The single most encouraging aspect of the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR) is the clear government commitment to the roll-out of a full fibre infrastructure and its readiness to back that focus with funding and regulation where necessary.

This should come as no surprise, given the economic benefits that are associated with access to fast communications networks.  

OFCOM research in 2018 suggested that the installation of broadband increases GDP by 0.3% per annum while a much-quoted report by the Analysis Group in the US suggested that communities with access to full fibre connectivity could enjoy a 1.1% uplift in GDP.  

Most recently, a Regeneris report commissioned by CityFibre considered a wide range of economic benefits for specific UK regions that would follow full fibre, suggesting even more significant gains.

When that expectation is coupled with the fact that less than 4% of UK premises currently benefit from full fibre provision, the logic behind the government’s enthusiasm is unarguable and it is great to see serious consideration being given to how fibre roll-out can be implemented.

The major drawback, of course, is cost.  The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport suggests that the investment required for a national roll out of full fibre will be in the region of £30 billion.  

That’s a difficult figure to swallow and my own view is that the focus for manufacturers has to be on developing solutions that minimise installation cost.  

One of the main challenges to cable installation is space.  Space costs money so it makes sense to focus R&D attention on miniaturisation.  At Prysmian, our solutions involve ever increasing fibre density: developing products to deliver the largest number of fibres in the same diameter of cable, providing maximum performance in minimum space.  

With individual fibres now just 200 microns, the product development goals are to produce the greatest fibre densities in the smallest cable diameter. As an example of how fast this miniaturization is progressing, we can now provide a 72f cable to fit within a microduct of 7/5.5mm2 and our engineers are confident that we will soon be able to place a 144f cable in the same space.

New products are emerging all the time and our most recent addition is our 6,912 fibre FlexRibbon, currently the highest fibre count within the industry and provided within a cable diameter small enough to fit into a 50.8mm duct. 

Not only does FlexRibbon provide high capacity but it also reduces installation time as all the constituent fibres can be spliced at the same time.  With a 12 fibre-cable that means one splicing process rather than 12. The time saving of this process, repeated continually throughout the installation is clear.

Speeding the installation of a fibre network means capitalising on infrastructure that is already in place and the FTIR considers a number of ways of achieving physical infrastructure access for fibre installations.  This seems not only sensible, but essential. Free access to ducts and poles (confirmed in an OFCOM announcement on 24 May) is part of the solution, but so is co-operation with other utilities to ensure access to all passive infrastructure.

The announcement of free access to BT ducts is welcome for network builders, but, to put this in context, we are looking typically at a void of around 25mm2 that will be available for rent.  The greater the capacity that can be achieved within this constraint, the better the return on investment. 

Minimising cost for the network builder means not only focusing on smaller cables but also developing the fastest, most efficient installation solutions.

Prysmian’s most recent answer, developed in the UK, is the Karona Overblow System which allows new fibre optic cable to be installed into pre-existing sub-ducted routes containing legacy cable, dramatically reducing both the time and cost of installation.

This particular solution, shortlisted in several categories in the 2019 Connected Britain Awards, was originally developed in response to a customer enquiry. It is a great example of the benefits of a flexible and responsive product development capability.  When we work closely with our customers we can develop products that start as bespoke solutions and can become adopted into the standard product offer. 

Flexibility and speed are essential if the UK is to get ahead, both with FTTH and 5G roll-out.  The Review gives a very clear target of 15 million premises connected to full fibre by 2025. It’s an ambitious programme, but one that is hugely significant for the country’s future.

Personally I would regard the universal application of full fibre as being as significant as the roll out of the electricity network in the 1920s or the telephone in the 1950s.  Prysmian played an integral part in both of those initiatives and we are proud to be contributing to the next.

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