ISP Review

Mark Jackson

Openreach (BT) plan to launch a new symmetric “low speed” 500Kbps (0.5Mbps) tier on their UK Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) broadband ISP network, which might seem odd until you realise that it’s part of their transition away from the old phone services (WLR / PSTN). Elsewhere FTTP on Demand is being trialled in apartment blocks.

At present a lot of work is going on behind the scenes in order to prepare the market for two major changes. Firstly, the gradual migration of traditional voice services to all-IP technology (e.g. VoIP) by December 2025 – essential on full fibre lines where electrical signals are no longer used – and, secondly, the complete switch-off of the copper network in favour of “full fibre” / FTTP (phased – fully completing some years after 2025).

Assuming all goes to plan then Openreach will not be providing their own voice products after 2025 (i.e. shifting the responsibility for delivering this and VoIP on to ISPs and wholesale providers). However it’s long been recognised that Openreach would still need to facilitate a data product for voice-only homes on FTTP and that’s where the new low speed tier comes in.

We now know that the tier will sit right at the bottom of their FTTP product portfolio (beneath 40Mbps) and, at a speed of 500Kbps, it will effectively act as a “voice only” replacement product for their old Wholesale Line Rental (WLR) solution. The new tier is set to launch sometime in 2020 (likely spring in order to support prep work for migration trials in Salisbury and Mildenhall – here and here). Prices for this will be revealed soon.

We did ask – somewhat tongue-in-cheek – whether consumers who took this 500Kbps voice only product would be able to plug-in a router and get online. ISPs have confirmed that this is indeed possible and so it could be seen as a potentially cheaper way to access the internet, although trying to surf the modern web at 0.5Mbps is NOT a pleasant experience. VoIP of course doesn’t need a lot of bandwidth, thus 0.5Mbps is fine for that.

Just as a recap. Openreach’s current plan is to stop selling the old WLR/PSTN services to ISPs from 2023 (after the aforementioned trials have completed), with a “forced migration” process expected to start from spring 2025 (likely to annoy some older landline-only customers) ahead of complete withdrawal by the end of 2025.

Many consumers will probably get a VoIP solution from their ISP (e.g. plug your home phone into the back of a broadband router or use an ATA – Analogue Telephony Adapter). Meanwhile voice-only customers in areas with no “fibre” (FTTC/P/ alternative will be offered a special Single Order Transitional Access Product (SOTAP) to help (a new SOADSL – Single Order ADSL – copper broadband service will underpin that).

NOTE: Both SOTAP and SOADSL will begin trials in 2020, with a pilot to follow in 2021 around Mildenhall.

FTTP on Demand

Finally, because we were asked, here’s a little update on Openreach’s FTTP on Demand (FoD) product. FoD is designed to be requested (on demand) in slower FTTC capable areas where Openreach’s pure fibre optic cables usually only go as far as your local street cabinet.

Essentially FoD enables you to get an ultrafast Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) line built right to your property (e.g. business or home), even if FTTP wasn’t previously planned or natively deployed to your area. The big catch with this is that the end-user ends up having to stomach the often huge civil engineering costs for the rollout, which in some areas may stretch into the tens of thousands (i.e. it’s more intended for small business users).

Until last month the operator was still only able to cope with a total of 45 orders per month, although this has now been lifted to 100 (at least until March 2020). However of more interest, perhaps, is the fact that Openreach are conducting trials that will extend FoD orders to Multi-Dwelling Unit (MDU) buildings (e.g. residential apartment blocks or offices). The lack of MDU support has been a long running gripe against FoD.

One caveat is that the trial has a maximum capacity of 5 orders for all Openreach customers. Still this could be an interesting solution for some buildings, where FoD may be more viable on cost than it is currently when only used for connecting individual premises.

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