Fibre to the home Council, Milan 2011

16:22 in guest post by Tom Woof

As the only community representative at the Ftth council in Milan, I was definitely in the minority where 3500 delegates gathered to further the cause of Fibre to the Home.  As a potential end user I was also in the minority, as most of the other delegates represented suppliers of a bewildering array of equipment for fibre.  They supplied, ducts, fibre, sub ducts, jointers, splitters, access nodes, manholes, data handling equipment for putting TV and telephone systems into the fibre.

What struck me first of all was the sheer number of ways that fibre can be put around.  It can go through special ducts, existing ducts, sewers, water and gas pipes, buried directly, wrapped around electricity wires, hang off garden fences.  It can go almost anywhere.

Although looking around these stalls helped me get to know how the technology fitted together, there were also presentations to listen to.  One of the most interesting was the opening address by president of the Ftth council Europe Hartwig Tauber who gave a state of the union style address.  He had a table of those countries where Ftth was beginning to make an impression.  (This means greater than 1% of homes have it).  Not surprisingly, recently modernised counties were in the lead, such as Dubai, south Korea etc.  Although in Europe, former eastern block countries also did well.  The surprises were Sweden, and Finland.  The rural nature of their societies made it particularly interesting for me to understand how this had been achieved.  The UK, Germany, and France did not feature in the table at all.

In general, it seems that where a country has large and monopolistic incumbent telephone provider there is little fibre installed.  This is expressed as the incumbent wishing to ‘sweat it’s assets’.  While I can understand this mentality, it is disappointing that we must suffer because our telephone system was so well advanced in the 1930s.

The other interesting fact that Mr Tauber stated was that recent data was emerging from those countries that did have good Ftth penetration which suggested that where it was available those households saved about 4,300 km of travelling per year.  I will be following this up to discover the source of this data.  However, at face value it has massive consequences for communities like upper Eden.  This could offer savings of around 25% of vehicle fuel costs per year.  Furthermore, the old arguments about how living in the countryside is unsustainable, begin to look unsustainable themselves.  Further data is emerging on the relationship between increased connectivity and reduced CO2.

Some suppliers have developed ‘plug and play’ fibre kits to allow end users to overcome the technological issues of welding fibre together and ensuring good connections.  In reality, if the right equipment is chosen, it doesn’t seem to be much more complicated than telephone wiring systems.   This means that end users could plug their own fibre into a suitable distribution node, if they can get their fibre to such a point.

At the moment, because of the BDUK procurement process, there is a lot of discussion about the architecture of the fibre and business modeling of the structure for a fibre system for Cumbria.  To me, the ownership and operation of any system is a crucial part of the discussion.  Any network is worthless until it has users accessing services through it, and, at the same time, users are unable to access services until the network is in place.  This symbiosis is at the heart of any workable system.

The ownership of the fibre from ISP to the home should not belong to any one body, otherwise this simply creates another investment stifling monopoly.  Rather, the ‘first mile’ should belong to the community it serves (because they are best placed to provide it), the middle third to a utility company or preferably to a number of such companies (to ensure competitive pricing), and the backhaul to a range of ISPs.  In this way, the control of the pricing to the end user and consequently the value of the network overall rests with the communities and not to any single provider.  For a community to provide and own the first mile of fibre it would need to set up some form of legal ownership structure such as a Community Interest Company.

As I understand it, the shorthand for this model is known as ‘dark fibre’, because each end user or community of end users can negotiate a pricing structure for their internet access, telephony and TV independently of each other or a single service provider.  The fibre is then ‘lit’ according to the arrangement between the user and the ISP.  The ISP would need to negotiate with the utility company and the community for bandwidth over their fibres.