Tuesday, 26th May 2020

How innovation is creating new ways to light up UK networks

By Simon Willmott, Service Providers Sector Director, SSE Enterprise Telecoms.

From the deployment of commercially viable 5G to full fibre for every home and business, promises are being made from all sides on what the future of UK connectivity holds. However, with delays and unanswered questions about the practicalities of this, the looming widespread deployment and adoption of better UK connectivity remains undecided. No single solution seems suitable for providing the full range of network access that businesses and consumers require as demand grows, and, as such, the need to look for alternative paths to help achieve connectivity goals is now greater than ever before.

Collaboration drives innovation

Network expansion is a complex challenge, so it comes as no surprise that no one solution will adequately tackle all of the connectivity challenges we’re facing today. Similarly, it can’t be left to any one single provider to shoulder the full burden of futureproofing connectivity. Instead, to enhance fibre access and improve network reach we all need to work collaboratively, with intelligent, co-developed network build outs that are aligned to both market needs and commercial objectives.

At SSE Enterprise Telecoms, we’re already putting this collaboration into action, working with likes of Three and O2; as well as the unbundling of almost 200 additional BT exchanges to boost connectivity for British businesses.

As times change it clearly makes sense to think more collaboratively about infrastructure access and sharing, with an open-minded approach to sharing space that balances commercialism with the actual objectives we’re all trying to achieve.

We also need regulators to be an active part of the future of connectivity conversation to help make this happen. That might mean working alongside infrastructure providers to roll fibre out to the entire country – including traditionally hard-to-access rural areas, where it can make a massive difference to health and social care provision. Or it might mean dealing with wayleaves, so it’s easier to install fibre and get things moving. At the moment, the regulator’s voice is missing and it is sorely needed.

Bringing a fresh eye to network expansion

It’s important that providers look at innovative ways to draw on existing infrastructure. A section of the European Commission’s Digital Single Market Directive on access to existing physical infrastructure recommends making use of all relevant and available physical infrastructure for the roll-out of communication networks to enhance efficiencies, minimise costs and accelerate the deployment of connectivity.

One example is SSE Enterprise Telecoms’ ‘fibre in the sewers’ initiative which enables the distribution of fibre optic cables throughout Thames Water’s waste water network.

Traditionally, telecoms networks have been created and expanded through civil construction ‘digs’, that involve laying cables just below the surface – a costly, time-intensive and disruptive way of establishing new connections. Using an already existing waste water system enables the reduction of network deployment costs by up to 60% and takes deployment of connectivity services down from months to weeks, or even sometimes, days versus traditional digs.

This kind of project can also establish a more physically secure network. Thames Water’s network sits as deep as 10 metres underground, making it much less susceptible to tampering or inadvertent outages, compared to conventional digs, in which telecommunications cable is laid as shallow as 12 inches below ground level.

Rail networks also provide intriguing potential for alternative network cabling. Whilst not benefiting from the deep underground security that comes from installing fibre in the sewers, rail networks are inherently less susceptible to interference and damage than street level cabling. They also follow direct routes between cities, reducing latency.

Similarly, using physical fixed infrastructure such as buildings and street furniture is also an opportunity to reduce costs and bring services closer to customers. From hosting equipment on water towers to utilising bus stops for near-field communications in city centres, the opportunities for innovative connectivity are endless.

Narrowing the focus

While the scale of the need is broad, the key to the success of expansion projects is a focus on strategic and targeted actions and outcomes. The age-old philosophy of ‘build it and they will come’ is far too risky for today’s market, as well as being out of sync of the immediacy of other connectivity objectives such as the planned roll out of 5G or the dawn of IoT in smart cities. To create the right solution, we have to look at specific connectivity challenges and partner with like-minded experts to solve them.

Last mile access will be key here, and I would certainly welcome a fresh look at this market, with specific attention paid to how local network expansion could encourage competition and eliminate industrial and commercial black holes. Put simply, we need to improve networks where it will matter, not just where it can be monetised.

New ideas to solve existing problems

The way Britain will solve its connectivity challenges is changing from what was once envisioned. Right now, our innovative thinking and new solutions are creating new ways to light up UK networks, offering better connectivity and value. And solutions are really what matters when it comes to connectivity.

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