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BT Openreach must look beyond fibre to satiate UK appetite for broadband

BT has been thrust into the spotlight this year, when faced with increasing pressure from politicians and the industry to divest its broadband infrastructure division.

Its competitors claim BT Openreach provides the UK incumbent with an unfair advantage and that it hasn’t been investing enough to ensure the quality of its service its business and consumer customers need. This came to a head earlier this summer, as Ofcom ruled Openreach must function as a ‘distinct company’ within the BT Group.

The aim of this is to give the company more control over its future investment and direction, but the question is; what strategy should Openreach adopt to meet the UK’s growing demand for ubiquitous superfast broadband? Looking at the current broadband infrastructure in the UK, it is clear that new approaches are needed to support the internet applications of today and the data rich services of tomorrow. The DSL (cable) foundations underpinning much of the UK’s broadband network simply cannot deliver the performance consumers need.

Fibre is often touted as the answer to bolstering the UK’s broadband infrastructure however, delivering this network is not without challenges. Laying fibre-optic cabling is both an expensive and hugely disruptive task, particularly in dense urban areas. With the logistics of digging trenches and at three times the cost of its copper counterpart, fibre roll-out is taking far longer than anticipated and leaving many areas lagging behind when it comes to connectivity.

Caught between a rock and a hard place

With DSL unable to perform, and the cost and disruption that goes hand in hand with fibre, Openreach has an uphill battle to deliver the high-performance network it is under pressure to produce. However, to overcome the challenges it faces, Openreach must look beyond existing technologies, to innovative approaches that will enable it to profitably deliver a sustainable broadband network.

A new method for high-speed, cost effective expansion of fast broadband is required to bridge the gap between expensive fibre and low performance copper. It must have the scale, speeds and capacity to meet the ever growing appetite for data, and offer the reliability that people expect from a next generation broadband service.

Why wireless

Openreach needs only to look across the pond to the U.S. to new market entrants such as Google and Facebook, who are turning to fibre alternatives in the form of fixed wireless. The technology offers the equivalent speeds and reliability of fibre broadband connectivity in any environment. It offers an alternative way to significantly improve infrastructure in a short space of time.  

Fixed wireless involves using small outdoor Access Points (AP) to allow the delivery of high-speed broadband to dozens of subscribers in a densely populated area. These AP sites can be connected directly to fibre or instead use wireless point-to-point connections to access fibre nearby. The result is a network that is versatile enough to deliver quality broadband both in hard-to-reach rural locations where fibre ends, and urban areas where delivering connectivity to each consumer is both logistically difficult.

The technology also alleviates the disruption of digging trenches for fibre and the associated cost, which has traditionally been one of the main barriers to deployment. This is music to the ears of ISPs, such as Openreach, that need to radically upgrade huge areas of their networks.

The key to nationwide connectivity

There is no doubt that investment in fibre will be a significant focus of Openreach’s infrastructure upgrade strategy over the next few years. However to truly build the broadband network the UK needs, it must look beyond traditional cabled options to ensure its new and improved infrastructure is fit for purpose. Innovations in fixed wireless broadband have come along at just the right time, and may be the answer to allowing Openreach to deliver a scalable, cost-effective solution for the last mile of connectivity.

It will then be able to support the ever increasing number of data-thirsty internet applications demanded by UK consumers.

Jaime Fink, Chief Product Officer and Co-founder of Mimosa Networks

Image Credit: Elliott Brown / Flickr