The hidden challenges of moving to fibre

Fibre Network City

The advent of cost-effective fibre optics offers guaranteed reliability and security and a greater speed and distance of transmission. It has now replaced copper in every aspect of network distribution and reception. Both in terms of innovative cabling installations and upgrades and thanks to its increasing cost-effectiveness and improvements in connectivity, fibre optic cable has become one of the most popular and widespread options.

Traditional copper networks can provide speeds of up to 100 Mbps, but often inefficiently and at a higher cost, compounded by high energy consumption, higher error margins and local network length constraints which on average comprise only a few hundred metres of copper wires.

Copper carries high maintenance costs, with estimates suggesting two to seven times higher maintenance costs and three to six times higher energy costs than fibre.

Growing environmental awareness and a corresponding focus on reducing operators’ carbon footprint is another reason to phase out copper-based infrastructure.

As well as providing benefits to individual users, businesses and operators, the transition to very high bandwidths can also bring benefits across a wider spectrum within society, the economy and the environment. 

Fibre to the home/building (FTTH/B)-based networks emit 88% less greenhouse gas emissions per gigabit than other access technologies. In areas where FTTH has been widely deployed, significant benefits could be achieved by facilitating the switch-off of copper, including reduced CO2 emissions. Full FTTP deployment can have a positive impact on the employment rate (in Canada, 2.9%) and increase the number of start-ups (5% in France); it can support the take-up of digital home and other social services which in turn provide significant savings (WIK-Consult GmbH, 2020).

While the advent of fibre is an ongoing process and one that is generally embraced by operators, there are a number of more or less obvious issues that operators face. These include uncertainty over when to start shutting down the legacy network, how to manage the migration process (in order to deliver a more valuable outcome to the end customer) and the various stakeholders involved in the process.

First and foremost, the timing factor is determined by the various constraints under which the switch-off process must be managed.

In many markets, the incumbent has constraints to fulfil its obligations as a significant market player (SMP), which consist of providing fixed universal access services and regulated wholesale services based on its copper network. There is also often a scenario where the incumbent’s wholesale customers have also co-invested in the provision of legacy solutions, and are therefore unwilling to switch off their networks, which makes it even more complicated for operators to start the process of switching off the common legacy network. In many cases, there is a certain notice period that the incumbent has to give to its wholesale customers before it can switch off its networks, which is usually three years.

Obstacles in the migration process affect not only the sphere of planning and logistics, but also that of communication as there is also a high risk of customer churn, despite the prospect of being able to sell them a higher value product. This can occur firstly because some B2B customers have on-site equipment that is tightly coupled to the legacy copper infrastructure and their migration to alternative networks therefore involves synergistic action not only between the operator and the B2B customer, but also between the customer’s IT department and its suppliers.

There is a further logistical problem facing operators, namely that it is not always feasible or cost-effective to deploy fibre in rural areas. In such situations, alternative solutions involving the use of mobile technologies must be considered to provide viable alternatives to the end customer.

The main advantage of copper wiring is that it can carry energy and therefore a telephone connected to a copper line will continue to work in the event of a power failure, whereas fibre lines, although technically superior, will only work as long as there is a battery backup.

If your home phone works on fibre and wireless broadband technologies, you will not be able to make calls during a power failure or if your electricity has been disconnected.

Related to this concern, another challenge for operators is to be able to find an efficient way to identify and reach those customers labelled as ‘vulnerable’. Firstly it is very difficult to locate such people, as their circumstances and vulnerability status need to be established. To be considered a ‘vulnerable consumer’ one has to meet criteria such as:

– being particularly at risk of needing emergency services for health, safety or disability;

– relying on a home phone that uses a fibre, wireless or VoIP network to make calls;

– not having a mobile phone or other alternative means of making emergency calls in case of need.

With the transition from copper to fibre, a customer recognised as vulnerable would need to be registered by the operator and thus be provided with a way to call the emergency services in the event of a blackout (such as being equipped with a mobile phone or a battery backup device).

When it comes to the issue of switching to fibre, despite the many advantages of this particular network system over the old copper network, operators are still facing a spectrum of challenges that must be taken into account when delivering this change from which we will all ultimately benefit.

Source: Connected Germany presentation by Björn Capens, VP Europe for Fixed Networks, Nokia. April 5, 2022.

Showing the rollout of fibre in key countries in Europe.

By Martina De Pascale

References: WIK-Consult GmbH (2020). Copper switch-off. Germany: FTTH Council Europe. 28.

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