Analysis and Opinion

New EU rules could restrict technology choices for telcos

5 October 2016

LONDON - ADTRAN CONNECT EMEA 2016 - The European Commission’s new strategy for a gigabit society will narrow down the technology options for operators looking to invest in high-speed broadband networks, according to a former advisor to the Commission.

Speaking at the Adtran Connect EMEA event in London this week, Tony Shortall of consultancy firm Telage said that the proposed new telecom framework represents a “big shift in EU policy” that will push regulators and policy makers towards optical fibre-based networks.

Although the concept of technology neutrality remains a central pillar of the Commission’s approach, in practice fewer technologies can meet the proposed European broadband targets for 2025, he notes.

The European Commission’s strategy, unveiled last month, calls for universal access to connectivity of at least 100Mb/s by 2025, with that connection having an evolutionary path towards a gigabit (see EU to propose universal 100M broadband target for 2025). This is significant uplift to the current Digital Agenda target of 30Mb/s for all by 2020.

The proposal also calls for gigabit connectivity for “all main socioeconomic drivers”, which includes anything that touches the state, such as schools, hospitals, law enforcement and local government services. This will mean fibre everywhere, not necessarily to every end user, but to every locality, even in rural areas, according to Shortall.

The major change is that the target of very-high-capacity connectivity will become legally binding. “Before we had aspirational targets issued through a Communication, which is soft law instrument. This time … targets will be inserted into legislation,” explained Shortall.

Fibre to the home and fibre to the building will satisfy the performance requirements of what the Commission calls “very-high-capacity" networks. Modern DOCSIS 3.0-based hybrid fibre-coaxial cable networks are also suitable, while Very-high-speed Digital Subscriber Line (VDSL) doesn’t make the grade, according to Shortall.

This will have huge implications for Europe’s telecom operators, as many are pursuing strategies for their fixed-line networks that are incompatible with the new targets. UK operator BT, for example, is looking at deploying G.fast from street cabinets (see Huawei and Nokia selected for BT Openreach G.fast roll-out).

G.fast uses high frequencies to carry more data over standard twisted-pair telephone cables, but its performance drops off sharply with distance. Shortall described G.fast as a “grey area technology”, whose suitability will depend on the deployment scenario. G.fast can deliver gigabit aggregate speeds over distances of tens of metres, but with the average distance from street cabinets to UK homes being around 400m, those speeds would not be available to the majority.

The Commission’s intention, says Shortall, is to push operators towards more future-proof technologies and ensure that rural areas receive the same quality of connectivity as urban ones. “The belief is that once the infrastructure has been built then the job is done,” he said.

Current policy has discouraged governments from promoting fibre networks because under State Aid rules they had to invest in technologies that were “good enough” rather than gold plated. With the minimum performance of broadband networks being set lower, authorities could not justify the additional cost of new fibre networks over the relevant time frame. That will change.

An impact assessment carried out to support the Gigabit Society strategy showed that it is likely to result in 55 per cent of European homes taking up FTTH or FTTB connections by 2025, up from the projected 17 per cent in 2020 and only a few per cent currently.

The broadband speed targets are part of a larger reform that will see the Electronic Communications Code revamped to meet Europe’s growing connectivity needs (for more, see the announcement). The existing telecom rules have been in force for seven years, and were created five years prior to that, so are overdue for an overhaul, according to Shortall.

Speaking in his capacity as president of the FTTH Council Europe, Adtran’s chief technology officer for EMEA Ronan Kelly said: “We need the approach proposed in this legislation if we are to get the investments needed to achieve best-in-class networks in Europe. We need to make sure that the right incentives are in place to encourage FTTH and that we get a market driven competitive process driving those investments where it is possible. This proposed legislation looks like a big step in the right direction.”

When questioned whether customers will end up paying more for their broadband to support the required investments in infrastructure, Kelly pointed to countries like France, Portugal and Spain that have seen widespread roll-out of FTTH networks but have not experienced a big bump in consumer pricing.

The Commission will send its proposals to the European Parliament this month, and they could be adopted within two years, probably in early 2018. “There is very broad support for these proposals, so I expect they will go through the process very quickly,” said Shortall.

By Pauline Rigby