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Openreach ups investment plans: Will shoot out full fibre to 3 million premises

Beginning of the end for copper?

BT's Openreach has unveiled plans to connect three million premises to full fibre by 2020, up 50 per cent on its previous goal.

Under the "Fibre First" programme, the semi-hived off division of the former UK state monopoly will hire 3,000 engineers to deploy it to eight major British cities, including London, Birmingham and Manchester, with work starting in April.

Chief exec Clive Selley said the move would set the firm on the "right trajectory" to achieve its target of 10 million homes by 2025.

Asked on a briefing call how much the investment would cost, Selley told The Register it will be "a very large amount of money" starting in the hundreds of millions and totalling billions over time.

He declined to put a precise figure on the programme, but a previous consultation document seen by us had placed the cost at between £3bn and £6bn.

The business hopes to recoup that outlay by shifting all new customers in identified areas over to fibre and turning off its old copper network. That move will potentially hike consumer bills by £7 per month – as service providers will have to pay higher line rental costs.

But Selley said a move to fibre will also result in operational cost reductions, as fibre is far easier to maintain than the creaky copper network. "[Communication providers] will have less fault calls and complaints, so their cost of ownership will reduce."

Concerns have been raised that such a move will result in communication providers being further further locked into its network, as they will have to commit their entire customer base to the new product. But Selley insisted it would make "no sense" to build a huge fibre network, while keeping the copper one running.

Fibre costs in cities have been pegged at around £300 to £400 per household, but he said costs in rural areas are "massively more expensive". The business plans to use government money from the Broadband Delivery UK contracts – intended to reach a further 2 per cent of premises – to offset the cost.

The BDUK programme intends to connect 97 per cent of the country to speeds of above 24Mbps by 2020.

Openreach reckons 800,000 rural and new build developments will now get fibre by 2020, with a further 1.7 million receiving it through the city building programme, while it is already on track to reach 600,000 under existing deployment plans.

BT has previously been accused of dragging its feet on fibre investment, with the UK currently having just 2 per cent fibre deployment penetration, ranking it as one of the worst countries in the world.

But since its legal separation from BT last year, Openreach has begun to make more noises about its commitment to the technology – no doubt encouraged by increasing calls from regulator Ofcom and the government to up its game. ®

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