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Fibre-laying tools aid rural broadband rollout

Infrastructure firm Openreach is using a range of tools, including ditch diggers and diamond cutters, to speed up the rollout of ultrafast broadband services to hard-to-reach rural areas.

Laying fibre can be disruptive, slow and expensive, so labour-saving devices can play an important role, it said.

The firm is adding more than 200 market towns and villages to its full fibre rollout.

But it still wants the government to do more.

Openreach's chief executive Clive Selley said: "Openreach has always been committed to doing our bit in rural Britain - delivering network upgrades in communities that are harder to reach and less densely populated. We intend to build a significant portion of our full-fibre network in these harder-to-reach areas of the UK, and are announcing 227 locations today.

"Our ambition is to reach 15 million premises by mid-2020s if the right investment conditions are in place. Currently, the biggest missing piece of this puzzle, is getting an exemption from business rates on building fibre cables, which is critical for any fibre builder's long-term investment case."

Matthew Howett, founder of research firm Assembly, sympathised with Openreach's frustration over business rates.

"It's a barrier that the whole industry is behind removing. Currently in England the exemption only lasts for five years, and 10 years in Scotland, but for the operators the business case for rolling out fibre is over a much longer period, often over 15 years."

He also acknowledged that "broadband, while digital, can still be a very analogue and labour-intensive job to install".

"As much as 70% of the cost of rolling out broadband is in the civil works - the digging, manual labour and road closures that go with it. So, any innovations that reduce these costs will ultimately result in broadband being deployed faster, and to more people."

Tools helping to speed up the job include:

  • Diamond cutter - a giant rotating blade with diamonds embedded in the metal coating means it can slice through roads and pavements, leaving a neat channel to feed fibre-optic cables into
  • Ditch witch - a blade carves a narrow trench, eliminating the need to dig manually
  • Ground-penetrating radar - pulses of high frequency radio waves are sent through the ground

Broadband choices

There are three main types of broadband connection that link the local telephone exchange to your home or office:

  • ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) uses copper cables to a street-level cabinet or junction box and on to the house
  • FTTC (fibre to the cabinet) uses a faster fibre-optic cable to the cabinet, but then copper cable from there to the house
  • FTTP (fibre to the premises or full-fibre) uses a fibre-optic cable to connect to households without using any copper cable

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