back to article Promise of £5bn for rural fibre prompts Openreach to reach for the trench-digging diamond cutter

BT's duct-off broadband arm Openreach is trialling "a range of new tools and techniques" to deploy full-fibre in 13 rural locations - in what it says is a first response to £5bn of promised government funds. Some 11 million people in the UK, or approximately 17 per cent of the population, live in rural areas, according to …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "new tech"

    Really? This stuff has been available for a long, long time.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "new tech"

      "This stuff has been available for a long, long time."

      Yes indeedy.

      Ground penetrating radar, for example, has been around since proper Time Team was on proper Channel 4. And that's going back a while. Given the ability of modern DSP systems to recover information from what looks a lot like noise, GPR ought to be quite useful these days. Might need a different skillset than BT Openreach and subbies are used to paying for though.

      And as for drilling and trenching, interested readers might want to have a look at e.g. ditchwitch.co.uk for the kind of stuff that the Tracy family and their fans used to dream about.

      Even YouTube has a GeoRipper video, dated 2016.

      1. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

        Re: "new tech"

        The implication is that up until now, our high-tech Openreach engineers have been wandering around with a pick and shovel.

        Possibly true - we have one coming tomorrow to install fibre (FTTP) connection to our community shop & cafe. Problem is we've had fibre up and running for the last 12 months. But when I wanted to sort out a new package, the call-centre bod insisted that we only had copper ADSL installed, even though I could see the FTTP box, and we have a 70Mbps download speed. Basically 'computer says no'. So we had to order FTTP from scratch. Not too impressed!

        1. Ragarath

          Re: "new tech"

          Not to try and upset you but FTTC would get you the 70Mbps. FTTP will get you a lot more than that, are you sure you have a fibre into your premise as it sounds like VDSL to me?

        2. Roland6 Silver badge

          Re: "new tech"

          >the call-centre bod insisted that we only had copper ADSL installed ... Basically 'computer says no'. So we had to order FTTP from scratch. Not too impressed!

          Computer says no FTTP... In view of this, you did check (https://gigabitvoucher.culture.gov.uk/) whether you were eligible for a slice of monies to support the cost of new fibre connections, before you signed the order for FTTP?

      2. sbt Silver badge
        FAIL

        They might want to ask Google about micro-trenching

        Since this new technology's been unsuccessfully deployed in Google's US fibre deployments, leading to tripping hazards, cable breakage and angry government departments complaining about the damage.

        This stuff might be great for those difficult-to-reach areas but there's no way 9 out of 10 dentists will recommend BT. Or 9 out of 10 non-dentists, either.

        1. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

          Re: They might want to ask Google about micro-trenching

          eading to tripping hazards, cable breakage and angry government departments

          And (in England anyway) a very angry historic conservation public body asking why you've just cut through an archeological site that you didn't know existed (since you didn't bother to check).

          That's the problem with living somewhere where people have been living for 3000+ years. *Lots* of archeology in the ground..

      3. uro

        Re: "new tech"

        Shetland Islands Council invested £1.1m in 2011 to connect the islands to the Faroese SHEFA2 sub-sea fibre cable which lands on the islands and setup Shetland Telecom to manage it (https://www.shetlandtele.com/).

        SIC took these steps as BT Openreach and C&W were refusing to connect the islands to "superfast broadband" due to the costs & technical challenge of installing fibre over long distances, stating that their existing copper network ADSL combined with Micro-Wave link to Aberdeen on mainland Scotland was sufficient at the time.

        The main contractor Tulloch Developments used a Ditch Witch, one of the first in the country back in 2011, so it's only taken 8+ years for BT Openreach to discover "new tech".

        https://www.shetlandtimes.co.uk/2011/01/19/ditch-witch-carves-out-future-of-superfast-broadband-in-shetland

        There's a few videos from 2011 on Youtube of the ditchwitch in action in Shetland.

        Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) has been used in a number of industries as well as archaeology for well over a decade, heaven help BT Openreach if they ever need to be inventive and do anything in a hurry.

        Interestingly after SIC completed phase 1(connection from SHEFA2 in Sandwick to Lerwick) of the project and began phase 2 (connecting more parts of the islands to the fibre network) BT Openreach tried to lease capacity from SIC/Shetland Telecom.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          "BT Openreach tried to lease capacity"

          Sounds a bit like what happened in the B4RN area. BT initially decided is was not viable to upgrade the villages, farms and houses in the area as it would cost £10-20k per property. They put in planning applications shortly after B4RN connected the first few thousand for less than £750 each...

          1. Commswonk Silver badge

            Re: "BT Openreach tried to lease capacity"

            They put in planning applications shortly after B4RN connected the first few thousand for less than £750 each...

            To be fair B4RN is heavily reliant on volunteer effort, often from farmers with tractors and the like. Nothing whatsoever the matter with that, of course. Peoples' willingness to "muck in" and help provide their own broadband is a good measure of how much they really do want and / or need it. I cannot see how BT could ever compete on overall cost / price with B4RN or any like company.

            B4RN deserves to succeed if only because it readily provides easy to find telephone numbers and an easy to find email address for potential or actual customers to use; I had a look at its website yesterday and found it to be one of the most helpful and informative that I have ever seen. In fact it simply "deserves to succeed".

            Disclosure: I am not a B4RN customer

          2. Red Ted
            FAIL

            Re: "BT Openreach tried to lease capacity"

            Also like the early days of ADSL, when BT would declare it too expensive to upgrade an exchange, then community would get together and sort out some other sort of technology.

            Then having proved that there was a market for broadband in the area, BT would upgrade the exchange, undercut the local company and put them out of business.

  2. Augie
    Alert

    Its amazing what they can do when they put their minds to it... Of course I wouldn't trust them to find their own arses with a map, so expect someone will end up with a diamond tipped cutter up their arse after one of these takes a wrong turn.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      > Its amazing what they can do when they put their minds to it...

      Its amazing what they can do when they put their minds to it their snouts can sniff a public subsidy...

      FTFY

      1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

        Especially when they are afraid the competition might get some of it.

        1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

          In other news...

          First proper Starlink launch of 20 satellites on the 17th and three more launches this year.

          The USAF can now support 48 launches per year from Florida. 23 Starlink launches are scheduled for next year,

  3. macjules Silver badge

    The specialist kit is capable of installing 700 metres of cabling a day

    But always presuming that a) BT engineers know how to use it and b) BT Engineers are not sitting down drinking tea instead of operating the digger.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The specialist kit is capable of installing 700 metres of cabling a day

      You missed "we called, you were out, please reschedule..."

      1. WonkoTheSane Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Re: The specialist kit is capable of installing 700 metres of cabling a day

        "we called, you were out, please reschedule..."

        Despite the fact you spent all day staring out of the window, waiting for them to show up.

      2. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

        Re: The specialist kit is capable of installing 700 metres of cabling a day

        we called, you were out, please reschedule.

        To which our response is usually "well, we told you that that site didn't upen until 8am[1] - why the hell did you turn up at 7am?".

        Their response is usually "sorry, didn't see that in the notes".

        [1] And to make it worse, some sites don't open at all in the winter so, come spring, we get a rash of "no-one was using the broadband so we turned it off"..

    2. 080

      Re: The specialist kit is capable of installing 700 metres of cabling a day

      "But always presuming that a) BT engineers know how to use it and b) BT Engineers are not sitting down drinking tea instead of operating the digger."

      I doubt even BT would use "Engineers" to plant fibre

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The specialist kit is capable of installing 700 metres of cabling a day

        "I doubt even BT would use "Engineers" to plant fibre"

        I suspect they might just to avoid any HR issues with words like cowboys, monkeys or half-arsed clowns...

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: The specialist kit is capable of installing 700 metres of cabling a day

        Well, he did say "engineer", not "Engineer". :-p

    3. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

      Re: The specialist kit is capable of installing 700 metres of cabling a day

      BT engineers know how to use it

      The delays are usually in the planning stages - identifying land owners, gaining wayleave permits and the like. And (sometimes) checking to see if there are any protected historical sites where the trench is proposed to go..

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The specialist kit is capable of installing 700 metres of cabling a day

      Recently had to get a new line into a local church and the engineers involved couldn't have been any better. The one tasked with the job needed to change the route in and, as he didn't have one of the tools to complete the job, made a couple of phone calls and two other vans arrived shortly afterwards (on their way home after an early start) to help finish it.

      All I can add is that I've had nothing but good service from BT and Openreach in NE Scotland for teh past 40 years...

  4. zaax

    Les Cotton (a local ditching company) has been this doing for decades

  5. The Pi Man

    I’m having flashbacks of the complete mess that was left behind when Birmingham Cable destroyed the roads and pavements (and kilostream lines where I worked) many years ago....

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      re: flashbacks

      NTL (As was) came and dug up the streets around here and left a real dogs breakfast behind. Trip hazards were the order of the day with a hodge-podge of methods used to fill in the trench. They dug up the path outside my home yet somehow didn't put in the termination point so that I could get their service. I still get VM flyers telling me that my home is able to get their service and how much I can save (nothing on how much I can spend).

      I've even had them around to install said service. The team went away when they could not find the bit of cable to connect.

      I would not trust any of them to do a good job.

      Thankfully, my POTS connection is overhead so no digging up of driveways etc is needed.

      1. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

        Re: re: flashbacks

        I still get VM flyers telling me that my home

        Vermin Media recently cabled up my area of the street (our section of houses were not built until about 5 years after the rest of the the houses so the original cabling didn't cover us at all - but we still got VM sales weasels calling to try to sell us the service).

        They actually did a reasonable job of the install - put connector points near each house. However, having dealt with Vermin Media as part of my work duties, I would never, ever (unless they were the only option) use them for a home connection[1]. As I explained to the sales weasel who knocked on the door after the new cabling had been done. At some length. We haven't had a visit since so I suspect we've been put on the "don't bother to call" list.

        [1] I say 'home connection' - I have a business-class FTTC connection because I run SMTP & web servers off my server at home. So I'd have to go for VM-Business..

  6. Empire of the Pussycat
    Joke

    Has Johnson vowed to lay down in front of the spinning wheel of diamonds if the target is missed?

    If so, he can save time and do it right now.

    1. Kane Silver badge
      Joke

      Re:Has Johnson vowed to lay down in front of the spinning wheel of diamonds if the target is missed?

      Mr. Prosser: Have you any idea of how much damage that bulldozer would suffer if I just let it roll straight over you?

      Arthur Dent: How much?

      Mr. Prosser: None at all.

  7. NiceCuppaTea

    Contention ratios FTW!

    BT is also testing "remote nodes" – where fibre-optic cables can be built out from specially adapted existing green roadside cabinets. The specialised broadband-boosting equipment will enable it to "piggy-back" on the existing network.

    So right now the people at the existing green box enjoy a good ammount of bandwidth as the existing cabinet backhaul was sized for the area it was serving, i can almost see the meeting now....

    Bright spark beancounter : "Wouldnt it be cheaper to dig from that green box to the next one instead of laying a whole new cable".

    Tech :. "the customers on the existing box will suffer with additional contention for the available bandwidth".

    Lawyers : "We have a contention ratio built into our contracts, we only need to supply 1 20th of the speed we promised at peak times"

    Middle manglement : "SOLD!"

  8. Pangasinan Philippines
    Holmes

    Tomorrow's World

    I saw a cable machine like this many years ago on Tomorrow's World on BBC.

    Not exactly "cutting edge" technology then!

    1. Dwarf Silver badge

      Re: Tomorrow's World

      Perhaps they are talking about the sharp end of the tool being the "cutting edge"

      1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

        Re: Tomorrow's World

        Nope, they are cutting the trench at the edge of the road (or side walk).

  9. Wellyboot Silver badge

    >>>50,000 homes and businesses in villages and market towns including Scotland and Devon<<<

    Any correlation between the areas chosen and senior managements holiday homes?

    1. Yet Another Hierachial Anonynmous Coward

      Village and market towns

      That must be really confusing. Villages and Markets towns called Scotland and Devon. It would be so easy to get those village and markets towns mixed with the the country and county that already have those names.

    2. chuBb.

      Some probably, but more to do with trans atalantic and north sea cable drops i suspect, i.e. they already have huge fibre bundles to tap into so it would be a case of run a mile or 2 fibre to closest exchange which wouldnt other wise be economically viable to light up

  10. Luiz Abdala Bronze badge
    Coat

    It could be worse...

    People tried to build a metro in Athens. That Athens.

    Dig a hole large enough for a train in Roman Empire Athens, and guess what you will find.

    On the bright side, they hired every single Archeologist for miles to go ahead of the diggers and MTB's.

    There are no such things in Britain, is there? A few feet deep?

    Coat, because... archeologists use them?

    1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

      Re: It could be worse...

      Downvote because Athens as a large city state predates the Roman Empire by at least a millennium.

      1. Luiz Abdala Bronze badge
        Headmaster

        Re: It could be worse...

        Feel free to include a "included but not limited to" somewhere on that comment.

    2. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

      Re: It could be worse...

      Archeologist for miles to go ahead of the diggers and MTB's.There are no such things in Britain, is there?

      Yes - there are. Crossrail hired a hell of a lot of archeologists to do digs in advance of the digging works - which (in some cases) lead to a lengthy delay in the actual digging. *All* big projects that involve groundworks (especially those funded by public money to any degree) are required to do so - which is why the development of housing is also sometimes held up.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    An unpopular opinion

    As others have said, many of these techniques aren't new - I suspect a more accurate description of the trials is whether the trials prove these techniques can significantly alter the economics of rural installs.

    Having grown up on a farm, the challenge for rural folk at the time was electricity - most of the things we wanted to power weren't conveniently built next to roads and so required expensive trenches to get services to the right places. I suspect there are similar issues with fibre/copper installs, combined with direct paths being unsuitable if they cross land that will be cultivated regularly due to ducting moving in the ground due to moisture/temperature changes.

    So my unpopular opinion is... Is fibre the best way of serving these communities and is a target of 100Mbps more realistic? Covering ~95%+ of rural properties in 5 years will mean all but the most demanding of SME/home Internet requirements could be met. And likely serviced via 5G.

    The alternative is providing 1Gbps to a much smaller percentage of properties over a much longer time frame.

    Add-in the need for improved rural 4G+ coverage for ESN (lets face it, another £5bn on ESN is ONLY another ~55% cost increase...) and the increased karma from not giving more subsidies to BT via OpenReach and the world could be a better place.

    1. Ragarath

      Re: An unpopular opinion

      5G might work in the rural areas by why oh why is everything being ducted? There are lots of poles available.

      1. The Basis of everything is...
        Flame

        Re: An unpopular opinion

        Where I use to live, if the winter storms didn't blow the poles down. flying branches proved very effective at shredding the cables. And in the spring young squirrel nutkin and his mates used to really love chew on phone lines. Sometimes they'd chew on power lines too, but they only did that once...

        Needs an icon for crispy fried squirrel...

        1. SImon Hobson Silver badge

          Re: An unpopular opinion

          At a previous job, we had a rural customer - farmer, civils contractor, a few other things - who struggled to maintain a connection on ADSL at just 512k. And regularly the phone lines would all go down when a tree branch would take the overhead lines down.

          He got agreement from BT that they would bury the cables, but of course that task never reached far enough up their list to actually get done. Eventually he got fed up of waiting and asked BT "if I dig the trench, will you drop a cable in it ?" - and so (at least across his own land) the cable got buried and the number of outages reduced, a bit. But they still had an unreliable ADSL.

          So FTTP strung along the poles would work - but OpenRetch would have a lot of winter jobs repairing the fibres every time there was a bit of wind.

  12. SVV Silver badge

    Other technology the firm intends to use includes:

    * VoteBuyer : A new computerised mapping system, that can prioritise the areas where public investment will be most effective in harvesting Conservative votes.

    * ProfitPrivatiser : An accounting system, wherein the taxpayer funding gets automatically transformed into a continuous guarantee of large yearly private profits for BT shareholders

    * MonopolyExcuser : A public relations management system, necessary for trying to justify the above to slow witted fools who can be convinced that the above are some kind of free market economics in action.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Once again...

    The public are paying for an infrastructure upgrade for a private company who will then use this new infrastructure to sell services back to the public for profit

    1. Commswonk Silver badge

      Re: Once again...

      The public are paying for an infrastructure upgrade for a private company who will then use this new infrastructure to sell services back to the public for profit

      IIRC when local councils provided capital for BT to roll out FTTC in their areas part of the deal was that once the revenue stream got going BT was required to return at least some of the money to the councils that had originally supplied it.

      Takes a bit of the edge off your point...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Once again...

      When the "free market" doesn't work, you subsidise or regulate to address the issue. The argument then becomes how much you should interfere.

      Rural communities aren't getting satisfactory services compared to urban areas and are steadily falling further behind as newer technologies cannot use (due to distance) the historically subsidised copper network, so there is a clear argument for subsidies to offset the full cost of providing services to customers.

      And who can improve the services for those that the government wishes to subsidise? The government has already sold the utility that used to do this, so the options are to setup a new utility or purchase services from an existing utility company. As long as the process is transparent and can be shown to provide value (it's BT/Openwound so or very small values of good...), it is likely to be at least as good value as the alternatives.

      How would this work in your alternative universe?

  14. bmacd

    Power Lines

    What about using the existing power lines to carry the fibres? Technology has been around since 1982 https://www.aflglobal.com/Products/Fiber-Optic-Cable/Aerial/Skywrap/AccessWrap.aspx

    In my area of Sussex we had crap broadband but were all connected to overhead power.

    (Our 0.5-1Mbps BT line was a joke - ran on poles for a few hundred metres then across the forest floor and *over* a barbed wire fence - literally deployed by someone walking along with a reel! Was cut about twice a year by the local farmer.)

    1. IGotOut

      Re: Power Lines

      Additionally,as I've previously said, a huge amount of rural (a small towns) are serviced by phone lines strung over phone poles. Why noy just sling the fibre along these?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Power Lines

        At a guess, I suspect because the lifetime of many of the poles is limited as electricity companies come under pressure to bury cables rather than use "unsightly" poles.

      2. chuBb.

        Re: Power Lines

        Bale wagons, where i grew up come harvest time you could expect at least 3 outages measured in days after jefro and farmer giles decide to hurry up cider o'clock and just stick an extra layer of bales on the trailer then drive under the strung cables going down one lane, then a month or 2 later they are at it again ploughing through the burried cables

      3. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

        Re: Power Lines

        Ofcom already trying to force exactly this:

        https://www.ofcom.org.uk/about-ofcom/latest/media/media-releases/2019/further-ofcom-rules-to-support-fibre-investment

  15. CJatCTi

    Don't give the money to BT

    Round here GigaClear have been doing a great job connecting villages BT didn't want & I have 1000Mb/s connecton for £70

    They where doing without the extra cash, why give BT more cash when others do it for less £££

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Don't give the money to BT

      GigaClear do appear to be receiving government subsidies for installs:

      https://www.ispreview.co.uk/index.php/2019/03/no-gigaclear-deal-yet-but-devon-and-somerset-get-extension-to-2023.html

      They don't have the scale that OpenReach has for reaching a significant portion of the ~15% of properties in the next 10 years.

  16. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "700 metres of cabling a day – more than 20 times"

    And a similar ratio for hitting water, gas, drains and power. Maybe a bit higher for rival cable companies' stuff.

  17. DJO Silver badge

    Oh yea?

    Given the Conservative parties record for keeping finance promises, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for this to materialise.

    1. Mark192

      They'll pay

      Don't worry - they'll keep this promise as it's about giving money to a private company.

      I do wonder whether it'd be quicker & cheaper to wait for these new satellite services that promise to clog up the sky.

  18. g7rpo

    Amazing how they want to do more....as soon as a massive amount of investment is announced

    1. Roland6 Silver badge

      Openreach engineering are probably now able to buy and play with the 'toys' because the bean counters are sure someone else (ie. taxpayers via the government) will be paying for the capital investment, so are now approving spend.

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