually reach all parts of the nation.
Consider the alternatives
Fortunately, there are potential alternatives to effectively complement and accelerate full fiber rollouts alongside the more conventional, somewhat slow, costly roadside civil digs.
Let's consider the potential of trackside rail fiber. Rail is a huge untapped opportunity in the UK. I say this from experience having previously spent many years supplying fiber infrastructure and equipment to Network Rail, the UK's principal rail operator. Network Rail has the UK's third-largest telecoms network, with 17,000km of trackside fiber and 2,700 mobile cell towers.
While Network Rail needs all of its fiber capacity for itself – for signaling, maintenance, CCTV etc. – providers with the necessary expertise could quite feasibly deploy new high-capacity fiber along strategic trackside routes for third-party telecoms purposes, ultimately bringing full fiber services within easier reach of customers, especially underserved communities and businesses around the country.
Similarly, the UK's motorway and trunk road networks are largely untapped and could offer an obvious and direct A-to-B template for reaching strategic regions of the country – more quickly and cost-effectively than via digs along suburban and urban roads. The Government's Highways England road network, for example, spans 4,300 miles. These roads carry a third of all vehicle traffic by mileage, forming the economic backbone of the country and are relied on by communities and businesses across the country. Its National Roads Telecommunications Service (NRTS) fiber network comprises more than 6,000km of cabling connecting thousands of roadside CCTV cameras, emergency phones and much else.
Therefore, new telecoms fiber could be deployed relatively quickly and affordably in existing cabling ducts and troughs along direct rail and motorway routes. And there's already legislation in place to facilitate this: Access To Infrastructure (ATI) allows licensed fiber telecoms providers the scope to deploy new fiber along alternative infrastructures, including railways and motorways.
PIA for faster deployment
The challenge of connecting the fiber network tails from these transportation network backbones would be comparatively easy to overcome. This is where Duct and Pole Access (DPA)/Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA) Code Powers come into play. Licensed fiber infrastructure providers can use these to access Openreach's existing duct and pole infrastructure, quickly extending fiber's reach deep into more remote areas.
In the right hands, PIA is far more cost-and time-effective than civil road digs and without the usual disruption. For example, using PIA, Nextgenaccess is just completing a 67km dark fiber route between Bristol and Newport in South Wales: Had it followed the traditional road dig approach, it would have taken at least five times as long and cost more than ten times as much.
Quite conceivably, Network Rail and the UK's respective Government Highways Agencies will eventually put in place plans for offering commercial third-party telecoms services over these major infrastructure assets. The question is when, and how.
Arguably, with the right fiber infrastructure partners, they could start the process now. Apart from taking a share of revenue from full fiber telecoms traffic, they would gain considerable PR kudos by contributing substantially towards securing the UK's future digital and economic success.
— Mark Weller, Managing Director, Nextgenaccess Ltd.