Discussing fibre to the home with JT

· by Steve · Read in about 7 min · (1432 Words)

Those of you who follow my blog know that I have a keen interest in the provision of high speed broadband in Guernsey, including to homes. If not, you can catch up with my reasoning in this post a year ago, and this one a few days ago.

The main issue right now for home broadband in Guernsey is that Sure controls the main fixed line network, and they are currently committed to a strategy of VDSL (fibre to the cabinet, copper to the home), which can provide a pretty decent, if not particularly future proof, service except for the fact that the rollout of new cabinets has been slow enough that there are still quite a few gaps where line distances make VDSL impractical; including both of the addresses I’ve lived in 2014. Sure doesn’t provide a map (as far as I know) of where the upgraded cabinets are, or where new ones are planned; all I’ve been able to determine is that friends in rural St Peters are doing a lot better than people in many areas of our main town, St Peter Port, perversely.

You may already be aware that in Jersey, they have a strategy to install fibre to all homes and businesses, and a number of people I know have been connected now. Not without issues, certainly, but they’re gradually being resolved and the direction of travel is clear. JT is doing this, and is able to do so because of a combination of government funding for the plan, and some long-term investment of their own. We simply have nothing of that kind here yet in Guernsey, and as far as public information goes, we don’t know if we ever will.

JT is rolling out fibre in Guernsey, but it’s been as part of a contract to supply States buildings and schools; they’ve published a rough map where you can see it’s focussed around the east coast with ‘fingers’ into specific locations elsewhere. I knew about this, because one of these cables runs up the road beyond the bottom of my garden, but I didn’t think there was any prospect of gaining access to it for the home. However, after Charles Parkinson suggested there might be a possibility on Twitter, I fired an email off to a generic JT email, asking about the possibility in future, because I’m renovating my house right now and could put some ducting in while I was at it. It felt like a moon shot, I really didn’t expect anything more back than a vague ‘Yeah, we hope to do this in the future if the stars align’, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.

Imagine my surprise when, not only did I get a fast response indicating that they’d like to talk to me about it in more detail, but that it was from a former boss of mine, Nick Marquis, who is now the Programme Manager for JT’s fibre rollout. I worked for Nick well over 10 years ago now, and I have huge respect for his technical abilities, general tenacity and no-bullshit attitude. I knew he worked for JT now but I didn’t know in what capacity and we hadn’t spoken in a while, so this came as a complete surprise. I remember grinning widely, getting a little over-excited and phoning him immediately even though he’d already said it was his day off, and to his credit he didn’t yell at me 😉 But I was suddenly a lot more optimistic.

So today I met for coffee with Nick and his colleague Caleb Zunino, who has been through the whole engineering, network support and now product management / business dev path at GT and Cable & Wireless before JT. I already knew where I stood with Nick, and I was glad to find that I got on with Caleb well too and we had a lot of compatible views.

It turns out that JT have already been thinking about how they can start to offer fibre packages to businesses and homes, and they’re in the process of identifying locations to test this idea out. Because there isn’t the kind of blanket investment available as in Jersey (and they’re also not the incumbent with lots of existing infrastructure), this would be limited to areas that are already near to the fibre network they’ve laid for States buildings and schools, and the main issue, as always, is how to cover the cost of extending that to premises. They have a bunch of ideas on that, and will be testing some of them - one of those is the No. 1 St Julians Avenue building for example, but they also want to test situations like a clos (a private estate for non-Guerns).

To my surprise they’d already costed up 3 illustrations for my own house; the cheapest & easiest being to come directly over my back garden to my house. As great as that might be for me, and as much as it bypasses most of the trickier hurdles, we all felt that was too selfish and above all it just wasn’t ambitious enough. They also had costings for extending the network to various parts of my area, which would obviously require that I convinced enough of my neighbours to sign up for it to have any chance of being viable. To be honest, the numbers weren’t as high as I thought they might be and there are definitely benefits of scale. It’s important to realise this is all very theoretical at this point - many things remain to be ironed out such as what kind of packages would be required to justify it commercially, how many people would sign up, what kind of bandwidth charging would be needed, whether permission to dig up the roads would be forthcoming, and so on. It could all fall apart and not work. But I got the real sense that JT wants to experiment with this, which I found quite refreshing. They’re willing to try, even if it falls on its face, and I respect that a lot - it’s how I work after all 😀

Now of course, my preference (indeed everyone around the table’s preference) would be for the whole island to have fibre access, just as is planned in Jersey. To that end I’ll keep lobbying government about funding for infrastructure in the hope that eventually something will happen. But I find it encouraging that JT isn’t just waiting around for the next strategy update, but is willing to try some things out proactively in the mean time. Perhaps if we can prove the concept that fibre broadband to the home is viable and a useful addition to people’s lives, then it will help provide the impetus to move as much of Guernsey into something resembling the future as possible.

So over the next few months I’ll be having more detailed discussions with JT about this and working with them on their ideas. They’ve asked me to give them honest feedback about the proposals and ideas they have, and have said up front that they’re totally happy for me to blog & tweet about it, both the good and the bad. They know I’m not the kind of guy who likes secret arrangements, nor am I someone who would toe some agreed marketing line in public, so that wasn’t even on the table. We’re talking about an open, honest discussion about what may or may not fly, and seeing where it takes us. It helps a great deal that I’ve worked with Nick before and trust his judgement & integrity, and I get the feeling I’m going to get on well with Caleb too.

Who knows what might happen in the next 12 months on infrastructure - no-one really knows where Commerce & Employment will end up going with that element of the digital strategy - but after so long of just being told to wait while secret discussions happen, and zero news from Sure about where even new MSANs might appear in the next couple of years (while being depressingly aware that even full VDSL coverage will leave us behind others in a fairly short amount of time), it’ll be refreshing to be involved in something tangible, open, and a little more forward-thinking. But remember, this is only currently about proving the concept on a small scale, and may not work at all; don’t rush out and ask JT when your fibre will be available, OK? Baby steps. But maybe, just maybe, this could be the start of something interesting.