Decommissioning copper and buying houses so rural customers can move closer to fibre networks are among the topics discussed at Gigabit Access.

Ambitious broadband coverage targets at both a national and European level means that telcos are under increasing pressure to make the economic case for rural Gigabit networks add up.

These sweeping coverage targets increasingly emphasise the importance of so-called ‘full fibre’ networks, despite evidence that there is no one-size-fits-all technology or deployment model.

The European Commission has set a target of providing 1-Gbps broadband to schools, hospitals and large businesses, and a minimum of 100-Mbps for all households – which need to be upgradeable to 1 Gbps – by 2025.

"This will obviously cost a lot of money," said Hervé Dupuy, acting head of the investment in high capacity networks unit at the European Commission’s DG Connect arm.

Indeed, an estimated €500 billion in total, he pointed out on day one of Total Telecom’s Gigabit Access conference in Brussels on Tuesday, adding that the funding gap is expected to be around €155 billion.

The investment case for fibre is still very challenging in sparsely-populated areas, even for telcos that have already undertaken widespread fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) deployments.

Take Luxembourg’s POST, for example, which has been rolling out fibre since 1997 and expects to pass 60% of the country’s premises with fibre by the end of this year.

In order to drive the take-up rate and, by extension, the return on investment, POST has begun switching off its copper network in some areas.

"We are beginning the first ‘forced migration’ to fibre," said the telco’s CEO, Claude Strasser, during a panel session.

Even so, POST still struggles to make the case for rural fibre deployment.

"Luxembourg is a small country, but there are still a lot of rural areas," he said, so "we only deploy fibre in areas where economically it makes sense."

Portugal Telecom is another operator that is pursuing an aggressive FTTH deployment; it is on track to pass 90% of the country’s 5.8 million homes as early as 2019, a year ahead of schedule. It is currently passing premises at a rate of 3,000 per day.

And yet, "we need to make sure we have alternative technologies – copper, fixed-wireless and LTE – to get to the most distant places," said PT’s chief technology officer Alexandre Fonseca, who suggested that when it comes to the most remote parts of the country, it would probably be cheaper to buy houses so customers can physically move closer to its fibre network, rather than bring the fibre to them.

For the record, Portugal Telecom is not moving rural-dwelling people to comfy new houses built nearer its fibre network. But Fonseca’s comment serves to highlight the ongoing economic challenge of deploying fibre to the final few percent of the population.

For some operators, particularly incumbents with big, old copper networks, a mixture of technologies remains for them the best way forward.

Belgium’s Proximus, much like BT in the U.K., has adopted a hybrid strategy, whereby fibre is gradually brought closer and closer to the end user, while the copper network is simultaneously upgraded to vectored VDSL.

Proximus faces a particularly difficult challenge when it comes to upgrading to fibre from copper, because its copper is buried directly in the ground, rather than installed in ducts.

"Every country is different," said Geert Standaert, CTO of Proximus. "Some countries are fully ducted; others are not.

"You have to make a business case that makes economic sense."

If telcos are to stand any chance of meeting targets like those set by the European Commission, regulators need to work more closely with the industry to identify and address pain points, said DG Connect’s Dupuy.

"We want to increase the predictability of this regulatory environment," he said.

The Commission’s Electronic Communications Code (ECC) aims to provide more regulatory certainty, Dupuy explained, by reducing regulation in some areas, levelling the playing field for telcos and online comms providers in others, and drawing up detailed maps of ‘digital exclusion areas’, where no operator or public body has deployed, or plans to deploy, broadband networks.

"Telecoms regulation used to be fairly autonomous. It now needs to align with the interests of various industry players," Dupuy said. "It’s no longer just business as usual."