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With more than half of homes in Europe now covered by FTTH/B, how do we build on this momentum in a sustainable way? Keely Portway finds out

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While the ongoing pandemic has created widespread disruption and uncertainty, one of the results is the increased rate of FTTH/B subscribers. That’s the view of Rolande Montagne, Idate’s principal analyst for broadband and FTTx, as well as director for networks and smart territories practice. 

He presented the findings of the FTTH Council Europe’s 2021 Market Panorama at a recent webinar, outlining fibre deployment trends in Europe. It found that the total number of homes passed with FTTH and FTTB in the EU39 countries* reached nearly 182.6 million in September 2020, compared with 172 million in September 2019. 

Another key milestone was reached, according to the data, as FTTH/B coverage in EU39 now amounts to more than half of total homes. 

By September 2020, the report found that the EU39 countries reached a 52.5 per cent coverage of FTTH/B networks, showing a clear upward trend from September 2019 figures, when the coverage was only at 39.8 per cent. ‘We know that, especially with the pandemic, crisis teleworking has really been developed in Europe with no choice. For this there is a need for robust connectivity, so we have seen an acceleration in Europe of the subscription level,’ said Montagne. 

Movers and shakers 

The main movers, in terms of homes passed in absolute numbers are France, Italy, Germany and the UK, while the top five of the annual growth rates in terms of homes passed is led by Belgium (+155 per cent), Serbia (+110 per cent), Germany (+66 per cent), United Kingdom (+65 per cent) and Ireland (+49 per cent). 

The number of FTTH and FTTB subscribers increased by 16.6 per cent in the region, with 81.9 million subscribers in September 2020. Leading the charge was France, which added just under 2.8 milllion new subscriptions, with Russia second at almost 1.7 million new FTTH/B subscribers. Spain was third with just over 1.4 million. 

The Market Panorama also found that the alternative network and internet service providers (altnets) still constitute the largest portion of FTTH/B players, with a higher percentage of the total fibre expansion.

Interestingly, many countries in which legacy infrastructure still dominates, have modified their strategies by deploying more FTTH solutions, migrating from existing copper-based and cable-based networks towards fibre, and are even intensifying copper switch-off. 

Montagne explained: ‘We also looked at the categories of players deploying FTTH. We have pointed, in this panorama, to around 400 FTTH/B initiatives identified in EU29 by September 2020. It is clear, especially from September 2019 to September 2020, that 39 per cent of connected homes are passed by the incumbent, versus 41 per cent in 2019. It shows that altnets increased their part of the market share in one year. Also municipalities and utilities are a category covering many remote and isolated areas that are further enhanced with public funding and other incentives. In September last year they represented 4 per cent of the homes passed.’ 

Top of the table 

When it comes to the all-important rankings, for homes passed in EU39 countries, Russia took the lead with almost 48 million homes passed. The biggest players, in terms of growth in homes passed in absolute numbers, were France at +4.6 million, Italy at +2.8 million, Germany at +2.7 million and the UK, at +1.7 million, with the top five countries in terms of annual growth rates for homes passed mentioned earlier. 

Credit: FTTH Council Europe/Idate

Looking at coverage, Belarus was in first position, with 92 per cent, closely followed by Latvia and Iceland. Montagne continued: ‘It’s quite interesting to see that coverage is historically quite high in the north of Europe, such as Sweden, with more than 80 per cent, or Iceland at 90 per cent. It is also very high in the southern part of Europe, with the leaders in terms of deployment being Portugal with 83 per cent and Spain with 88 per cent. Then we have France with 73 per cent of homes covered, Italy is half way, I would say with 41 per cent, Poland also has more than 40 per cent. Then we have markets like the UK and Germany close to 15 per cent.’ 

Coming to the overall European rankings, which are based on household penetration rates, and Iceland retained its place at the top, with a 70.7 per cent penetration rate, followed closely by Belarus, with 70.4 per cent. Spain took third position from Sweden. This year also saw four countries enter the rankings (after no new no entries last year), namely Belgium, Israel, Malta and Cyprus. 

‘At the bottom of the ranking,’ said Montagne, ‘we can point out countries such as Italy with less than 6 per cent, or Germany with less than 5 per cent, or the UK with less than 4 per cent.’ Austria and Belgium completed the other end of the rankings with 2 per cent and a little over 1 per cent, respectively. 

In conclusion, Montagne affirmed that FTTH is reaching a new level of deployment. ‘We have seen that fibre networks now cover more than half of the total households in the EU39 countries. This is really an achievement for connectivity across Europe. EU39 is reaching 82 million FTTH subscribers, and EU-27 plus the UK accounts for 56 per cent of the subscribers. Homes passed are reaching 183 million with full fibre, compared to 98 million for EU27 plus UK.’ 

Lessons learned 

However, he noted, there are lessons that can be learned. ‘We know now that in many historical copper-based countries where VDSL has been deployed, like the UK, Germany or Italy that, in light of the pandemic, both deployments and adoption are being accelerated,’ said Montagne. 

Credit: FTTH Council Europe/Idate

‘The players and the governments are looking towards full fibre connectivity in these countries, and there is still some distance, and then potential, for the fibre industry to go. For unserved areas and sub-regions where FTTH, in terms of economy, can be a challenge, there are concerns for these areas. 

‘With the pandemic, they need reliable networks like the other zones of the country, and it’s a matter of success for the economy of a country to go and connect those more challenging areas.’ 

Eric Festraets, president of FTTH Council Europe, said: ‘The data confirms that fibre rollouts are taking place at an increasingly faster pace in Europe, and the EU is making very significant – though uneven – progress in meeting its connectivity targets. 

‘This year’s report demonstrates that three European economies that have recently intensified their fibre rollout – Germany, Italy and the UK – still account for almost 60 per cent of the entire remaining homes to be passed in the EU27+UK region. This further demonstrates that the implementation of the new European Electronic Communications Code, and in particular its Very High Capacity Networks provision, will be essential to meet the ambitions of “Europe’s Digital Decade” and a greater digital empowerment by 2030.’ 

In the UK, for instance, the National Infrastructure Strategy launched last November, outlines how the government is working with industry to target a minimum of 85 per cent gigabit-capable coverage by 2025, while seeking to accelerate rollout further to get as close to 100 per cent as possible. 

Meanwhile, incumbent, BT which owns the national access network infrastructure provider, Openreach, reached its goal of connecting 4.5 million premises in March. It has promised to ‘build like fury’ and plans to connect 20 million by the mid to late 2020s, including 3.2 million properties in rural areas. The government plans to provide funding to help reach the remaining properties. 

In Germany, the European Commission last year approved a scheme to support network deployment of very high capacity broadband networks offering Gigabit speeds in Germany. It will help these networks connect customers in areas where the market has not been present. 

The scheme will have an estimated national budget of €6bn, which will be complemented by contributions to the individual projects from regional and local budgets, for an overall estimated budget of up to €12bn. German operator Deutsche Telekom has also committed to connecting 10 million households with FTTH by 2024. 

The Italian government says that digitisation is at the heart of its plans. It has committed to invest more than €8bn of EU funds on broadband, 5G and satellite technologies, promising connections of a gigabyte for all Italians by 2026. The government has also supported the expansion of the fibre-optic network, for example the state-backed wholesale provider Open Fiber plans to invest €3.8bn to expand coverage in 271 towns by 2023. 

Vincent Garnier, FTTH Council Europe’s director general, said of the new figures: ‘The telecoms sector can play a critical role in Europe’s ability to meet its sustainability commitments by reshaping how Europeans work, live and do business. As the most sustainable telecommunication infrastructure technology, full fibre is a prerequisite to achieve the European Green Deal and make the European Union’s economy more sustainable. Competitive investments in this technology should, therefore, remain a high political priority and we look forward to working with the EU institutions, national governments and NRAs to removing barriers in the way to a full-fibre Europe.’ 

Green recovery 

The European Green Deal was presented by the European Commission in December 2019. Its aim is to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, with the additional aims of boosting the economy, improving people’s health and quality of life, caring for nature, and leaving no one behind. 

The European Union’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, stated at the time that digitalisation will be at the core of the ambitious programme. The principles underlying the recently-launched Europe’s Digital Decade programme backs this up. One principle is that, by 2030, all EU households should have gigabit connectivity and all populated areas should be covered by 5G. 

In line with this, and during its virtual general assembly, the council adopted its work programme and elected new board members and work groups and committee chairs. Corning’s market development manager and board member for FTTH Council Europe, Mike Knott, provided some insight into what’s next for the council. 

He pointed to two aspects of the market panorama’s findings. ‘Firstly we can give ourselves, in the industry, a pat on the back, for how much we’ve actually done in terms of coverage of FTTH. The second aspect, of course, is to focus on what’s to come in countries which haven’t necessarily been deployed widely.’ 

Better by half 

Knott believes there is positivity in both. ‘The key headline,’ he said, ‘is that more than half of the premises in Europe are now passed with FTTH, and underneath the two million homes passed are 82 million subscribers. So, the take rate is 45 per cent and that’s a big indicator to the industry, and to investors that it’s a very positive long-business case.’ 

Looking back at the history of FTTH deployment, back when the council first began, Knott said that the pioneers were Scandinavian and Eastern European nations. Countries such as Spain and Portugal started to follow, deploying fibre in high volume. ‘Then, places like UK, Germany, Italy, Central Europe,’ he said, were way behind because the quality of the copper networks in those areas meant that they could get more out of VDSL. What’s happening now is that those countries that invested in VDSL are really investing in FTTH.’ 

This means, Knott continued, that the market is currently very vibrant. ‘We’ve got, I think, the biggest build going on in Europe, and that’s been going for a few years. Now, the UK, Germany and Italy are catching up. 

‘What’s happened is that, not just from the technology side, but the regulators have been very active, and they’ve supported competition, both at a European and also a country-by-country level.’ 

In terms of governance, the deadline for EU member countries to transpose the European Electronic Communications Code (EECC) took place in December, last year, almost four years after its initial proposal. 

First proposed as part of the Digital Single Market strategy, the EECC is designed to modernise EU telecoms rules, stimulate competition, and strengthen the internal market and consumer rights. 

EU co-legislators reached a political agreement on these rules in June 2018, and that year the European Parliament voted to establish the code, a directive, alongside the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC). It was formally adopted at the end of 2018. 

‘Within that code,’ said Knott, ‘the key thing for us in the fibre business is that it defines a “very high capacity network”. There is a lot of debate about what that actually means, in terms of bandwidth, latency etc. There is a kind of acceptance that the network is FTTH/b or equivalent. DOCSIS 3.1 you could say is, in terms of bandwidth capability, within that kind of scope. But, on the whole, the EECC is pro-fibre. 

‘Many EU priorities are around sustainability and digital transportation and digital transformation. In fact, 20 per cent of the Covid recovery funding is to go directly into digital. So there is an acceptance that fibre is the way forward and it’s not really a question of when but how.’ 

The challenges 

With fewer regulatory roadblocks, what are the remaining challenges? ’FTTH is a very labour-intensive thing to do,’ said Knott. ‘Depending on which models and which circumstances you look at, the labour cost of building an FTTH network can be easily three quarters of the cost of the bill. There are two aspects of that kind of labour issue. One is the availability of skilled labour. What the industry is doing, Corning included, is deploying hardware and connectivity solutions that reduce the amount of labour needed to build the networks.’ 

Looking to the future, Knott first looked back at some of the industry forecasts of the past. ‘Going back 10 to 15 years,’ he said, ‘there were lots of forecasts for five years ago, saying that there was going to be a “big bang”, and there were lots of these hockey stick-shaped graphs of FTTH deployment, which everybody was getting very excited about. But that didn’t happen, it has been much more gradual.’ 

For Knott, however, this is not necessarily a negative thing. ‘What happens when you get these hockey-stick events is that there’s a boom, where all of the industry is scrambling to catch up. And where there is a boom, there’s almost always a hangover. After the boom there’s an oversupply, and people who were in the telecoms industry at the turn of the century know what happens after those types of events, and they hope it will never be repeated.’ 

Knott feels that the way in which FTTH deployment has turned out to be more staggered in Europe is also a positive. ‘Things are happening in different stages in different countries,’ he said, ‘and that is smoothing out things. The demand at the moment is probably higher than it has ever been, but it’s controllable. We had some very, very big bills in countries such as Portugal and Spain that started earlier than countries such as Germany and the UK. So things are happening in a much more controlled and phased way.’ 

In addition, had the predictions from 10 years ago proved accurate, Knott pointed out that we would be reaching the end of big builds, and potentially having to think about what comes next. ‘It’s really panning out in a sustainable way for the businesses,’ he said. ‘As a resident and as a society, you might say “well, we demand gigabit connectivity now, today, for everybody,” and obviously, that’s the long-term plan. But, by and large, the way that events have happened with government and industry, things have gone well, and in a sustained way, and they’re continuing in a very positive pattern.’ 

Group effort 

On sustainability, Knott reiterated that the council recognises its importance, and has therefore set up the latest working groups. ‘There have also been some changes to the committees in the council,’ he said. ‘In recognition of the technology moving closer to what’s actually happening inside premises, there’s a new home broadband excellence committee, which is looking at what actually happens when the connectivity gets inside the house and how it’s used. 

‘As far as sustainability is concerned, for the consumer, the green credentials of using an old incandescent light bulb versus an LED light bulb, for example, are no longer in question. It is becoming the same for fibre. There is no question about the power requirements or the operational cost, there’s no comparison.’ 

There have been a number of studies undertaken on the topic, comparing the sustainability (based on energy consumption and CO2 emissions) of traditional copper or coaxial cable-based technologies with full fibre networks at different speeds and capacity rates. 

For instance, research conducted by Kristof Obermann of the Technische Hochschule Mittelhessen University of Applied Sciences in association with BREKO in May 2020 showed evidence that the choice of broadband network technology can have a real impact on the electricity required to operate the network and on CO2 emissions. 

Based on the electricity consumption per bitrate, the BREKO report demonstrated that copper-based networks (VDSL2 vectoring, super vectoring) consume up to 17 times more electricity than fibre networks. Sustainability has always been a topic for the council in the past,’ said Knott, ‘but now there is more focus on it at a working group level. Going forward, that working group will be delivering more content and support for the industry.’ 

Inclusivity in fibre 

Another big topic is the issue of diversity in the fibre industry, with the recruitment and retention of women a key focus. ‘Women and fibre is, again, a very, very important aspect of the activity of the Council,’ explained Knott. ‘Former director general Erzsebet Fitori, she was very supportive about this. Then, we were in a position of not holding any women on the board and the council recognises that something needs to be done. So that’s why we set up the women in fibre working group. Corning will also have an active part in that, where one of our foremost fibre experts, Roshene McCool will represent us as a company on that. It’s one of the serious key initiatives about which we are very passionate.’ 

Returning to the pandemic situation, Knott shared his view on how it has affected the industry. ‘We all know how dependent we’ve been on connectivity,’ he said. ‘If you just look at yourself and look at your own situation and ask “well, how would I and my family have coped if I just had an ADSL connection? ‘Just as an example, would the majority of people have been able to work from home? It would be an extravagant thing to say that fibre has been a saviour of society, but without it, I have no idea where we’d be. I think it’s a significant achievement to be able to look at ourselves in this industry and say that we’ve made a huge contribution to surviving this situation.’

SPONSORED CASE STUDY: ONEDIG STRATEGY HELPS COMPANIES DELIVER A MORE SUSTAINABLE FUTURE AS THEY EXPAND THEIR NETWORKS

It has never been more apparent, especially in the current global crisis, that broadband connectivity is the heartbeat of people’s communications. It plays a crucial role in our day-to-day lives. The industry must continue to harness and leverage latest technologies to unlock the multitude of services in our homes, such as streaming, gaming and working from home.  

The FTTH Council Europe’s Market Panorama research shows that the total number of homes passed with FTTH and FTTB in Europe reached nearly 182.6 million homes in September 2020, representing a growth of more than 10 million on the previous year. With governments introducing ambitious full-fibre targets and operators investing significant time and money into building the best quality fibre networks, deciding on what infrastructure should be put into the ground has never been more critical. 

When installing communications systems infrastructure, the most significant outlay is the installation of ducts and cables underground. Consequently, operators need to make sure they utilise the most appropriate solutions and dig once to future-proof their networks.  

While the rollout of network builds in towns and cities across Europe continues to grow exponentially, Emtelle continues to innovate and develop new products to meet the rising demand and respond effectively to customers’ requirements to deliver products that support a more sustainable and future-proof digital infrastructure. 

As a leading global supplier of a wide range of telecommunication and power solutions serving key FTTx players across more than 100 countries, Emtelle has focused on providing a solution that ensures both industry giants and altnets have an offering that allows them to build out networks effortlessly. Thus, not only fulfilling their requirements now, but in the future and beyond. No two operators approach fibre rollouts in the same way, however, Emtelle seeks to provide a level of standardisation that all can universally adopt. 

A ‘dig once’ policy 

As fibre and communications requirements become denser, operators need more connectivity in closer proximity. Investing in future duct capacity offers significant long-term savings and ensures operators can effectively future-proof their networks. In addition, with fibre demands set to rise in the coming years, operators will require easy access to fibre at any point in the network. By utilising Emtelle’s OneDig strategy, operators will not need to re-open trenches. 

The point of view expressed by FTTH Council Americas, in its paper Dig Smart: Best Practices for Cities and States Adopting Dig Once Policies, highlights that advanced fibre networks and high-speed broadband are increasingly crucial to a community’s quality of life and a healthy local economy. By deploying a ‘dig once’ policy, governments can seamlessly reduce excavation costs, minimise disruption and encourage broadband deployment. 

It is a costly operation to build out a new network, compounded by mass disruption to physical infrastructure and limited future capacity. Emtelle’s OneDig strategy effectively resolves these issues. Helping to reduce the need for future large civil projects, Emtelle developed an innovative range of solutions to provide customers with a sustainable, long-term practice for the future. The future of communication is unknown, but the future requirement for fibre is a certainty. So it is imperative that operators put the provision in place now to facilitate this future growth. Emtelle’s solutions provide the foundations to dig once and dig it right the first time. 

Why OneDig? 

By pre-installing fibre into the ground, operators will be able to access it anywhere, anytime without adding new manholes or splice closures, and this can be achieved with Emtelle’s MULTIFU and RTRYVA solutions. With Emtelle’s FibreFlow blown and pulled fibre solutions, operators can easily access pathways anywhere along its route and fill them with fibre at a later date. Operators will also have pathways for large fibre cables of 288 fibres or more, down to a pair of fibres for homes and Small IoT devices. 

Emtelle also offers PowerProtect+ solutions for high and low voltages and hybrid fibre/ power cables to provide power for remote devices up to 2km away from the power source. Emtelle also offers no-dig solutions where there are existing ducts, tunnels, overhead or facade networks. With Airblown fibre, multiple empty pathways are installed on day one for future use. The cost of the additional microducts is negligible compared to a new future civils operation. Subsequently, the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) is much lower over the duration of the network lifespan, which can be in excess of 25 years. If additional capacity is required, it can be created by blowing out a smaller fibre-count cable and replacing that with a higher fibrecount cable (for example, a 288F 200µ cable is the same diameter as an older 96F 250µ cable.) 

With the groundwork completed in advance, Emtelle’s solutions are a more sustainable way of building a network with less future disruption and a reduced requirement for re-laying networks later. It helps provide a dedicated pathway to each home or building for FTTH, and enables future upgrading with increased fibre or new fibre types without reopening the network. 

Typically, microducts run along paths passing homes, buildings and businesses. When installed, the main benefits of microducts are the ability to access any microduct at any point along the path to provide provision for the future. Emtelle delivers a network that will be future-proofed not only for fibre but for remote powering of devices in the future in the age of Internet of Things, Smart Cities and 5G. The Emtelle microduct system enables operators to easily install 24 fibres down each 3.5mm bore tube, affording ultimate flexibility for fibre provision in the future and enough spare capacity to meet their future demand. 

If operators install microducts and have additional capacity, they can lease out dark fibres or dark tubes. These fibres can be present in the network but are not currently used. Therefore, they can be leased out to the industry and recoup back value on the operator’s initial investment. Any empty pathway or microduct can be used to install additional fibre capacity to be leased out. Additionally, by implementing pre-connectorised solutions and blown fibres, it can result in faster installation times. Subsequently, fibre provision between the street cabinet and home of a distance of more than 200 metres can take less than five minutes. 

With a number of clients across the globe, our customers are empowered to future-proof their networks under the Emtelle OneDig strategy. By adopting this stance, operators will have access to simplified and more costeffective deployments. Dig once, dig it right the first time with OneDig.

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