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POSTbrief Number 24, March 2017 Telecommunications Infrastructure: Cabling, Ducts and Poles www.parliament.uk/post | 020

POSTbrief

Number 24, March 2017

Telecommunications

Infrastructure:

Cabling, Ducts and Poles

Telecommunications Infrastructure: Cabling, Ducts and Poles www.parliament.uk/post | 020 7219 2840 | POST@parliament.uk

www.parliament.uk/post | 020 7219 2840 | POST@parliament.uk | @POST_UK

By Lydia Harriss

Summary

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UK Telephone Cabling

3

UK Broadband Infrastructure

4

Copper Telephone Lines

6

Fibre to the Cabinet

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Fibre to the Premises

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Duct and Pole Access

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The Original DPA Process

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Challenges of DPA

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Changes to the DPA Process

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POSTbriefs are responsive policy briefings from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology based on mini literature reviews and peer review.

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Telecommunications Infrastructure: Cabling, Ducts and Poles

Summary

In the UK, the majority of telephone cables that run between customer premises and telephone exchanges are operated and maintained by Openreach, which is part of the BT Group. Telephone cables can be used to provide broadband connections to the Internet, and Openreach provides wholesale services that other internet service providers (such as BT, Sky and TalkTalk) can buy in order to sell broadband Internet access to consumers. Broadband access can also be provided using other types of infrastructure. Instead of telephone cables, copper television cables (owned and operated by Virgin Media), fibre optic cables or radio signals can be used to transmit broadband signals.

Ofcom intends to give BT’s competitors improved access to its telephone poles and underground ducts, in order to make it cheaper and faster for other companies to install their own fibre optic cables for high-speed Internet broadband. Ofcom says that this will encourage competition and lead to greater infrastructure investment.

Openreach has been required to offer competitors access to its ducts and poles since 2010. However, few companies have asked Openreach for access. In its original form, the process by which competitors could apply for access was time consuming and involved the applicant returning to Openreach for information or approval at several different stages. The Office of the Telecommunications Adjudicator has been working with Openreach and five other operators to trial improvements to the access process and some of these have already been made. Ofcom is currently conducting a consultation on how the access process can be improved further.

This POSTbrief provides an overview of the infrastructure used to provide telephone services and broadband Internet access in the UK. It focuses on fixed (static) broadband infrastructure, rather than wireless broadband technologies. It includes an introduction to poles and ducts and how they can be accessed by other internet service providers to build their own telecommunications infrastructure.

This briefing draws on information from interviews with experts and the publically available literature.

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Telecommunications Infrastructure: Cabling, Ducts and Poles

UK Telephone Cabling

The UK has a Universal Service Obligation (under the Communications Act 2003) that requires BT and KCOM (which operates in the Hull area) to provide a telephone line to any premises in the country, upon reasonable request. 1 Phone

lines typically comprise a pair of copper wires that are insulated with a plastic coating and then twisted together. They run from a customer’s premises to

a telephone exchange, generally via a street cabinet. The telephone exchange

is connected to other exchanges, allowing a call to be routed to the correct recipient (Figure 1).

Copper telephone cables can either be held above ground on telephone poles, or buried underground (Box 1). Roughly half of cables entering residential premises are carried on poles, while the other half are buried. 2 Further into the network, cables are usually laid underground.

Figure 1: UK Telephone Network street premises exchange cabinet street premises exchange cabinet
Figure 1: UK Telephone Network
street
premises
exchange
cabinet
street
premises
exchange
cabinet

About half of UK premises have access to the cable television network owned by Virgin Media. 3 This network is completely separate from BT’s. It has its own street cabinets, which are connected to Virgin Media’s core telecommunications network. For telephone services, premises are connected to street cabinets via

a pair of copper wires. For television services and broadband Internet access, premises are connected to cabinets via a copper coaxial cable (essentially a television aerial).

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Telecommunications Infrastructure: Cabling, Ducts and Poles

Box 1: Ducts, Poles and Capacity Limits

Box 1: Ducts, Poles and Capacity Limits Ducts Underground cables are usually run through ducts –

Ducts

Underground cables are usually run through ducts – pipes typically varying between 2.5 and 9 centimetres in diameter. 2 Today, ducts are generally made of plastic, but older ducts made of clay or other materials are still in use. The presence of ducts can make it easier and cheaper to replace damaged cables or to lay new ones, without needing to excavate a channel. A manhole cover can be lifted up to provide access to a duct and a new cable can be laid by pulling it through the duct, or (in the case of lightweight fibre optic cables) using an air stream to push the cable through. 3,4

Not every cable on the network has been laid in a duct. Sometimes cables have been buried directly in the ground. This is particularly the case where cables run from the road into premises.

Poles

It is usually cheaper and quicker to install new cables by running them above the ground (supported on telephone poles), compared to running them underground. However, cables held on poles are more likely to be damaged and may be considered unattractive by some residents.

Capacity Limits

There are limits on the capacity of both ducts and poles. The maximum number of cables that can be held on a single pole is influenced by several factors including:

the maximum weight that the pole can safely support, the material (and therefore weight) of the cable, and the wind-speeds that the pole is likely to experience. The addition of new cables to a pole is also constrained by the space available, which depends on the number of different directions that the existing cables are running in. 2

Ducts also have a finite capacity. This depends on the size of the duct and the volume occupied by the cables already laid within it.

UK Broadband Infrastructure

Broadband refers to always-on Internet access. The Government is planning to introduce a Universal Service Obligation for broadband services, as part of the Digital Economy Bill (currently at report stage in the House of Lords ). 5 This would guarantee that a minimum level of service is available to any consumer (upon reasonable request), which the Government said it plans to set at 10 Mbps. 6,7

In the UK, broadband is delivered to homes and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) via two main types of infrastructure:

• fixed line infrastructure, which provides static Internet connections via networks of cables made of copper or optical fibres

• wireless infrastructure, which uses radio waves to transmit broadband signals through satellite, WiFi or mobile technology (3G and 4G services).

3. FTTH Handbook, Fibre to the Home Council Europe, 2014

4. Blow by Blow, David Stockton, Fibre Systems, 2016

Press Release, 7/11/2015

Service, Ofcom, 2016

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Telecommunications Infrastructure: Cabling, Ducts and Poles

This briefing focuses on fixed line infrastructure used to deliver broadband services to domestic residences and SMEs. Larger companies are more likely to use very high-speed broadband services that are governed by a different set of regulations, and fall beyond the scope of this briefing. For more information about wireless infrastructure, see POSTnote 494, UK Broadband Infrastructure.

There are a number of different ways of providing broadband access, each of which result in different data speeds (rates at which data can be downloaded from, or uploaded to, the Internet). All access options require a ‘core network’ to transmit broadband signals between exchanges and the Internet. There are a number of different core networks in the UK, owned by BT, Virgin and others. The connections in these core networks are all made using fibre optic cables. However, the infrastructure and technologies used to connect exchanges to individual premises (the ‘local access network’) can vary, as discussed in the following sections (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Broadband Internet Access Technologies fibre copper street copper cabinet street FTTC exchange cabinet
Figure 2: Broadband Internet Access Technologies
fibre
copper
street
copper
cabinet
street
FTTC
exchange
cabinet
street
FTTP
cabinet
the
Internet
mobile
exchange
satellite

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Telecommunications Infrastructure: Cabling, Ducts and Poles

Copper Telephone Lines

Standard telephone lines (running between premises and a telephone exchange) can be used to provide broadband connections. This can be done by placing specific equipment at each end of the copper cables, which enables them to send and receive data more quickly. This is known as DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) technology. The speed at which data is downloaded from the Internet is typically significantly higher than the speed at which data is uploaded (Table 1). Slow upload speeds can adversely affect services such as video conferencing, cloud computing (the remote use of shared computing resources) and online gaming.

The majority of copper telephone cables that run between customer premises and telephone exchanges in the UK (‘local loops’) are owned and maintained by Openreach. However, KCOM owns all of the lines in the Hull area. Openreach provides Internet service providers (including BT) with access to individual local loops, enabling them to upgrade the lines with DSL to provide a broadband service to customers. This process is known as local loop unbundling, and is widely used.

Table 1: Speeds for Fixed Line Broadband Services to Residential and SME Premises 8,9

 

Max download

Average download speed (Mbps)

Average upload

speed (Mbps)

speed (Mbps)

Copper telephone lines

24

7.8

0.8

FTTC with

     

telephone lines

76

41.2

9.4

FTTC with cable TV lines

200

73.6

5.3

FTTP

1000

-

-

Fibre to the Cabinet

When copper cables are used to transmit broadband signals, signal quality decreases with distance, reducing data download and upload speeds. Signal loss is far lower if broadband signals are sent through fibre optic cables made of glass. This means that far higher data download and upload speeds can be achieved if fibre optic cables are used instead of copper ones. Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) uses fibre optic cables to connect exchanges to street cabinets and then uses either the existing copper telephone network or the copper cable television network, for the final link to the premises.

BT is deploying FTTC that uses telephone cables for the final link to the premises. Part of this deployment has been on a purely commercial basis, while in other areas it has occurred as part of the UK’s publically subsidised roll-out of superfast

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Telecommunications Infrastructure: Cabling, Ducts and Poles

broadband (with target download speeds of over 24 Mbps). Achieving superfast speeds relies on premises being connected to a street cabinet using short lengths of copper telephone cable. Some premises connected to fibre-enabled cabinets do not receive superfast broadband speeds because they are located too far away from the cabinet. 3 The House of Commons Library briefing SN06643, Superfast Broadband Coverage in the UK details Government targets for the roll-out of superfast broadband across the UK, and progress towards meeting them. 10

Virgin Media offers a variation of FTTC that uses its cable television network. Exchanges are connected to Virgin Media’s street cabinets using fibre optic cables and then copper coaxial cables are used to connect cabinets to customers’ premises. Coaxial cables do not cause the same signal loss seen in telephone cables, meaning that broadband speeds do not decrease over long distances to the same extent. 11

There are a large number of other Internet service providers offering FTTC broadband. The majority do this by purchasing a wholesale service from BT and selling this onto customers. This process is described as virtual unbundled local access (VULA). As an alternative to buying wholesale services, Internet service providers might build their own fibre-connected street cabinets and connect these to BT’s copper network for the final link to the premises. This is known as sub-loop unbundling, and is not widely used. 12

Fibre to the Premises

Another option for fibre optic deployment involves running fibre optic cables from the exchange to the premises, without needing to go via a cabinet. Fibre to the premises (FTTP) can typically provide broadband speeds of one gigabit per second (Gbps), for both uploading and downloading data. However, FTTP systems can be upgraded to provide far greater speeds. FTTP is being deployed by BT, Virgin Media, Hyperoptic, Cityfibre and a number of other companies.

Duct and Pole Access

Openreach owns an extensive network of ducts and poles. Ofcom says that giving BT’s competitors improved access to the poles and underground ducts on Openreach’s local access network can improve competition and therefore encourage new investment in high-speed fibre optic broadband networks. 12 This is known as Duct and Pole Access (DPA). Laying cables using existing ducts and poles can reduce the cost and time taken for deployment. 13 Ofcom says that the use of DPA in countries such as Portugal, Spain and France illustrates its benefits. 12 A recent modelling study conducted by Analysys Mason suggests that these are likely to be lower in the UK, due to differences between countries,

10. Superfast Broadband Coverage in the UK, House of Commons Library SN06643, 9/3/2017

11. Infrastructure Report 2014, Ofcom, 2014

Ofcom, 2016

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Telecommunications Infrastructure: Cabling, Ducts and Poles

including different regulatory regimes, and the UK having a lower proportion of homes in multi-dwelling units. 14

Openreach has been required to allow BT’s competitors to rent access to ducts and poles since 2010, for the purpose of laying fibre optic cables for high-speed broadband services. 12 In 2016, the Communications (Access to Infrastructure) Regulations were introduced, which included the requirement for operators of telecommunications infrastructure to share physical infrastructure with competing network operators (this also applies to other networks such as gas, electricity and water). 15 However, few companies have applied to Openreach for access to ducts and poles. Ofcom reports that parties potentially interested in using DPA have argued that current processes are not fit for use at scale. BT say that there is no evidence that demand for access has been suppressed. 12

The Original DPA process

The process established in 2010 to allow a competitor access to Openreach’s infrastructure was time consuming and involved the applicant returning to Openreach for information or approval at several different stages. The process included:

• Competitor submits application to Openreach for Physical Infrastructure Access 16

• Openreach provides competitor with maps and other records of poles and ducts in the area of interest

• Competitor conducts its own survey of the routes where it plans to lay new cabling

• Competitor asks Openreach to reserve space in the ducts and on the poles they want to use

• Competitor has to arrange logistics and permissions with other organizations, e.g. obtaining permission from landowners to access their property and to lay cabling on it (‘wayleaves’); engaging contractors to undertake cable laying; and scheduling traffic management for any roadworks

• Any changes to the proposal in the original application need to be approved by Openreach

• Competitor asks Openreach to confirm that the project has been completed.

Challenges of DPA

Records held by Openreach are not always accurate, for example ducts or poles may not be where maps say they should be, or they may already be full. Ducts may also be broken or blocked – Openreach’s records do not typically contain information about duct condition. An applicant can fix broken or blocked ducts

Mason, 2016

16. Duct and Pole Access, Openreach website, accessed 13/3/2017

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Telecommunications Infrastructure: Cabling, Ducts and Poles

itself or can pay Openreach to fix them on its behalf, however this can slow down deployment. These challenges are faced by all Internet service providers wanting to use Openreach’s ducts and poles (including BT).

Changes to the DPA Process

Ofcom says that it will require Openreach to open up its network further, allowing easier access for other operators to its poles and underground ducts. 12 It is currently conducting a review of how the process can be improved further. 13

The Office of the Telecommunications Adjudicator 17 has also been working with Openreach and five other operators to trial improvements to Openreach’s original DPA processes. This has led Openreach to make modifications to the process, including:

• removing some of the approval stages, simplifying the process

• allowing other operators to place their equipment into Openreach’s manholes (known as joint boxes), removing the need to dig new manholes and making it easier to connect cables

• developing an online tool to provide applicants with remote access to Openreach’s maps and records relating to poles and ducts.

There are plans to make duct capacity information available through the online tool in March 2017, which should make it easier for operators to see how much space is available for new cabling.

17. The Office of the Telecommunications Adjudicator, accessed 13/3/2017. The Office of the Telecommunications Adjudicator

is an independent organisation, tasked by Ofcom, to oversee co-operation between communications providers and to enable

a competitive environment in the telecommunications sector.