Storm Desmond hit the North West of the UK this weekend and off went the broadband. Oh, not in its entirety as the B4RN fibre optic network in Lancashire, Cumbria and North Yorkshire stayed up throughout, but BT´s network keeled over in the rain. It may have been a record event but the UK is hardly a stranger to falling or rising water, and an infrastructure which definitely CANNOT cope with bad weather should never have been installed , far less funded, in the 21st century, climate change or not.
BT have been funded through BDUK, using public money amounting to around £2billion, to install FTTC – fibre to the cabinet. There are many reasons why this has been a ludicrous decision, and a waste of public funds, but the failure this weekend in what can only be described as an “hour of need” highlights far too many of those reasons.
Let us begin with the material left in the ground because of the decision to deploy FTTC and not FTTH – copper. FTTH deploys fibre optics (glass) throughout the entire network. FTTC leaves the copper between the cabinet and the property. Much of this copper lies unprotected in the ground (no ducting, no outer sheath) and many thousands of miles of this copper nationwide are ancient (some has not been replaced or even inspected in decades) and rotten. It is at the end of its useful lifespan in many cases, and does not have the longevity or protection of glass as used in fibre optics.
I recall being at the FTTH Council event in Milan where one enterprising fibre supplier had run their fibre through a fishtank, complete with live fish, to demonstrate how effectively fibre optic can cope with being submerged. Thin copper (and aluminium, which remains in part of the UK BT first mile network) corrode rapidly. Any solution which proposes to continue to use the copper, such as G-Fast, is therefore flawed and no money should be spent on this, particularly from the public coffers.
Next, the network design. FTTC requires thousands of cabinets to be deployed nationwide to provide even a modicum of service to each property the technology is capable of serving. Site the cabs too far from the properties (more than 1 mile) and the copper cable simply cannot, due to the immutable laws of physics, deliver anything worthy of the name “broadband”, let alone anything more modern like superfast, ultrafast or hyperfast connectivity. FTTH requires far fewer cabinets (or “hubs”) because the laws of physics do not interfere with fibre optics over distance as disastrously as with copper, making fibre optics to the property the logical material to use if we are to have a robust network far into the future. Fibre optics can manage 10 miles without blinking.
Now, to be fair, any cabinet or hub, when underwater in a flood, is going to struggle to work. (The photo at the top of this post would show a green cab if you could pan to the right, or wade through the flood to the cab location next to a beck which escapes from its bed with increasing regularity). There is expensive and sensitive equipment within cabs and vents for cooling – much of Cumbria´s infrastructure in affected areas will now need replacing.
However, when you have given yourself more choice about location by needing less locations for siting equipment (as is the case with FTTH) one could be more choosy about where key equipment is located. A plan for new sites, particularly when aspects such as flooding clearly need to be taken into account if infrastructure is critical, would try to avoid the possibility of an unwanted takedown in a weather event . You would assume that no sensible infrastructure provider would decide to site a nuclear power plant on a geographic fault or an electric substation on a flood plain. (Oh wait. That is precisely the plan for the new nuclear facility in Cumbria and several electricity substations around the country. The mind boggles at the stupidity of such decisions).
None of the B4RN FTTH hubs were threatened by the floods, because they are not situated in locations threatened by this weekend´s flood waters, yet it seems that many BT cabinets were. Clearly, there is an issue regarding the number of cabs required by BT´s FTTC plan too. There simply are insufficient engineers to cope in a crisis, however localised, (Storm Desmond affected the entire North West region) and there may be difficulties and danger even attempting to reach SO MANY cabinets threatened by flood waters.
[The FTTC plan has also highlighted that alternative solutions are required to reach an ever-growing number of properties for whom FTTC will never be, and was never going to be, a solution – the Final 30% was whittled down to an ambitious Final 5% and is rapidly creeping upwards again as FTTC shows its faults and limitations.]
Power supply to FTTC cabs is an issue. The argument runs that if there is a power cut, as was seen this weekend when at least 55,000 homes in Lancashire were cut off, twice, then your end user will be unable to turn on a computer anyway. However, this fails to take into account that many have devices that hold their own charge eg smartphones, tablets etc, UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supplies) are not uncommon for critical devices such as routers, PCs, charging systems etc, many rural people have access to generators, and that power cuts may affect one street and not another, depending on the set up of the grid and the equipment affected. So, assuming that it is OK for you as a supplier to go offline because it is LIKELY your customers will be too is a very poor strategy.
It is a strategy that has not been adopted by B4RN for one very simple reason: they know their customers and understand that your average rural household has taken steps to ensure that daily life can continue as normal even in a power cut. No dairy farm can afford to leave the cows unmilked just because Electric NW chose to site a power station next to a river. Ditto many households who have experienced the loss of an entire freezer of food and huge disruption during power cuts and realised that buying a genny for emergencies will be a wise move, saving money and stress in the long run. There are also many homes now with solar and wind that can be used as backups in emergencies.
BT FTTC cabinets do have 48V batteries to provide a limited (approx 4 hours) continuous power supply, but to work the design requires a sealed main sub-cabinet. Also, as we saw this weekend, a severe event does not just peter out after a couple of hours and can continue throughout an entire weekend. In this case, it would become necessary to use an alternative power supply but the design of FTTC with so many cabs, and the lack of personnel to reach them, can mean only one thing – no broadband supply.
It may actually be far worse than this. There is zero evidence that BT have an emergency plan for keeping the network up and running to communities during an event such as Storm Desmond. For instance, is the telemetry data from FTTC cabs actively monitored? What control staff and emergency procedures are in place for such an event? Are operational alarms triggered should a cab fail due to water ingress or imminent power failure due to a UPS running low? Is there any intention on the part of BT to actively seek to keep customers connected in an emergency such as that which affected Cumbria and Lancashire this weekend?
It would be interesting to know just how many FTTC cabs failed this weekend in the North West, how many people this affected, whether any will remain offline for a significant period of time, what plans BT has to ensure that in another such event the network is returned to normal as fast as possible, etc. (See Update below).
All in all, there remain many questions about the current UK broadband network, but in light of this weekend´s events, one has to seriously consider if the UK network is fit for purpose in the 21st century. And if not, what are we going to do to educate our Ministers and stop them spending our money on something that is copper-based and clearly unable to cope with an increasing number of severe weather events when people need to be able to communicate?
UPDATE: From 23.59 7th Dec, BT declared MBORC for Cumbria.
This MBORC declaration notification is issued as a special message to all Openreach customers following the recent severe weather experienced in the UK.
Parts of the UK were hit with severe storm conditions, with record levels of rainfall and flooding, from the end of last week and over the weekend of 5 and 6 December 2015.This has seriously impacted Openreach’s infrastructure, both above and below ground, with fault intake in the affected areas at extremely high levels and serious access and mobility problems for our engineering teams.Openreach is therefore declaring MBORC for repair activities in the following area, with effect from 23:59 7 December 2015:
We have been taking steps, including directing additional resource into the area, to bring the position back to normal as quickly as possible.
We are monitoring the situation and will remove MBORC as soon as service can be restored to the levels they were at immediately before the severe weather.
During the declaration period you can find detailed communication updates on the MBORC page ofOpenreach.co.uk.
Please note you will need your Openreach portal ID and password to access this information.