Martlesham Heath: Openreach masterminds superfast broadband

OPENREACH, which is responsible for the infrastructure that underpins the UK’s communication network and making it available to all communication providers, it has recently celebrated taking superfast broadband to 10 million homes across the country. Sheline Clarke went to meet Openreach’s director of strategic network design, Dr George Williamson, at its field laboratory in Suffolk.

THE Four Acre site close to BT’s Adastral Park at Martlesham Heath, near Ipswich, is where engineers put into practice what the scientists develop in the labs.

It is home to an array of telecommunications hardware, from every generation of green cabinets to cables, poles, ducts and manifolds and is where technology can be tested before its application in the real world.

Here, some of Openreach’s lead engineers have been trained on the latest kit to emerge on to the market and before field deployment where they themselves find innovative ways of delivering to their customers – communication providers including BT themselves and other industry giants such as Talk Talk, O2, Sky and Virgin – who ultimately deliver to their customers, the general public and the UK’s businesses.

Having the field lab, says George, is a fundamental part of the process.

“This is where processes are war-gamed and work-shopped,” he says. “Innovation for us is the implementation of invention and it’s the interplay between our engineers and the ideas they bring about what could work in the field and what works in the labs that can be very powerful.

“Openreach is an operationally intensive organization with 20-odd thousand engineers all being given the opportunity to innovate in the field.”

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The roll out of superfast broadband and creating Next Generation Access (NGA) by replacing copper wires with optical fibre, which is capable of almost unlimited data transmission rates, has been at the heart of operations at Openreach in the recent past.

As our appetite for ever-faster broadband grows so Openreach finds ways of delivering it. Key to doing this quickly and cost efficiently has been the re-use of existing physical structures.

“When we announced the 10million homes passed for fibre to the cabinet, people asked how we did it so quickly and apparently so cheaply, because all the costs are visible, and a lot of it comes from this philosophy to reuse existing physical structures and minimize disruption to the local community and take practical approaches for fibre to the cabinet, where that is right, and fibre to the home where that is right,” said George.

The deployment has also been about innovation. The development of Conducrete, for example, a conductive concrete base for active cabinets, which provides easier earthing, has played an important role in what is one of the fastest optical fibre roll-outs in the world.

Then there’s the creation of the Ethernet open access model and the development of sophisticated copper test and diagnostics – hand held and network tools that speed up fault location and repair.

With fibre, innovation includes blowing techniques, fibre splicing and the testing of a higher frequency bandplan, which has enabled Openreach to double the capacity of fibre to the cabinet to speeds of up to 80megabits per second.

The UK’s broadband competitiveness and availability remains one of the highest in the G8 and the role Openreach has played, since its inception in 2006 cannot be overstated. It was formed by BT in consultation with the Regulator in order to give all communication providers equivalent access to the wires and fibres that underpin the entire UK communications industry and to maintain and improve that infrastructure.

It is part of the BT Group, but treats BT as a customer, one of more than 400, and that is what makes this one of the world’s most competitive telco markets.

“We try to do the right thing for all our customers,” said George. “We are part of BT Group; that was a decision taken because we were using BT engineers and they had earned trust and built a good reputation but there’s a lot of protocol around who they work on behalf of on any given day.

“To deliver the same products and services to BT and to other players meant the creation of a whole new business to business gateway – think of it in the same way as Amazon – so it takes orders, supports billing and provides information on what’s available in the given geography and allows our engineers to be appointed by any of our customers.

“Reaching 10million homes couldn’t happen without the innovation of places like this,” says George referring to both Adastral Park and the Four Acre site. “We are all part of an ecosystem – so there’s the research and development, then there are our suppliers, many of whom are also here, and our own engineers who innovate in their sphere and it’s bringing all those people together in this place which makes things happen.”

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