Kerry Cunningham, clerk of works for the chief engineers, tests Openreach's new optical fibre connections with a lightmeter in the cathedral close, Salisbury. 06/02/2020 - Photograph by Sam Frost ©2020 - www.samfrostphotos.com
An Openreach engineer tests a new fibre connection close to the cathedral in Salisbury © Sam Frost/FT

Georges Genovese, a retired doctor in the city of Salisbury, spent years complaining to his broadband provider about a pitifully slow connection. The 77-year-old said he would rise at 5am to try to upload photos before the town woke up and slowed his connection to “zero point something”.

He said network congestion meant he never got the speeds he had been promised. “It has been a con trick for years,” adding: “I’ve been paying top dollar for something I couldn’t even get.”

Dr Genovese is one of the first 300 people in Salisbury to sign up to a new ultrafast, fibre-based network and it has had an immediate impact on his broadband experience. “This is better than Brexit,” he beamed. His broadband speeds are now in line with the vision of a “gigabit” speed the government wants as standard.

By the end of March, Salisbury will become the first city in the UK that BT has fully fitted out with a full-fibre network, bringing the number of homes and businesses nationwide with access to ultrafast broadband to 2.5m.

The cathedral city in the south-west of England was chosen by telecom group as the national test bed to figure out how Openreach, its networking division and by far the biggest broadband provider in the UK, could meet the government’s ambitious target of nationwide ultrafast broadband within five years. It has taken a year to link up the 22,000 properties.

Other companies, such as Virgin Media, the UK’s second largest broadband provider, are also involved in building out the latest generation networks. But the scale of Openreach, which owns and operates the UK’s telephone exchanges, means it will almost certainly have to take on the bulk of the work upgrading old copper lines in smaller towns, rural and semi-rural areas which cover almost 10m properties.

Dr Georges Genovese, a happy customer of Openreach's new fibre network in Salisbury. 06/02/2020 - Photograph by Sam Frost ©2020 - www.samfrostphotos.com
Georges Genovese said his new fibre broadband connection was "better than Brexit". © Sam Frost/FT

The government’s target to connect all properties in the UK is designed to address the usual approach taken by telecom companies when upgrading networks, which prioritise areas which offer the best returns or are relatively straightforward. 

Salisbury, which was chosen for the project as it is served by one exchange, has provided some valuable lessons for Openreach’s engineers. They found that some of the underground cabling ducts were made of asbestos and had to deal with cutting through 30 different types of paving and cobblestones.

One leg of the project that ran through a country estate had to be delayed until the shooting season had finished. The teams also had to track down absentee landlords and negotiate with others who demanded payment for access, when trying to upgrade apartment blocks.

It has also discovered that some of the grand building facades in Salisbury are not quite as robust as they look. Lisa Neal, head of Openreach’s network delivery in the west of the country, said her engineers were taking extra care when drilling into the front of historic buildings to attach equipment. “That wasn’t us,” she said pointing to a large hole in a wall near a security alarm.

The city’s famous 760-year-old cathedral is part of the upgrade. Openreach secured permission to work on the site this month but engineers must have an archaeologist present if they dig below 10 inches. Ian West, a technical manager with Openreach, is keen to avoid any delays. “The last thing we want to find is bones.”

The novichok attack in Salisbury in 2018 added a further layer of complexity. Workers had to be careful — and sometimes delay — opening manhole covers around the various locations in the city where the victims and assailants had been. But one engineer, speaking from a manhole not far from cathedral, said that the worst thing they ended up finding — apart from asbestos — was a “few spiders”.

Ian Blair-Pilling, a local councillor responsible for IT and digital, said after the novichok attack the fibre project had taken on added impetus. Not only had the use of a nerve agent hit tourism — the lifeblood of the city’s economy — but it had also had a secondary effect on local businesses.

The council has worked with BT to ease what Mr Blair-Pilling called the “bureaucratic nightmare” telecoms companies face when trying to build networks quickly.

Kerry Cunningham, clerk of works for the chief engineers, tests Openreach's new optical fibre connections with a lightmeter in the cathedral close, Salisbury. 06/02/2020 - Photograph by Sam Frost ©2020 - www.samfrostphotos.com
The city’s famous 760-year-old cathedral is part of the upgrade © Sam Frost/FT

“In the wake of the novichok attack this is a hugely important step,” he said. He hopes the fibre will help rejuvenate both local businesses but also tourism as it could be used for new features such as high-tech illuminations around the medieval city to highlight historic sites.

Alex Best, 36, a senior client manager at Innovate Product Design, agreed. His company uses 3D printing to develop zany consumer products but was forced to close an office in San Francisco as the poor broadband connection could not even support a Skype call. It has re-entered the US market since it got its fibre connection. 

He added that the business expected to benefit further as it would be able to access powerful cloud computing applications. “We won’t need the high processing power units which are extremely expensive,” he said. 

Openreach will now focus on dozens of new trials in towns of between 5,000 and 7,000 people, which counterintuitively could prove more of a challenge.

Dr Genovese has already moved on and is concerned about another form of congestion. With plans to build 860 new houses in the city, he is worried about increased traffic. “The roads are going to be the problem now, not the broadband.”

BT’s ‘Nokia Town’

The musty telephone exchange in Salisbury, located in the centre of town, is now home to some of the world’s most advanced telecoms equipment.

But it is not so much the capabilities of the equipment that matter as the manufacturer. Salisbury is in effect the first “Nokia Town” for BT as it stress tests the Finnish company’s new kit for the first time in its broadband fibre network.

Nokia is the biggest competitor to Huawei, the main supplier to BT following a breakthrough deal signed in 2005. That contract opened up the European market for Huawei.

But the UK government recently imposed a 35 per cent cap on the amount of Huawei equipment that can be used in both 5G and full fibre broadband networks, following concerns over national security, meaning BT is likely to have to use increasing amounts of Nokia equipment.

The cap poses a problem for BT as it has relied on Huawei in its initial buildout of the full fibre network. That is particularly the case in rural areas where any work to remove Huawei kit would raise the cost of the upgrade substantially. BT is looking at swamping the rest of the network with rivals’ kit to dilute the share of the Chinese company below the 35 per cent cap.

But in an effort not want to become beholden to Nokia, BT has also tendered for a third supplier for full fibre equipment. That opens the door for a US supplier to make inroads into the UK market; Adtran, Casa Systems and Dasan Zhone are all possible contenders.

Get alerts on UK Broadband when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article