An influx of bright, new sparks of gigabit fiber-only broadband providers spreading connectivity from Lands End to John o' Groats may improve Britain's place in the world's FTTx standings. p>
The nation certainly has a long way to go: FTTH penetration in the UK is a pathetic 1.3% of households (Spain, for example, was at 44% in 2018), according to iDate.
Whilst these operators are acting separately, there's a commonality to several founders' stated corporate vision: to turn around Britain's dismal broadband presence, reject the uncertainty of Brexit, and heavily invest in UK broadband to build their business and their country.
Who would have thought: patriotism and fiber-optics?
"The critical piece about this is, at a time of significant uncertainty with Brexit, this investment represents a massive dose of optimism in what we're doing. We think this turns into £80 [billion], £85 billion pounds worth of economic value. In US dollars, that's about $100 billion worth," said Clayton Nash, head of product at CityFibre, speaking at Calix ConneXions 2018 about the wholesaler's multi-million-pound, multi-year partnership with Vodafone to extend fiber broadband across many parts of Britain, from Scotland to Wales to southern England (but not London). "That's a great investment, a great return: $3 billion in, $100 billion back. Five thousand jobs across the country at a point we don't know where we're going. And fundamentally underpinning the transformation of the UK service industry. We don't want to be the fifth-largest economy. We want to be fourth -- at least."
Speaking to Broadband World News after the presentation, Nash noted the importance of broadband -- particularly high-speed, symmetrical broadband -- to today's economy and how a region without this capability can barely survive. Areas without quality broadband certainly cannot thrive in the digital future of 5G, virtual reality and beyond, he added.
CityFibre is probably one of the best known so-called altnets, but it's not the only one. Far from it. In no particular order, there's also Hyperoptic, which has steadily increased its footprint of urban FTTH customers. In central London, Community Fibre is busy deploying new fiber optic cable, and startup Lightning Fibre is addressing the gigabit-broadband needs of Eastbourne, a coastal town beloved by holidaymakers.
In the northern English city of Hull, altnetMS3 Networks is growing so quickly that founder/father/managing director Tony Hales was joined by son/now head of communications, Sam Hales to help meet customers' connectivity needs. MS3 now regularly takes on incumbent KCOM, Tony Hales said. The smaller operator leverages its initial investment in 33 kilometers of fiber (now up to 70km, with plans to add 16km next quarter) to lower pricing and expand high-speed broadband services to more rural prospects than KCOM served, he said.
This means more northern businesses and residents can access high-speed broadband because it's affordable, potentially creating a new generation of entrepreneurs, business people and success stories, Tony Hales said.
"We provide a mixture of ultra-fast broadband services up to gigabit-capable now -- DSLAMs, point-to-point connectivity. The network has grown organically over the last five, six years it's been live," he said. "Everything we do is fiber to the premise. There's no copper in MS3 networks. We see broadband and fiber as an enabler for services like cloud and VoIP, so we didn't want to get involved in anything legacy."
Historically, incumbent KCOM had no competition, said son Sam Hales, during the same call. MS3 often vies with KCOM for business customers, he said. Lower prices and better service add up to an improved business climate for existing and new enterprises, and could help attract new ventures to the Manchester region, said Tony Hales.
"We can compete on a better basis because we have a better cost structure. Our service is more cost-effective. We don't have the huge staff that KCOM has got. We can compete very well on price to the extent that, if they know we're interested, KCOM have to somewhat drop their regular price to get somewhat close to ours," he added.
Manchester: United for Broadband
As a large city, Manchester has high-speed options, but many surrounding areas are rural and suffer from slow or no connectivity. Source: UK Wander
That's not the only benefit MS3 sees now it's deployed high-speed cable in Hull and surrounding areas, Sam Hales said. "Our ability to be a hell of a lot more agile and flexible with customers and it helps us do a lot more business," he said. "And this latest connection to London and Manchester -- Layer 2 services [with CityFibre] -- gives other people wholesale access into the city. A lot of partners we speak to have customers who pay a lot more for their services here than they do in the rest of the UK; part of the pride of us going into Manchester was to deliver services to those partners at the same price as the rest of the UK because we don't see why they should pay more just because they want to connect a customer up in Hull."
"It was a monopoly," interjected Tony Hales. "There's no other word for it."
Brand spanking new
If you wondered what Gigaclear founder Matthew Hare did with some of the £270 million (approximately $365.5 million) he earned after selling the company to Intracapital last year, wonder no more. The ultra-fast, rural fiber broadband provider is roaring along and, apparently, Hare missed the thrill of the broadband chase because he's back with Zzoomm.
CEO Hare wants to connect 1 million of the UK's approximately 28 million homes and businesses currently without access to fiber networks. The 10Gbit/s service-capable network, slated to begin construction this summer, will be located near major cities' suburbs (think towns within commuting distance of London, for example), as well as towns and smaller cities, according to Zzoomm. These areas currently are underserved by incumbents which used copper-based technologies such as DSL, according to the service provider, which partnered with ADTRAN and will use the vendor's 10G fiber access platform with XGS-PON.
Likewise, startup Toob recently unveiled its funding and deployment plans, saying it raised £75 million ($99 million) as Light Reading Editor-in-Chief and Coffee Guru Ray Le Maistre covered in Broadband World News on Monday.
The British government also is tackling the shortfall with money and new rules.
Critics, however, claim the estimated £3 million to £5 million ($4 million to $6.6 million) budget is woefully short. And the timeline, which requests full-fiber broadband for 15 million premises by 2025 and full nationwide full-fiber coverage by 2033, is not aggressive enough, these critics told Reuters.
When combined, perhaps this flurry of fiber investment may not move British broadband up the international charts. Other countries are not, after all, standing still: They continue to invest and expand their fiber-only high-speed fixed broadband. They continue to prepare for and launch 5G initiatives.
But these UK startups and existing providers' growing efforts will positively affect residents of these vast and often unserved regions. They bring competition to monopolies, driving pricing cuts and technology improvements. And they bring a pervasive sense of optimism by investing in a country's future when nobody knows what that future holds.
The lack of an accurate broadband map means states and counties are tackling this issue themselves – and sometimes finding big disparities in the data – before spending their residents' money on deploying infrastructure.
Years of investment in infrastructure and user-friendly tools make the difference in how operators act before and after natural disasters, even though Hurricane Dorian's impact on Florida was far less than originally forecast (thankfully).
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