Bringing fibre home to Europe

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Abigail Williams looks at how European network developers are overcoming the challenges they face in expanding fibre deployments

Despite being one of the most mature technology markets in the world, the European region still faces a range of challenges relating to fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) deployment – ranging from improving sustainability performance to dealing with legacy networks.

So, what have been the key developments and trends in fibre network deployment across Europe over the past year or so – particularly in terms of coverage, uptake, and technologies used? What challenges do European fibre network developers face in expanding fibre systems deployments? And what developments and trends in fibre network deployment can we expect across the region in the coming years?

Predicting continued growth for FTTH in Europe

Ahead of the release of the next edition of the FTTH Council Europe’s annual FTTH/B Market Panorama report – due for official launch at the FTTH Conference 2023 in Madrid – Vincent Garnier, the council’s Director General, says it anticipates the growth rate seen over the past few years to continue. In particular, he observes a positive trend in terms of coverage – that is, the percentage of premises passed with fibre versus the total number of premises in a certain area – with point-to-multipoint technology being “the top choice when it comes to deployment strategies across Europe.”

“Fibre rollouts advance steadily, each country with a specific pace, and the progress versus 2021 is tangible,” he says.

In terms of the development of networks across Europe, Garnier reports that Europe officially passed the threshold of 50% coverage in 2021, meaning that more than half of households in Europe now have access to full fibre connections, but that “the road to full coverage is still long”.

“The bulk of the remaining areas to be ‘fibreised’ concentrates in three countries: Germany, Italy, and the UK, accounting for 60% of the remaining potential for network infrastructure deployment. Within the EU, filling this gap will be crucial to reach the EU’s ambitious objective of bringing gigabit connectivity to every household by 2030,” he says.

Garnier also emphasises that, among households already reached by fibre infrastructure, only approximately half subscribe to internet services based on fibre – which translates into “a big gap between having access to a full fibre network and effectively benefiting from it by engaging in a fibre subscription, and prompting the FTTH Council Europe to view the adoption of fibre as one of the most crucial challenges for the industry”.

“It is [also] important to remind ourselves that rural areas in most countries are less covered than the rest of the population and come last in deployment plans. These areas are more difficult technically, and it is much more difficult to make a business for fibre rollouts in these regions,” he says.

“However, underserved locations have been attracting alternative operators with very agile business models that focus their efforts there as incumbents – and large players are very often focusing on urban areas,” he adds.

Huge acceleration in fibre roll-out

Meanwhile, Trevor Linney, Director of Technology at UK-based fibre network provider Openreach, reports that there has recently been “a huge acceleration in the growth of fibre-based networks”. According to the domestic regulator Ofcom, just over 12 million UK homes, or 42% of the total, now have access to full fibre connections – an increase of more than four million premises in the past year.

“This is the largest year-on-year increase in full fibre coverage that we have seen to date and represents a nearly seven-fold increase over the last five years. We saw a record FTTP build of 810,000 premises passed in the last quarter at an average build rate of 62,000 per week. We have now completed 38% of our 25 million build target, with a footprint of 9.6 million homes and businesses, and a further six million where initial build is under way,” he adds.

According to Linney, demand for the technology also continues to grow – with customer orders for FTTP up around 50% year-on-year, meaning the company’s take-up rate has “grown to 30%, with a customer base just shy of three million”. He also reports a continuing rise in data consumption over the company’s network – which may partly explain why it is seeing end customers “upgrading in increasing numbers to the higher bandwidths available with full fibre”.

“Last year we saw broadband traffic across our network increase by 2.5% to more than 64 Petabytes [PB] of data. The amount of data being downloaded has increased in recent years, with 62,700PB being downloaded in 2021, 50,000PB in 2020, and 22,000PB in 2019,” he says.

Subscriber take-up rates ‘too low’

In Garnier’s view, the main challenge currently facing the FTTH industry is “how to make sure that everyone in Europe can enjoy the utmost benefits of fibre” – particularly since, although “more than 50%” of the European population currently has potential access to fibre connectivity, only one inhabitant in four has “effectively subscribed to a fibre-based service”.

“As clearly spelled out in our latest study analysing FTTH demand drivers and hurdles in Europe, we have made important progress in terms of making the infrastructure available to the larger population, but a lot is still in front of us, and important efforts are still required to convince subscribers to adopt fibre,” he says.

“Take-up rates are too low in many countries, and demand drivers are multiple and complex, requiring full attention from policymakers as well as from service providers. Clearly, there is no silver bullet to solve the problem of low take-up, yet we have elaborated a set of policy recommendations that can make a real difference,” he adds.

Based on these recommendations, Garnier emphasises that the council remains committed to pursue the dialogue with decision-makers and industry leaders necessary to “ensure that the issue of FTTH adoption gets the right attention”. He also believes that in-home connectivity “should be on top of service providers’ agenda, as the last element of the communication chain”.

In recognition of the fact that Wi-Fi is now the “natural extension” of fibre, he also stresses it must keep up with the level of performance brought by fixed infrastructures to avoid the end of the network from “becoming a bottleneck, especially now that the boom of web-based services such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence, telemedicine, e-learning and entertainment is real”.

Garnier also observes that “it goes without saying that particular attention nowadays should also be given to the sustainability issue, and the need to rapidly adapt corporate strategies to address the undergoing climate and energy crisis, by significantly reducing energy consumption and lowering carbon footprint.” Moreover, the fact that fibre has what he describes as “the lowest environmental impact among access network technologies” means that a transition to a full fibre network, and ultimately the decommissioning of legacy copper network, can bring “great savings in terms of energy consumption and significantly reduce the carbon emissions generated by the telecom industry”.

He says that recruitment and retention are also being discussed in boardrooms “as retaining and attracting skilled labour is perceived as a bottleneck impacting rollout plans by many players within the FTTH value chain”.

“Addressing all these challenges will require important investments; we count on policymakers to support the rollout in areas where there is no viable commercial business case and, more importantly, we encourage governments and regulators to keep on creating an environment favourable to healthy competition and attractive for private investors,” he adds.

How FTTP cuts energy consumption

Elsewhere, Linney says a key challenge, both for Openreach and for the industry-at-large across the European region more generally, is compacting or consolidating legacy networks and driving new fibre-based technologies to help reduce energy consumption. He says this is particularly important since FTTP “uses less energy compared to existing services whilst delivering higher speed service”.

“For us, by far the biggest legacy network is VDSL – the superfast connections delivered over the traditional copper-based network. Over the years we’ve built over 20 million ports of VDSL and with the accelerating take-up of FTTP we have passed ‘peak VDSL’ with a large number of end users migrating to full fibre,” he says.

Although the company powers down each customer port in the cabinet when they migrate off the service, Linney points out there is “still an overhead” in running the fibre cabinet or DSLAM chassis and linecards (the electronic circuitry designed to interface between subscriber lines and the rest of the access network).

“By getting our engineers to visit the cabinets and connect customers onto fewer cards, we can recover the cards for reuse and save power. The more energy we can save, the more cost we can take out of the business to help us to invest further in our full fibre rollout,” he says.

Future-proofing FTTH networks

Although future-gazing is “always tricky,” Linney believes one thing that is certain is that broadband speeds “always get faster over time” – with huge leaps in domestic internet connectivity speeds “fairly common through the decades”.

“Look at, for example, the introduction of 512Kb/s (0.5Mb/s) ADSL lines to the UK during 2000, which were a huge leap beyond the 56Kb/s dialup modems that came before. Fast-forward to 2010 and FTTC packages with up to 40Mb/s speeds and cable with 100Mb/s+ were becoming a thing, while today 1Gb/s is becoming more prevalent,” he says.

“The World Broadband Association (WBBA), a multilateral and industry-led association, recently published a new white paper that predicts residential broadband packages will be offering connection speeds of up to 50Gb/s by 2030, while enterprise speeds will be up to 3.2Tb/s,” he adds.

More specifically, Linney reveals that Openreach plans to adopt 10Gb/s capable XGS-PON and will seed its network with this new technology over time. However, he keen to emphasise that existing GPON technology “still has a lot to give” – and, with the addition of 2.5G GPON ONTs, confirms that the company can offer >1Gb/s services nationwide on its current infrastructure.

“We officially announced the launch of a new pilot for UK service providers, testing faster download speeds of 1.2Gb/s and 1.8Gb/s on FTTP lines in November last year. XGS-PON will be the next mass-market PON technology and we wanted to futureproof the network in such a way that it doesn’t materially increase our costs today, but avoids a costly upgrade in the future,” he says.

Creating conditions for fibre take-up

Looking ahead, Garnier expects a continued push towards increasing fibre network coverage across Europe, with governments and regulators “playing an important role in driving this expansion.” In particular, he points out there may be a focus on ensuring that underserved areas, such as rural regions and low-income neighbourhoods in urban areas, receive access to high-speed broadband. As fibre networks become more widely available, he also expects to see an increase in the take-up of these services by consumers and businesses alike. In his view, this will likely be driven by a growing demand for high-speed internet access, fuelled by the increasing use of bandwidth-intensive applications such as video streaming, cloud computing, and virtual reality. Garnier also observes that the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the trend towards remote working and online education, which will contribute to “increased demand for reliable high-speed internet”.

“The industry needs to rapidly adopt concrete strategies to stimulate the take-up of fibre services, with the help of regulators and governments. Finally, in terms of the technologies used to deploy fibre networks, we may see a continued usage of point-to-multipoint technology over the coming years, enabled by an increased capacity and a reduced latency for newer PON technologies, and a desire to run as many services as possible over a single fibre network. The transition to 10G and beyond will play a crucial role in this regard,” he says.

“Overall, many opportunities and challenges are ahead for the FTTH industry, and all involved stakeholders require the knowledge and connections to address these. The FTTH Conference, and the FTTH Council Europe, are committed to creating favourable conditions to make this happen.”

SPONSORED CASE STUDY: CommScope helps challenger ISP Telcom bring broadband to everyone

Telcom Group, established in 2014, operates three brands: Telcom provides hyperfast internet to commercial properties; ClearFibre delivers hyperfast internet to residential properties; and WeFibre provides low-cost hyperfast fibre connectivity to social housing and rural housing developments. WeFibre is bringing fibre to thousands of homes as “Phase 1” of an ambitious rollout. 

“Successfully and cost-efficiently realising rural connectivity requires a dynamic approach to build methodologies, without using a huge variety of products to overcome different challenges,” explains Thom Seddon, CTO, Telcom Group. “Some areas use long lengths of aerial cable, others use duct cabling. In some parts of the designated network route, there are no ducts, or ducts are very full or collapsed. We also have to ensure everything is compliant with Openreach requirements, as we’re using their PIA infrastructure.” 

 Telcom Group’s metro and rural networks have already connected 4,605 homes

Making smart choices 

“We needed to create a clear view of the options and choose wisely. Working closely with CommScope UK channel partner Passcomm, who helped specify the appropriate solutions, we examined passive options and their implications for future density and capacity.”  

The need for a fully integrated end-to-end solution led Telcom Group to CommScope products. “We looked at multiple vendors and options, and it made sense to do everything with CommScope. The portfolio is very broad, covering all network architectures, and product availability is high. Consistent technology, terminology, purchasing processes and high availability make things much easier. Especially considering the total number of premises we will connect in the next few years.” 

Passcomm, with its substantial product and network knowledge, is a trusted advisor, bringing ideas, products and best practices that have been successfully deployed across the UK altnet marketplace. By working closely with CommScope field application engineers and product line managers, Passcomm is always up to date with new products, installation and deployment developments. “Their advice was essential to making the best selections and combining these in a smart way, this requires extensive knowledge of a vast portfolio and how products relate to real-world situations,” adds Seddon. 

“CommScope’s TENIO products are used in our metro builds. Our field teams have tried a wide variety of options. They consistently state that TENIO is very easy to use. Cable management is excellent, and it performs well in different use cases, whether you need very high core counts or lower core. That’s really practical.” 

Accelerating planning and rollout 

Telcom Group also decided to use hardened connectivity for all drops, allowing efficient build-out. CommScope’s NOVUX portfolio for overhead as well as

underground usage is making inventory management and installation easier. Says Seddon: “Installation teams can carry a single set of cables, accessories and tools, for example. At first, we didn’t even realise that we could ‘carbon copy’ overhead and underground deployments. That accelerated our planning process quite a bit. Working with CommScope products also ensures we’re always compliant with Openreach requirements.” 

Stuart Read, sales and marketing director, Passcomm, comments: “We offered a variety of options we knew would meet Telcom Group’s requirements, but didn’t push them in any direction – the final choices were theirs. The benefits of certain products were immediately clear, such as the universal drop for underground and overhead use, that can also span roads overhead. Using this meant fewer moving parts to worry about, less inventory to manage, and lower buy-in volumes, for example. Passcomm holds over £2m of CommScope stock in its UK warehouses. This makes it possible to best serve customers such as Telcom, ensuring stock-holding can cope with their deployment rates now and in the future.” 

“The UK government expects the telco industry to deliver 80% coverage by 2025, to help realise ambitious targets: full-fibre broadband should be available to every home in the UK by 2033. By 2025, at least 85% of all premises should have gigabit broadband access. As a shortage of skilled people is a significant challenge to deploying networks at the rate required, the only way to meet the demands is by simplifying and accelerating network rollouts.” 

A Telcom training centre and academy is part of the solution. Thanks to simplification and reduced training requirements, staff can spend time on aspects of the job where they add the most value. In this way, CommScope’s products help address the skills shortage and accelerate rollouts. CommScope’s HST offering, with its reduced complexity and sharp lead times, partly thanks to manufacturing facilities in North Wales, also helps avoid any deployment backlogs, for a more agile supply chain. 

Telcom Group regularly referred to CommScope’s FTTH ePlanner tool. Says Seddon: “We used this for planning, but also to develop different approaches for sections that needed adapting. The newest, expanded version of the ePlanner is very useful. Whenever we encounter scenarios outside our normal build approach, it allows us to quickly reference our options. That makes us more efficient and helps us find more specific problem approaches.” 

Looking ahead 

“For Telcom Group, it’s vital to ensure commercial success in extremely low-density areas. Viability is partly based on how efficiently we can roll out and optimise this across different dimensions. That requires combining a degree of standardisation and best practices with flexibility. CommScope helps us in this area, for example, by providing standardised connectivity that can be coupled with nodes that vary in density. Also, when field engineers switch between product sets, they can keep working in the same way. As a challenger ISP, it’s important to work with the best. After all, we’re building infrastructure to serve communities for a very long period.”

Richard Thorpe, chief delivery officer at CityFibre

15 August 2022