Fibre to the Premises is the future

A quick introduction for the non-initiated.

When you hear people talking about “fibre broadband” they could mean one of two things.

  • Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) takes the fibre optic cable all the way from the exchange (or wherever else the service comes from) to the home or business. If using FTTP, the internet speeds possible (at a cost) are theoretically limitless, and FTTP technology is currently being used to deliver speeds of anywhere between 300 and 10,000 Mbps (Megabits per second) at the moment. FTTP is currently only being deployed in a small minority of instances.
  • Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) takes the fibre optic cable from the initiating point (typically a telephone exchange) and terminates it at a street cabinet. These are those green boxes you see at the side of the road. From the street cabinet the connection to the premises is made using existing copper wires. Currently, FTTC is being used to deliver internet speeds of “up to” something between 80 and 120Mbps. But, there is a big catch with FTTC. As those who have struggled with low speeds under existing networks will know, copper cables were never designed to carry internet data, and, the further away you are from your cabinet, the more the signal degrades. Thus, for some people, particularly, but not exclusively, in rural areas, even if their cabinet is upgraded to fibre, it may make little or no difference to the poor connectivity they currently experience.

Also, there are a fair number of premises in rural areas which are connected directly to the exchange, with no cabinet in between, and these lines are unlikely to be upgraded to fibre in the foreseeable future.

Now, as many readers will know, the parts of the country which have been deemed not to be commercially viable for fibre installations are in the process of being upgraded over the next few years using a mixture of Government, local authority, European Union, and commercial provider resources. That is, apart from those unfortunate enough to be so remote that they are only being promised a “Universal Service” of 2Mbps. In the majority of cases, the preferred technology for these upgrades is FTTC, and, in every case so far the bidder that has won the tenders is BT.

Quite reasonably, you might think, the Government, BT and others, have argued strongly that the country cannot afford universal FTTP. Many also argue that universal FTTP is neither necessary nor popular. Not necessary because people cannot envisage what they might do with speeds of (say) 1Gbps (1000Mbps); and not popular because it would involve digging up everybody’s garden. So far, so logical.

But, increasingly over the past few weeks, BT, the champion of FTTC has started making noises which suggest that it is coming around to the point of view that FTTP is both feasible and potentially popular. There are utterances to this effect from its senior personnel here. And, the company has even connected up an entire village with FTTP as a demonstrator project, see here.

All of which begs a very big question. Why are we spending vast amounts of public resources on a technology (FTTC), which even BT admits may not be future proof. Yes, the technology can be tweaked, and, no doubt in the future it will offer higher speeds, if you are close to a cabinet. And, yes, very few people could now make constant use of FTTP speeds. But, look at how fast the internet has grown. Even now, homes and business premises are full of lots of different connected devices, many of which are not computers; and this phenomenon is growing all the time. Why spend money now on a technology which is going to be obsolete within a few years. Let’s invest in something that has a future.