Openreach scales fiber broadband with automation, digital technology

Nov. 15, 2023
By leveraging software and automation solutions to organize its fiber builds, Openreach continues to expand its fiber broadband rollout across the UK.

Openreach, BT’s subsidiary that builds and runs the UK’s broadband network, has set an ambitious goal for its fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) build: bring fiber-based broadband to 25 million homes by Christmas in 2026 by leveraging new optical innovations and automated processes to plan network makes. 

Today, Openreach has built out fiber to 11.5 million locations in the UK. 

“The brilliant thing is that more than 30 percent of those premises have taken up the fiber product,” Colin Lees, CTO and Information Officer for Openreach, told attendees during the ECOC show in Glasgow. “This uptake is quite rare to get that level of adoption.”

Lees added that this “financial year we will fiber 10 percent of all premises in the UK and if anything we’ll get faster.”

Openreach has developed methods to connect 4 million homes annually and 30,000 a week. “Our fiber build is one of the largest infrastructure projects happening in the UK,” he said.

However, he noted that getting fiber broadband to all its customers remains a key challenge. “There will be mass conversion from copper to fiber,” Lees said. “The bit that’s interesting for the UK telecom industry is what do you with the last 20%.”

He added, "It’s super expensive to build fiber out to the last 20, 10, and 5% of locations in the UK, but ultimately, the country will swing from a copper infrastructure to a fiber infrastructure over the next ten years.” 

A digital focus 

Another critical element in meeting its fiber deployment goals is the ability of Openreach’s technicians to process work orders digitally. 

Lee’s workday starts very early every day. “My day starts at 5 AM,” he said. “At 5 AM, my software sends 40,000 people to their day's work.” 

Each of Openreach’s field technicians access work orders from an application on an iPhone. Every day, Openreach completes 40,000 provision and repair jobs in the UK.

This is a far cry from what he saw when he started working on driving Openreach’s fiber deployments. 

At that time, the company still relied on pencil and paper forms to process orders for provisioning new services and making repairs. 

When Lees first joined Openreach, he went into the field and spent time with an engineer who showed Lees how it would survey locations to deploy fiber services. Then, the engineer would get a paper pad and mark where he would extend the fiber from the exchange to the street. When it started raining, the engineer said they had to return to the office and start again. 

Lees immediately realized there needed to be an easier way to track fiber builds. “We aren’t going to be able to do 25 million premises using pen and paper,” he said. “We built our tablet-based solution that allows an engineer to hang a tablet around their neck, including a draft of what the build should look like. They can drag and drop the fiber design on their tablet instantly.”  

Lees touted how Openreach’s field technicians are equipped with tablet computers it built that can help its field technicians. “We have built our tablet-based solution that allows an engineer to hang a tablet on their neck, walk down the street, and they can drag and drop the design for the new fiber network, so it’s done instantaneously,” he said. 

Along with being able to get immediate access to each fiber design, Openreach needs also has to track where other existing utility lines are in the areas where it is building fiber. 

Each engineering team of 2-6 engineers is given the job of building various streets and is given a planning pack. This planning pack will show the location of a water main and existing power cables. 

“Water main and power cables have a job pack,” Lees said. “We produce 30,000 job packs weekly for our chief engineering group.” 

Why fiber? 

So, why did Openreach ultimately go to Fiber? The provider saw commercial opportunities by expanding its fiber-based network versus copper. 

Fiber is resonating in rural and city communities. In rural communities where the copper network capabilities are slower, the take up of fiber is higher. 

Over in the cities where the average speed is 56 Mbps and above, it’s about commercial incentives. “Openreach has developed programs in the cities that incentivize our customers to buy our fiber services everywhere available.” 

Openreach sees various technological and economic benefits from rolling out fiber. While a killer application for fiber broadband has not presented itself yet, Lees sees opportunities to build out low-latency networks.

One example is to run multiple streams in a home; a household needs bandwidth. “There’s no doubt that over time, there’s going to be an increasing need for bandwidth in the UK,” Lees said. “Eighty-three percent of people in the UK see broadband as essential to their day-to-day activity.” 

Moreover, a survey revealed that 90% of people prefer broadband over running water. 

While Openreach is progressing with its fiber build, the support to conduct wasn’t always there. 

In 2016, there was no intent to build fiber in the UK because there was no business case. “There was a better business case to build and run services over copper,” Lees said. “The regulatory framework in the UK that was in place did not encourage a business case to build fiber, but that changed in 2017.” 

He added that change in the regulatory regime “meant we were able to build a business case through BT Group and other investors, marking the beginning of the UK fiber build.” 

To get a 10-year payback from a fiber investment requires a different method and regulatory environment that ensures a provider like Openreach can get a return. 

Fiber scale realities 

After getting the regulatory element and business case in place, Openreach soon learned the realities of what it would take to scale a fiber deployment.

For one, Openreach realized quickly technicians could not splice fiber in the field. “It looks like it could be okay when the sun is shining, but I don’t know if anyone has tried to do a splice at the top of a cove in minus two-degree weather or when it’s windy or raining,” Lees said. 

During the initial build, Openreach would study how to create connectors. It also had to consider suitable algorithms to direct the right field engineers to the right places to build fiber. 

“We had to understand the right balance between build and provision,” Lees said. 

There are three parts to consider when building a fiber network: how to access each premise and balancing rural and city builds. 

How to access the premises was an extensive discussion during the early days of the fiber deployment. Openreach had to figure out whether to leave the fiber on the existing utility pole, take it to the side of the house, or how close they needed to get. 

To scale the fiber network, the goal was to build it equally throughout the country. It also had to try to balance the city buildings with those in rural areas.

Lees said that cities and rural areas vary. “Whenever you build fiber into a city, they all look pretty much the same: there’s a lot of poles and underground ducts that can be reused,” Lees said. “When you’re building fiber in the countryside, it’s much more challenging because every hamlet is different.” 

Openreach approaches its fiber expansion effort by implementing two build teams: one for the city and one for the rural markets. 

For the cities, Openreach outsources the work to its subcontractor partners. And in the rural areas, Openreach keeps everything in-house. “The way we think about the fiber build-out is that it costs 300-500 pounds a premise,” Lees said. “Every time we can save money, it is another premise we can pass with fiber.” 

Overcoming challenges 

But even with all the incentives with fiber services, getting fiber from the pole or duct into the home is still challenging. “Provisioning fiber means getting it from wherever our build teams have left it and getting into the house,” Lees said. “It can sometimes become a mini engineering project.”  

He added that the more expensive the house, the harder it is to deliver fiber. “The driveways are often longer,” Lees said. “We need to understand how we can do that in a three-hour window and what tools might be used to dig up a garden neatly to put the fiber underneath it.” 

So far, Openreach is making progress. In early October, the provider connected 32,000 customers in one week. The company can scale to 4 million a year. “We’re now at the point where we have scaled our build and provisioning engines,” Lees said. “Fiber is coming to the UK at pace.” 

Smart speed tests

Once the fiber is installed in the home, the next challenge is dealing with consumer devices and speed expectations.  

Lees said the disconnect between the speed it delivers over the network and what is in the home is analogous to consumers' issues during the early days of electricity. 

“When I visited Ulster foot park in North Ireland, which is a museum depicting circa 1900, there was an article in the newspaper at that time that had an ad from an electricity company that said your lightbulb is broken and our electricity is fine,” he said. “We have that today.”

Openreach delivers 1 Gbps and will soon provide 2.5 Gbps services over the fiber network. However, the devices and Wi-Fi connections in the home mean that the actual speeds consumers get in their homes can vary. 

“Often, consumers’ usage of the speeds we offer is restricted by Wi-Fi, the PC, or whatever devices they have in their hand,” Lees said. “One of the challenges for our industry is whether the fault lies in the fiber access network or the home.” 

To help get a better handle on consumer speeds, Openreach has introduced a new speed test that allows it to isolate the internet connection to the ONT in the home so we can test the rate in the network. This will enable it to test the speed of the Openreach segment of the network. 

“Our program allows us to tell our customers that the problem is with the Wi-Fi in the home,” Lees said. “This will remain a challenge.”  

New operational innovations

While Openreach is progressing with expanding its fiber network, the provider continues to look at ways to make its operations more efficient. It has adopted Google Cloud services, giving it a more real-time look at all its business. 

“Google Cloud allows Openreach’s team to see its entire business,” Lees said. “I am not only looking at a set of dashboards in front of me, which is transformative for all businesses, especially those where it matters that are heavy operational businesses.” 

Additionally, Openreach has invested in Apple applications. “We chose Apple iPhone applications for our engineers because they have the best interfaces for multi-generational workforces,” Lees said. “As they complete a repair for a customer, we guide them on how to do it.”