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…
Digital transformation stumbles at the UK North-South divide
Since the dawn of Thatcherite Britain in the 1980’s, the division between the country’s North and South has grown into a social and economic gulf. Through the concerted efforts of Tory governance - and compounded by the neoliberal policies of the Blaire era - London has become the economic, cultural and social heart of the UK, much to the detriment of other industrial and population hubs, particularly in the North of England and Scotland.
In his 2014 essay, Thatcher’s Legacy Still Looms Large: The North-South divide in Britain’s electoral support, Ed Fieldhouse, the principal investigator of the British Election Study, and a professor at the University of Manchester, noted that during the economic turmoil of the 1970s and the deep recession of the early 1980s, “the North of Britain was hardest hit by economic restructuring and deindustrialisation.”
He adds: “The Conservative Party under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher became associated with neo-Liberal economic policies that many regarded as the solution to Britain’s economic problems. Others saw them as legitimising the mass unemployment of the era. Not surprisingly those favouring market based approaches were disproportionately likely to live in the South of Britain whilst the rest of the country favoured redistribution and government intervention.” Those policies, which spurred economic growth in the South (particularly in London), and stemmed it in the rest of the country, continue to shape the UK’s socio-political and economic makeup today.
Now, new research from Pulsant suggests that the UK’s North-South divide is extending into the age of digital transformation as well, something that could have dire consequences for the future of the nation as it makes its way into a post-Brexit future on one withered, shaky leg.
According to Pulsant’s survey of business and IT leaders throughout the UK, 61% of organisations in the South East and London say their location is advantageous to their digital transformation ambitions compared to just 41% in the rest of England.
“There is a clear regional divide emerging across the country as organisations strive for digital agility. The South East has better access to infrastructure, leadership and skills to drive change,” commented Pulsant CTO Simon Michie on Wednesday.
While digital transformation is recognised as essential to organisations on both sides of the divide (with 75% in the North saying transformation is ‘very important’ compared to 71% in the South) enterprises in the North of England say that a lack of specialist skills caused by the mass migration of talent to London is a huge barrier to success. “Lack of specialist skills is cited as the biggest barrier to digital transformation with 40% in the region saying this is the case. The majority in the North (69%) say location is a barrier to accessing talent compared to 51% in the South. Just under half (49%) in the North say they require niche skill sets that are not currently available, compared to just 35% in the South,” notes the report.
However, Michie also revealed that the North “has the biggest appetite for digital transformation which has been spurred on by the pandemic, but businesses in the region are struggling to keep up with the rest of the country. Various barriers are putting transformation efforts at risk and businesses in the region will need to focus on identifying where external skills, support and expertise are required to help them future-proof and reach their digital potential.”