Boris Johnson is the latest UK Prime Minister to make lavish promises about the state of the nations broadband. By promising full fibre broadband by 2025, he joins the pantheon of modern UK figureheads who have made such lavish and ultimately meaningless commitments.
When we consider however that the policy his government trumpeted so ostentatiously only a few days ago is already government policy things take on a different hue. Current government planning targets full fibre by 2033 so this plan is really just a move of the goalposts designed to grab some headlines but with little to no solid ground. The timeframe committed to is nicely positioned beyond the maximum five year parliamentary term but neither of these so called commitments are backed by any lucid plans. The real devil in the detail will require an understanding of exactly how much the proposed changes will mean in terms of subsidy for areas left behind by their poor commercial viability.
Most recent government figures suggest that GB PLC has 7.1% current full fibre coverage. These figures were valid in January but in cities the acceleration of connectivity has been exponential for example BT Openreach currently claim to be ticking off about 80,000 premises per month but to hit the ambitious target recently set that will need to ramp up to 400,000 a month.
If the government decided to really get serious with full fibre is it even possible by 2025? Definitely. Is it likely? No way. Would it be good for UK business if achieved? Undoubtedly.
As a nation we are actually doing ok with the absolute amount of fibre in the network. Theres quite a lot of it but it usually stops at cabinets on our streets. This is the typical FTTC model where fibres are terminated in ubiquitous cabinets and from there we go back to trusty copper for the "last mile". Fibre is faster and more reliable but copper is cheaper and easier to engineer and manage. It is in this "last mile" that the real nub of the UK connectivity problem is to be solved if we are to connect our homes, all 30 million of them, to the information national grid. A government report published last year set out the potential costs of meeting their less ambitious targets by 2033. In it they claim that the final cost of this project would be approx £33B.
Of course the reality is that there will always be a long tail of between 10 and 25% of UK homes for whom commercially the figures regarding ROI (Returns On Investment) just don't stack up. For these locations the intervention of central government is essential and, through schemes such as the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme, steps have been taken.
Indeed it is these 3-8 million homes for whom the greater engineering challenges lie. Options of course exist but most are far from perfect and many are even only barely acceptable.
Take satellite broadband for example. This technology can ostensibly resolve the whole problem in a snap and yet, unfortunately, it can't. Satellite broadband is suboptimal in so many areas be it, latency (delay), contention (shared infrastructure), asymmetry (slow upload) and metering (data limits). The latency renders the technology almost useless for time sensitive applications such as video, voice, gaming and even share trading. Contention is a real thorn in the side of the industry as satellite transponders become filled and oversubscribed with users competing for the finite amount of throughput available. Eutelsat for example has long been the subject of industry chatter regarding its oversubscribed transponders amongst its other problems. The low power nature of active satellite LNB's means that they have a horribly low capacity to transmit back up to the satellite and if users are lucky enough to get and maintain a stable and fast connection they soon realise they have fallen foul of stringently monitored and enforced data limits known in the industry as the FUP (Fair Use Policy)
3/4G seems also on first glance to be a promising way of providing quick connectivity to poorly served premises but the fact is that the premises for whom fixed infrastructure is a problem are typically poorly served by UMTS networks and their descendants. For those able to make use of these facilities, costs can be high, metering is always on, throughput is spotty and varies enormously through the day and the infrastructure in place upstream of the masts is typically under provisioned.
Another solution is point to point radio whether at the microwave (SHF) and millimetre (EHF) wavebands. These types of link provide near fibre standard performance and, if compared to the cost of installing fibre across or under terrain are relatively economical. They do however, carry a price tag in the thousands of pounds despite this pricing dropping enormously over recent years due to the emergence of companies like Ubiquiti and Siklu. For this reason these types of project are usually reserved for small community initiatives or remote or inaccessible commercial sites. Even after the books have been balanced the links created need backhaul infrastructure and this can often be the greatest hurdle to the establishment of a link to serve a site. Line of sight is essential and can be a dark art when one considers the vagaries of the Fresnel Zone and its byzantine effects on isotropic propagation across free space.
In practical terms therefore, a capable telecommunications solutions provider needs to have consideration of and the ability to exercise one, some or all of the above methods and sometimes even in parallel. This, as you might expect opens a pandoras box of subsequent issues as new challenges arise such as channel bonding, traffic sequencing and more now rear their heads.
The fact is, data communications is the new water or electricity and hurdles in the delivery of the service can no longer be accepted as reasons not to provide it. It simply must get through and, as we move into a world where almost everything is travelling to us through the network, the ability to overcome engineering challenges with whatever contingency communications are required is fast becoming a project worthy of a Thomas Telford or an Isambard Kingdom Brunel.