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September 12, 2023
Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Andy Wells, Founder and COO of Complete Fibre, explores best practice when it comes to installing fibre in multi dwelling units.
Project Gigabit, the government’s ambitious £5 billion plan to extend fibre optic broadband to hard-to-reach properties, underscores the value placed on digital inclusion. Rightly so. Having reliable, high-speed internet is a catalyst for remote work, efficient communication, and improved access to education, all of which demonstrate that access to fibre is no longer a luxury, but a must-have utility.
However, this project is skewed more towards rural regions, while excluded areas still exist within major cities – primarily, those left out are residents of Multi Dwelling Units (MDUs). Across various London boroughs, about 800,000 premises lack access to gigabit solutions, while over 60,000 make do with outdated and slow copper ADSL broadband.
While telcos have invested heavily in fibre infrastructure in cities, MDUs remain a challenge when it comes to connecting residents with high-speed internet. Due to the high-interest, high-inflation economic landscape, telcos are highly motivated to gain access to new customers (especially those within touching distance of existing fibre infrastructure), but there are many difficulties involved in installing full-fibre broadband in such buildings (typically blocks of flats).
When dealing with MDU installations, safety concerns loom large, especially in the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy. The installation of fibre optic cables within MDUs requires careful attention to fire safety protocols to prevent potential compromises in safety measures.
Moreover, the logistics involved in connecting MDUs, along with regulatory hurdles and construction risks, add to the complexity of the endeavour. Effective communication between stakeholders is crucial to overcome these challenges, as is adherence to the highest industry standards.
Internet service providers (ISPs) are well aware of these challenges and are committed to overcoming them. However, the key to success lies in collaboration, particularly between ISPs and the landlords or housing associations managing MDUs.
Landlords hold the key to enabling access at scale, but they grapple with various material issues beyond fibre rollout, such as damp, mould, fire safety, occupancy, EPC ratings, and so forth.
Complying with regulations and ensuring resident safety is a significant responsibility, which sometimes leaves landlords understandably cautious about responding to ISPs’ requests to enter their buildings for fibre installations.
The Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Act (TILPA) was envisioned to facilitate better communication between telcos and landlords or housing associations. But progress in the fibre rollout for MDUs remains somewhat sluggish. So, it is essential for telcos to confront the obstacles head-on, implementing a standards-focused approach and adhering to stringent safety measures.
Why a standards-focused approach to fibre installation matters
A renewed and comprehensive standards-focused approach is critical in solving the MDU challenge. Fibre installations in MDUs often demand significant intervention in the infrastructure, and multiple installations by different ISPs can lead to compromised fire safety protocols. It can also be highly disruptive for residents and landlords.
While digital connectivity and inclusion are priorities for both ISPs and the government, the race to connect high-rise buildings must not compromise progress in improving safety compliance. Safeguarding lives and preventing avoidable tragedies must remain paramount.
These added measures may present a challenge for telcos, but it is one that they must meet head-on and ensure they get right.
Greater collaboration between telcos is imperative
There is an additional challenge for many telcos here, too: they are having to venture beyond their core business of building networks on the streets. Entering MDUs involves navigating a different set of regulators, competency standards, building regulations, and risks, including those related to fire safety and asbestos.
Despite the complexity and pace of change in this domain, telcos must embrace the challenge by adopting a standards-focused approach to ensure residents’ safety.
Collaboration must be the key strategy for overcoming the barriers associated with MDU fibre installations. As noted, accessing buildings can be arduous due to overloaded landlords, and multiple installations may jeopardise the integrity and safety of the structure. By working together, the telco industry can reduce the frequency and volume of access requests and installations in MDUs.
A practical approach involves a single installation of a multi-fibre solution that multiple ISPs can utilise, effectively reducing risks, intrusion, and carbon footprint.
Just as FIRS (Fibre Integrated Reception Systems) enables a single-dish solution to satellite TV in high-rise buildings, eliminating the need for the logistical issues of multiple dish installations and reducing the associated risks, a single-access solution can do the same for high-speed internet.
This one-off installation of a multi-fibre solution is a win-win-win situation for all parties involved. Residents gain enhanced access to high-speed internet with the flexibility to choose between broadband providers; landlords can ensure their residents’ safety without the hassle of frequently granting access to different ISPs; and ISPs benefit from greater access to customers and reduced capital expenditure on digital infrastructure when connecting MDUs.
Moreover, when coupled with a single robust audit and asset record, the single installation approach ensures adherence to the highest industry standards.
Rising to the challenge
This is a complex problem. Each stakeholder – landlord, telco, resident and government – has its own set of priorities, and finding a solution to MDU fibre installations that satisfies everyone is no small feat. That is why it remains such a prevalent issue after all these many years.
So, if we are to implement the necessary digital infrastructure within MDUs, ensuring their residents are not left behind in the digital age, then an innovative approach is required. One that combines higher standards, cutting-edge technology and collaborative working.
In striving for greater collaboration and embracing a one-off installation of a multi-fibre solution, ISPs can help increase access to full-fibre internet among overlooked segments of the population, while also guaranteeing safety standards. This is the way forward, and now is the time to embrace it.
Andy Wells is the Founder and COO of Complete Fibre, a full-fibre infrastructure specialist. The company partners with housing associations and local authority landlords responsible for multi-dwelling units (MDUs). The building-to-home fibre optic infrastructure, provides operators with a ‘plug and play’ system, offering digital connectivity choices to every resident in the building and providing telcos with quicker, and safer access to buildings, at lower cost.
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