The move to full fibre – when will the UK abandon copper networks?

The move to full fibre - when will the UK abandon copper networks?

Despite intensive efforts from the government and industry over the past couple of years to boost the UK's fibre connectivity, the country as a whole is still heavily dependant on legacy copper cables for much of its connectivity, and this is set to become a big problem in the coming years.

Although around 97 per cent of the homes and businesses in the UK are technically able to access fibre internet services, the vast majority of these services are delivered via fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) technology, which only routes the faster fibre connections as far as the street-level cabinet, leaving existing copper connections to carry data the rest of the way.

In fact, only around five per cent of the UK is currently covered by true fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) connectivity that takes fibre right to users' doors, and according to recent figures from the FTTH Council Europe, just 1.3 per cent of homes and businesses actually use such a connection.

The need to move past copper

This causes a number of issues. For starters, many of the copper cables that still connect premises have been in place for decades, if not longer, with some parts of the network still effectively running on Victorian-era technology. And as data volumes continue to rise and demand for faster speeds increases, these networks will be put under increasing strain.

While some technologies, such as Openreach's G.fast, have looked to improve the speeds of copper lines to cope with this, these are only viewed as a stopgap solution, and Openreach has already downgraded its plans for the rollout of G.fast technology in favour of focusing on its full fibre rollout. However, while faster and more futureproofed, FTTP is more expensive and time-consuming to roll out.

Some providers have also warned that the mislabelling of FTTC connectivity as fibre is doing more harm than good when it comes to encouraging full fibre developments. For example, CityFibre last year criticised the marketing of FTTC as 'fibre', noting that a quarter of homes incorrectly thought they have a full fibre connection at a time when the technology was only available to three per cent of homes.

The FTTH Council Europe agreed, with the body's president Ronan Kelly saying this 'fake fibre' harms the takeup of true FTTP services, adding: "Selling inferior copper-based connections as fibre undermines the value proposition of real fibre and undercuts the investment case for full fibre deployment."

Planning for a full fibre switchover

In the long term, it's clear that full fibre will be the future of the UK's fixed-line connectivity, but questions remain about how the industry should go about achieving this. Therefore, the UK's largest infrastructure provider Openreach has recently launched a consultation, inviting other service providers that rely on its network for their thoughts on how best to upgrade existing customers to full fibre and how to switch off the copper network.

Some have compared the sunsetting of the UK's copper connectivity lines to the digital TV switchover of a few years ago, but it will be a much bigger and more expensive project. In the TV migration, the onus was on customers to ensure they had the right equipment to continue receiving signals once analogue transmitters were switched off, but with the move to full fibre, it will be up to the industry to ensure every home is physically connected to fibre cabling – a hugely expensive proposition that will require support from infrastructure suppliers, communications providers, and government.

Therefore, Openreach has asked its network users for input on three key areas that will need answers if the proposed deadline for the copper switch-off of 2033 is going to be met. These are:

  1. How it builds the new fast-growing network
  2. How the industry should migrate customers smoothly onto the Openreach network, once it’s built 
  3. How Openreach should eventually retire the existing copper network

Chief strategy officer at Openreach Richard Allwood said: "Agreeing an approach to this upgrade process is a key enabler to deliver that larger ambition, and to bring the UK closer to the Government’s aim of nationwide FTTP network by 2033."

The consultation was also supported by digital minister Margot James, who said a nationwide full fibre network is a key part of the government's Industrial Strategy, with gigabit connectivity set to play a vital role in ensuring the UK is fit for the future.