Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Are streamlined installation processes key to the UK’s residential superfast broadband rollout?

posted by Paul Churm, Telecommunications Specialist at REHAU
Monday 21 June 21

Beginning in March 2020, COVID-19-enforced working from home arrangements have placed the country’s copper-based broadband infrastructure under enormous strain. Yet, with hybridised home-and-office working arrangements likely to stay post-pandemic, this data demand will only increase.

Consequently, the need for new innovations allowing quicker rollout is paramount, say Paul Churm, Telecommunications Specialist at REHAU. Extremely fast internet speeds are now a must for productive work. This, combined with statistics released by the Office of National Statistics last year stating 46.6% of people in employment worked from home in some capacity, has put the spotlight is on home connections. The spotlight won’t go away either – according to a recent BBC survey of the UK’s 50 biggest employers, 43 said they are not planning for staff to return to the office full-time post-pandemic. The hybridisation of working arrangements is clearly here to stay, and we must adapt accordingly. Smart homes Such a statement is highly impactful in a country where only 15% are currently connected to superfast fibre-optic broadband. The growing uptake of data-hungry smart technologies to our homes creates an even more urgent situation…

Consequently, the need for new innovations allowing quicker rollout is paramount, say Paul Churm, Telecommunications Specialist at REHAU.

Extremely fast internet speeds are now a must for productive work. This, combined with statistics released by the Office of National Statistics last year stating 46.6% of people in employment worked from home in some capacity, has put the spotlight is on home connections.

The spotlight won’t go away either – according to a recent BBC survey of the UK’s 50 biggest employers, 43 said they are not planning for staff to return to the office full-time post-pandemic. The hybridisation of working arrangements is clearly here to stay, and we must adapt accordingly.

Smart homes

Such a statement is highly impactful in a country where only 15% are currently connected to superfast fibre-optic broadband. The growing uptake of data-hungry smart technologies to our homes creates an even more urgent situation. 

According to Market Watch, the worldwide smart home device sector is skyrocket from $55billion in 2016 to $174 billion by 2025, with the UK’s own smart home market – worth over £900 million in 2017 – also expanding accordingly. Innovation means this figure will have increased since the report’s publication, and shall continue to as newer technologies are adopted in households.

Clearly, issues like these present major challenges to the UK’s mainly copper-based broadband infrastructure, which was set up for older challenges like landline phones and cable television – not high-speed internet.

Homes missing out

An Ipsos MORI report into the Government’s Superfast Broadband Programme from February 2021 complicates the situation further. It found that though 96 percent of UK homes can access superfast broadband, a previous Ofcom report calculated that 11 million compatible households are not connected to superfast broadband. 

This is despite the Government’s ‘Project Gigabit’ promising gigabit-capable connections to all UK homes by 2025. Consequently, a gap between promises and reality must be bridged, and it is through innovative connection technologies that this can be made possible.

Solutions do currently exist that can make this possible, but many have drawbacks. For example, multimedia over coax (MoCA), which uses copper wiring surrounded by a concentric conducting shield and insulation, can transmit larger data packets to homes more quickly than a thinner standard copper wire. It can be more easily implemented, as ISPs are utilising cable previously laid for cable television to enable high-speed internet instead.

With the latest MoCA technology, MoCA 2.5, able to support speeds up to 2.5Gb/s, the technology can seem attractive. Yet the copper used is not futureproofed against rising data usage by UK homeowners, and the fact BT Openreach is planning to retire its copper network by 2025.

A wireless way?

Hard-to-reach homes can also achieve high-speed internet through fixed wireless access (FWA) technology. This solution uses radio frequency links at two points – a wireless radio tower linked to the country’s wider broadband infrastructure via backhauling technology, and the home. Known as a wireless local loop, this arrangement provides connectivity and eliminates installation concerns around the ‘last mile’ of cabling required to connect homes.

However, FWA can suffer from futureproofing and performance issues, as the backhauling technology used to connect to wireless radio towers is often copper-based. This material, also used in coax cabling, can be affected by heavy rainfall, which in turn can lead to attenuation – a loss of signal strength.

As well as this, severe disruption can occur during electrical storms and power grid fluctuations, which can impair the FWA’s routing and forwarding functions. If affected, connections can drop out and leave homes unable to access the internet.

Fibre optic solutions

By using easy-to-install polymer micro ducts with fibre-optic broadband technology, signal-based issues like attenuation can be avoided. As the most high-speed option for homeowners, this ‘fibre-to-the-home’ (FTTH) technology is well-placed to handle the modern household’s growing data transfer demands. 

To achieve FTTH connectivity, cabling is ‘blown in or pushed’ from the nearby toby box into the residence using high-speed compressed air travelling along micro ducts. This cable is ‘caught’ in the home and linked up to the UK’s broadband infrastructure. Though a logistically simple process on paper, multiple obstacles make this connection process more difficult. 

For example, two technicians are traditionally needed – one in the home, the other at the toby box. Consequently, connecting multiple occupied homes to this distribution point can lead to organisational issues coordinating varying occupant schedules alongside the installers’ own. In turn, this can result in connections work becoming staggered and overly long. 

A country-wide shortage of skilled fibre technicians makes such delays worse, as personnel are kept on-site for longer. Considering the Government’s ‘Project Gigabit’ targets, it is clear this issue is holding up the nation-wide broadband rollout.

EasyConnect

Consequently, suppliers like REHAU are exploring possibilities around internally or externally-mounted connection boxes to streamline the connection process. If a box could ‘catch’ a cable as it enters the property, two installers are no longer required. Instead, one could quickly blow cables into multiple homes simultaneously, resulting in easier scheduling with homeowners. 

This efficient approach means the other installer could be re-deployed to other areas requiring connections, making hitting nation-wide Project Gigabit targets easier.  Solutions like REHAU’s new EasyConnect box, which was designed with a house connection micro duct that is automatically sealed, water and gas-tight up to 0.5 bars of pressure, allow such benefits to be realised in a one-visit, one-technician approach. 

If a cable box has been fitted during a home’s initial construction, this ‘blowing-in’ process is further streamlined. With the solution in place, only a few cabling holes need to be drilled, providing the homeowner with high-speed broadband within a few hours. 

Such ease-of-connection is a major selling point to homebuyers, with housebuilders like Barratt Homes including ducting to the doorstep as on their new residential properties as standard. Similarly, landlords of multi-dwelling units like student accommodation can promote fibre-optic broadband access to potential occupants, at a rent reflecting this convenience. This combination of simplicity and benefits means it is easier to obtain a wayleave agreement for work on private residential properties.

In conclusion, if the country is to hit its ambitious gigabit targets, and alleviate pressure on existing copper infrastructure caused by growing smart technology use and WFH arrangements, innovation is required. Specifically, new solutions such as the EasyConnect will be required to streamline the installation process and increase uptake of high-speed technologies.

For more information on fibre broadband and REHAU’s new EasyConnect system, visit: www.rehau.uk/telecommunication

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