Indigo: overcoming the challenges of fibre rollouts
Investment houses are actively demonstrating their confidence in fibre. Governments are committing to urban and rural rollouts as part of the EU’s European Gigabit Society objectives on connectivity. You could be forgiven for the thinking that we are in the middle of a simple transition to super-fast networks with capacity to spare.
But it is not always that easy. The integral value of ubiquitous ‘full fibre’ access has had some very positive socioeconomic benefits across a great number of countries since COVID broke and lockdowns began, not only for those working remotely but for those living in and enjoying rural life and being able to remain living there because they are now having connectivity.
The direct appeal to investors is obvious – fibre is expensive to deploy but once in the ground the value quickly rises. Essentially it’s glass, which means it costs less to maintain than copper, ticks increasingly important ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) criteria, and promises a huge payback over an extended period of time. You could even call it future proof. Full fibre access as a strategic infrastructure investment and utility is forming and even strengthening public policy across Europe.
But there are a couple of challenges that need to be factored in. Investors and independent alternative network (AltNet) operators need to be aware of two things:
1. A skills deficit when it comes to deploying fibre.
2. Its nuanced relationship with 5G, another network technology that’s getting people very excited.
Growing a talent pipeline
Appointing people with the expertise to design and build fibre networks can be more difficult than you might think. AltNet operators might be shocked to discover that higher education institutions are behind the curve, that the engineering talent pipeline is not there. Unlike other engineering disciplines, such as structural, mechanical or electrical, you can’t actually complete a degree course in fibre engineering in the UK or Ireland – which is surprising when you consider the amount of investment it’s attracting.
We recognised that the lack of fibre design and build courses created a need that we had to address. When it became clear that the talent pool was near empty, we set about creating our own. In the last three years, we have put enormous resources into the development of in-house training. We expected and planned for a busy time as fibre rollout began and we were pleasantly surprised at how much work and how quickly it would come out.
Wireless and fibre considerations
The next iteration of mobile networks presents more than a skills challenge and AltNet operators need to understand the role 5G will play in meeting the bandwidth needs of consumers and businesses. The first thing to be clear about is that wireless and fibre are not in competition, they are complementary.
We design networks for both wireless/5G and fibre and take the fact they complement each other for granted. But for the wider world it seems that an education job still needs to be done.
Where one wins over the other as the primary means of access should always depend on the business case and backhaul considerations. Finance houses and AltNet providers need to make themselves familiar with both technologies or risk a rollout based on a bad business case. You have to weigh up performance versus cost and capacity requirements and the part that design and engineering play in the network build. Investors are clambering across each other to obtain fibre assets across Europe. Most are infrastructure and pension funds given the non- precarious nature of these investments and their proven ROI.
There are pros and cons for each: customers get a level of comfort from fibre in a way that they don’t with wireless because it’s a tangible piece of technology that offers more network throughput. The downside is that it might also involve invasive digging and reinstatement works as well as complicated planning and council permissions. All of this ramps up the cost.
The long-term value of putting fibre in the ground might be lost if a mobile operator reaches the same rural destination with 5G for a fraction of the investment. Wireless technologies can be deployed much faster and next-generation mobile networks will be able to carry much larger data packets than they did in the past. So if the challenge is to deliver broadband to a rural village, a 5G or microwave deployment is likely to be easier and more cost-effective than fibre to the home.
AltNet companies building businesses around fibre need to be aware that achieving a return on investment involves more that securing a contract with a local authority. Skills shortage and the role of 5G have to be factored into the plans. Then there is the challenge of turning a fibre network design into a well-executed build that comes in on budget. But that’s another story…
Connectivity: Going Above and Beyond (the Atmosphere)
One of the key lessons taught to us by the pandemic is that, not only will universal, resilient, high-speed connectivity be an essential building block of the next decade, but right now, digital infrastructure is still a ways away from meeting those needs.
This is the digital divide. The idea refers to a growing gap between the underprivileged members of society (like the poor, rural, elderly, and handicapped portion of the population) who live without access to computers or the internet, and the wealthy, middle-class, and young people living in urban and suburban areas who have access to and can afford it.
Around the world, the digital divide between affluent, urban, digitally served communities and remote, marginalised ones is threatening to get bigger as carriers focus their 5G (and 4G LTE) efforts on delivering faster service to more populous markets. In many ways, it’s another reflection of the income and wealth equality that persists throughout multiple regions. However, if the world is going to pivot in the direction of a post-COVID-19 world where people can, and likely will, work from home, these disparities need to be addressed, before the benefits of the “new normal” become just another indicator of socio-economic and racial injustice.
Avanti: Breaking the Technical Barriers
UK-based communications firm Avanti may present at least a piece of the puzzle when it comes to solving rural connectivity issues. Founded in 2002, Avanti has spent the past 19 years growing into one of the global leaders in the race to deliver high-speed, universal telecom coverage from space. The company’s vision has been to design, build and launch a network of satellites that augment terrestrial telecom connectivity, broadening the reach of existing networks and bringing new generation tech (like 5G) to more people that was previously possible.
During the pandemic, Avanti CEO Kyle Whitehill notes that, “there has been a push to ensure satellite communications have a well-defined role in 5G networks,” adding, “there is no doubt that 2020 was a challenging year for many. The past year has taught us that it’s important for the satellite communications sector to be flexible and adaptable, and now, more than ever, come together to connect those in rural and remote regions, keeping lines of communication open for government bodies and medical professionals in times of crisis.”
In the UK, Avanti partnered with mobile operator EE (and fellow satellite communications company Gilat Satellite Networks) to develop a secondary network across the country to better support the needs of medical personnel and first responders. The leading role that satellite communications played in setting up this Emergency Services Network (ESN) could point the way forward for the role the technology could have in powering more resilient connectivity in rural and remote areas.
Beyond the UK, Avanti has been leveraging its technology across Africa in order to better support rural communities for whom internet connectivity has gone from a luxury to a non-negotiable necessity during the past year.
Supporting Vulnerable Communities From Above
In a world where, according to Avanti’s group director of HR, Debbie Mavis, we can expect to see people travel less for work throughout all parts of the world, delivering stable internet connectivity wherever and whenever people need it is going to be crucial.
“There are many ongoing projects that we are honoured to be a part of, and it is our aim to connect communities in areas where they don’t have access to good connection. We work directly with SINA (Social Innovation Academy) to provide refugees and host communities in Uganda with solar powered satellite broadband connectivity. This directly supports access to information, humanitarian and livelihood services within refugee settlements. The solution designed will also be installed into seven other sites across Ugandan Refugee settlements,” she explains.
“Looking ahead at the shift we are seeing in people travelling less for work in all parts of the world, it’s important to be able to provide high stable connectivity in remote regions. Our collaboration with SINA (Social Innovation Academy) will see high-speed internet access introduced across some of the most remote areas of East Africa, enabling refugees to access tools to increase self-reliance and rebuild livelihoods, in addition to reconnecting people with their loved ones online.”
“In spite of the challenges thrown up by COVID-19, we have achieved some great outcomes in connecting rural locations,” says Eva Court, Avanti’s director of carriers for EMEA. “We are working with the largest Mobile Networks Operators across Middle East and Africa, supporting them to expand their networks to reach rural communities across sub-Saharan Africa. We are doing this by providing VSAT connections as part of a turnkey solution, across 2G, 3G and 4G (LTE) enabled sites in rural areas.”
Court adds that the project is bringing connectivity to several locations which, “have never before been connected to the rest of the world in this way, ensuring inclusiveness of local communities.”
Based on these projects, Whitehill believes that satellite can provide a huge leg up to mobile operators looking to expand both 5G and 4G LTE services into rural areas where terrestrial infrastructure is lacking. “There are a number of key and immediate roles that satellite can play in the 5G ecosystem to help in the shift towards remote working,” he says. “These include, providing backhaul connections to remote and rural locations, as well as providing 5G services direct to homes and small businesses.”