Is the UK choking on a high-fibre diet?

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third-party contributors to submit analysis on a key topic affecting the telco industry. In this article Neil Fraser, Satellite Programme Lead at ViaSat UK argues we need to look beyond fibre to bring superfast broadband to unconnected parts of the UK.

Since the Government committed to rolling-out a minimum 24Mbps service across the nation in 2010, funds have been thrown at the problem However, reaching those areas beyond the main Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) roll out has been problematic. The total estimated public sector cost of reaching 95% of households in the UK by the end of 2017, at least 19% of which aren’t served by commercial superfast broadband, currently stands at £1.7 billion, according to the Government itself.

This doesn’t include investment from business, and there’s no guarantee that it will be the final figure. Yet a large part of this cost might have been avoided. Quite simply, the UK’s superfast broadband delivery strategy has until recently been focused on and possibly blinded by fibre-optic broadband; to the extent that fixation on the technology has meant not addressing the whole population or catering for broadband use beyond fixed houses and businesses.

Tied up in fibre?

When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. This has certainly become the case with Broadband Delivery UK’s (BDUK) decision to rely almost exclusively on the fibre-based BT Openreach roll out, augmented by some cable from Virgin. While fibre has been more than capable of rolling out broadband to the majority of the UK’s population, who are mostly tightly congregated in urban or semi-urban centres, as soon as you move away from population centres, the cost of connecting fibre becomes increasingly unreasonable.

While the popular imagination might place remote regions out of fibre’s reach in the Scottish Highlands and Islands or the Welsh mountains, in fact Londoners only need to look as far as Surrey to find villages that are still unconnected.

Other means of providing broadband, such as satellite, are now being considered as pilot schemes to reach the last 1,335,000 households in the country; yet these have faced an uphill battle for adoption thanks to outdated viewpoints.

The old view of satellite is a low-bandwidth service that would reach tens of thousands at most. Couple this with set-up and infrastructure costs for old style services reported at ca. £6,000 per user and monthly fees of up to £5,000, and it’s easy to understand any reluctance. Yet modern satellites can service over a million users, with set-up and infrastructure costs of around £300-400 per user and end-user costs similar to fibre for a fixed-speed, superfast service.

Indeed, in the US satellite high-speed services have consistently shown the best performance and ability to meet or exceed advertised speeds, even compared to fibre. US operators offer 12Mbps services for around $50/month, while in Europe Tooway offers 22Mbps services to customers in the UK, S and Europe from £29.99/month. Quite simply, for hundreds of thousands of UK households, satellite is the best (and in some cases still the only) option for affordable superfast broadband. Bundle in voice over IP, removing the need for a landline charge, and it becomes even more cost effective.

What does the future hold?

Satellite broadband has shown good results in the pilot projects set up by BDUK for reaching the final 5% of the UK’s population. In trials where costs per premises reached up to £5,210, satellite projects came in at a much more reasonable £876. With trials focusing on limited subsets of a much larger potential population, the cost per premises can easily fall in a full-scale roll-out; as a satellite, once up, can service anyone inside the footprint for the same cost. In addition, satellite has wider utility – supporting small to medium enterprises, farmers, and the deployable needs of the emergency services and any others in the areas it covers. This recognition that satellite offers utility while welcome, is still coming late in the programme.

Time and money

The simple fact is that we still don’t know the final cost of the fibre roll-out. All of the “easy” connections in the country have been made, meaning getting superfast broadband up to that magic 95% of households will be exponentially more difficult and costly with each new household added. The predicted £1.7 billion of public funding could still grow, and Compared to satellite the costs involved begin to look excessive. There is already spare satellite capacity over the UK. While more is needed, building and launching a satellite and putting in place the ground networks would cost £300 – 500 million.

This single satellite, or a combination of capacity from multiple satellites, could provide superfast broadband to anywhere between 3 and 10% of all UK households. Indeed, since satellite technology is constantly advancing, with satellites capable of serving more users at higher speeds and with greater capacity for the same infrastructure cost, the final landscape could mean connections for more households; or extra bandwidth to use for other means, such as business communications or the emergency services.

Timing is also an issue. The planned fibre roll-out will take over seven years and still won’t reach every home in the country. There are also no guarantees on precisely when the final 5% of households will be connected, regardless of what technology they choose. A satellite can be commissioned, launched and providing services to customers in a little over three years. However, the UK doesn’t need to rely on its own, dedicated satellites; especially as it doesn’t have a time machine to go back to 2014 and begin commissioning.

As mentioned, there is already spare capacity over the UK, and more bandwidth can be provided if operators realise there is commercial value in it and the terrestrial providers are encouraged to embrace satellite as part of their service offerings. Essentially, the UK can pay now for immediate, high-speed access, and in doing so encourage more investment in future capability.

While fibre has formed the majority of the UK’s superfast network, and in many cases has been the best tool for the job, it is just part of the solution.  The UK needs a hybrid digital infrastructure delivering choice, flexibility and resilience. Investment in fibre so far may be a sunk cost, but there is still the opportunity to review how we’re reaching as yet unconnected households and ensure that they are connected in the most cost-effective manner possible. Satellite broadband isn’t just for those cut off from civilisation or for broadcasting football; it’s a critical part of any modern communications infrastructure.


neil fraserNeil Fraser is the UK lead for ViaSat’s satellite communications business with the UK Ministry of Defence, other Government departments and industry, ranging from consumer broadband to deployable communications. He has been in this role since 2013 following 26 years in the British Army during which he had several tours in the Balkans, served with Airborne and Commando forces and completed 3 tours in Afghanistan commanding at Squadron and Regimental level. For 3 years as a full Colonel he led a team working with industry delivering satellite and strategic radio communications projects and services to UK forces worldwide. He has Masters degrees in the Design of Information Systems and Defence Studies.


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