Ever since I started looking into the UK broadband and FTTx market I have heard time and again the pride of various players (Ofcom, BT and others) in the pioneer role that the UK played in broadband emergence and adoption. When discussions steer towards NGA and FTTx in particular though, the pride either turns to arrogance or shame. There seems to be something rotten in the state of UK NGA.
Yesterday I was pointed to a release by Research firm Point Topic on UK FTTx deployment and adoption. I will tell you honestly, I nearly fell off my chair. I'm ashamed enough that the French FTTx numbers don't reach the 100k mark yet, imagine my astonishment at seeing that there were less than 3000 FTTx subscribers in the UK (an adoption rate of 0.005%) half of which are FTTC.
BT seems bullish about its FTTC deployment in the next few months though. According to Point Topic "BT anticipates 4,500
NGA street cabinets installed by March 2010, serving about 1 million
premises, and 20,000 by the following March". Is this just a case of a measurement being made too soon ? Maybe, although I have a hard time imagining that deployment will be that fast, and an even harder time thinking that adoption will follow at the same rate.
Such numbers leave the door open for FTTH Council Europe President Karel Helsen to suggest that UK PLC bet on the wrong horse for its NGA deployment, as hinted in his editorial published in the Financial Times on Monday. Here's how he concludes his piece:
"In the Council’s view, money should not be spent on short-term fixes
that will be obsolete in a few years. Fibre-to-the-home is often
described as future proof – optical fibre has virtually unlimited
capacity both to and from the user, so bandwidth upgrades only require
changes to the equipment on the ends of the link.
network once; enjoy it for the next 50 years and beyond – why settle for
It seems hard to argue against this. I have stated in the past that I worry very much about BT's economic space for FTTC. It's hard enough for FTTH providers around the world to convince customers to switch from ADSL (in the absence of clear differentiating services), it's going to be much harder for BT and other ISPs to convince customers to switch to a solution that is nominally not as good as Virgin's HFC and doesn't carry along the TV services that Virgin offers...
Maybe it's too late to switch tracks already. But there's one point in Karel's editorial that I cannot disagree with, and this is one thing I state over and over again when talking to public authorities and policy makers: if you're going to inject public money in NGA deployment, make sure that money will reap 50 years of benefits, not just 5 years.