This is part of a series of arguments I’m making for Guernsey to take the plunge and invest in all-island fibre broadband. I’m currently working with JT on their market test of small extensions to their existing fibre network to evaluate the viability of connecting some people to fibre with only private sector funds, but ultimately I’d like to see our government following examples elsewhere and investing in public/private fibre infrastructure across the whole island. My previous articles on this can be found here: Guernsey broadband should aim to lead, Guernsey’s digital strategy update: my view, Discussing fibre to the home with JT.
In this article I’m going to discuss why we should be looking at fibre at all, and why we should be doing it sooner rather than later.
It costs a lot of money to install a new landline to everyone’s homes, and causes a fair amount of disruption while you’re doing it. There are options that can sometimes reduce this such as micro trenching and using existing pipes (shared ducting, sewers, even water pipes), but it’s never going to be cheap or easy. So why would you do it?
Firstly, in 10 years we’re going to need considerably faster internet speeds available to the general public than we have today. This is simply basic math - broadband was introduced in Guernsey around 2001, at which point we had download speeds of 512Kb/s. Shortly before that we were operating on 56Kb/s dial-up. Today, 5Mb/s – what I’m currently getting at Cobo – is considered a pretty crappy internet speed (it’ll just about work for Netflix but it’s not fun). So in not much more than 10 years, expected Internet speeds have increased by at least 100x. There is little reason to believe that that trend will not continue as devices get ever more powerful and expectations climb ever higher. So what technology can deliver a 100x improvement in speed in the next 10-15 years? There is only one – fibre.
Why not ‘fast’ copper?
What about VDSL and future technology that makes better use of the existing copper network? Truth is that the faster these get, the worse the degradation due to distance, meaning you have to install more and more cabinets to be within the required distance of a property. Each of these cabinets needs equipment in it to convert from the fibre backbone to copper. If this was an easy fix, in a tiny island like Guernsey we’d all have good VDSL access by now, but we don’t. South St Peter Port is a black spot, as is a large chunk of the west coast – I’m sure there are more, but these are the 2 I’ve had personal experience of. And even if the cabinet rollout had reached everyone, the average practical 20-25Mbs download / 5Mbps upload you can expect from it is only adequate today. It’s not going to cut it in 5 years, never mind 10-15. Those copper lines are just not good enough.
Why not wireless (4G+)?
Why not just use modern wireless tech like 4G and beyond and forget the physical network? Mostly because wireless just can’t keep up with a fibre connection. As impressive as 4G is compared to 3G, practical speeds are usually about 1/3rd of the maximum advertised because of interference and distance, and contention is an issue because ultimately you’re sharing a tower with lots of people. If you started to connect people to 4G in their homes as well as their mobiles, it would work well for a while, but eventually it’s just not going to be able to keep up with the demand – there are a finite number of towers (and planning / people are against building more of them in general) and while the network can cope with fast access to mobile phones, can it really cope at 8pm on a Saturday evening when a ton of people are streaming HD movies to their homes all at once? I don’t think so. Each wireless generation gets better, but they’re all limited by this issue – I think if you double-down on mobile as your primary network you’re just going to find yourself back in the same position again a few years down the track, with people complaining that their connections just can’t keep up with expectations (as even sleepy Cornwall has 95% fibre coverage).
What’s so great about fibre?
Scalability. Once it’s in the road, it’s going to serve you for at least 20 years, and probably far longer. Even with today’s technology it’s capable of a symmetric 1Gb/s (upload and download) – the only thing limiting that right now is data costs, not the tech itself. But more than that, we haven’t even hit the limits of what you can do by shining lasers down glass fibre yet; as tech changes you can put different equipment on either end of those connections and get more out of it. You might not think we need that, but then many people didn’t think they needed broadband over dial-up until they had it, and history is littered with people making predictions about future tech requirements being modest and getting it spectacularly wrong. Fibre is truly an investment in the future: it’s better than anything else can offer right now, and doesn’t hit the same brick walls in the future that the alternatives do. Everything else is a short-term band aid, IMHO.
Why do it now and not later?
So assuming we accept that fibre is better than the alternatives, why should we do it now? Couldn’t we just use the cheaper alternatives for a few more years instead, since they’re likely to be at least adequate for a little while?
Sure, the alternatives (VDSL if actually finished, 4G) will be adequate for a little while, max 5 years realistically. You could put off fibre investment for that time and, although we wouldn’t be competitive with other places – even a similar island only a few miles away – we’d manage. Nothing to write home about, but OK I guess.
But what have you actually saved by kicking the can down the road? Maybe you think fibre will get cheaper in the future? Unlikely - the majority of the cost of fibre installation is in the cost of installing it in the roads, not the equipment. It’ll maybe get very slightly cheaper because of that equipment change but it’s a minority of the cost and the labour costs will increase with inflation so honestly, you’re unlikely to tell much difference. Or maybe you think wireless tech will keep getting better so you’ll never have to bother? It will, but you’ll never eliminate the physical interference & tower contention constraints of wireless so you’ll always be second-best compared to jurisdictions that invested properly in their infrastructure. And forget copper improvements – copper is done.
Realistically all that delaying fibre upgrades does is save the current government from having to be the one to decide to make the investment. It’s going to have to be made some time, if you intend Guernsey not to eventually become a digital backwater, the only question is when. The cost & inconvenience is likely to be roughly the same whether it’s now or later, the only question is how far you let others get ahead and how many short-term fixes you try before you eventually admit you have to do it properly.
Personally, I think delay has more downsides than upsides, but I’m not a politician.