Pioneering projects: FTTP trial & pilot launch

Stuart Hall was BT’s Wholesales Project Director during the UK’s first Fibre To The Premises (FTTP) trial & pilot launch in 2007. This pioneering project gave BT the first real deployment of fibre optics delivering 100Mb of broadband to the home. 

Impressively, this large and complex trial was completed on time and to budget, and approved by both Openreach and OFFCOM. After successful roll outs across the nation there’s now a government mandate dictating all UK homes will have FTTP by 2033. We talk to Stuart about his experience forging the future of fibre. 

What was it like to work on BT’s first FTTP trial & pilot launch? 

It was certainly an ambitious project and very hard work! I was challenged to take on the installation, commissioning, and trialling of the new equipment and service. My new boss had never even heard of GPON or FTTH! 

This was going to be a high-profile trial intended to roll out to Ebbsfleet valley in KentAll of the testing and proving had to be done to a strict project plan. I was lucky in many ways on this pathfinder project as there was no one in Openreach who had met the equipment and installation requirements before.  

I had to arrange for all the allocations for space in Ipswich exchange. We got the equipment installed in the exchange with no problems apart from needing a few fuse allocations. We were just installing a few racks into a space that had already been prepared for twenty-one CN equipment to go into. Fortunately, all the overhead runways and ODFs were already in place.  

Once we had all the equipment, fibre, power and alarms in, we did a 28-day test on the “network” using LoadRunner to try and stress the ONTs. The team and I were delighted  that the rig ran completely error free for the duration of the first phase of the trial.  

“The Kesgrave trial went well with all of the internal friendly customers asking to retain the service.”

We now knew that the network worked in a static configuration, so it was time to do a real test on a dynamic network with Metro connectivity to the BRAS. We made it a real dynamic test by including Innovation Martlesham’s Adastral Park (as it’s now known) and customers who lived in Kesgrave area which is between the Ipswich exchange and Adastral Park. These were referred to as “friendly customers”. 

I’d decided the best way to run the test was to run in fibre from the street splitters to all the trial houses, terminating the fibre and locating the optical NTU adjacent to the ADSL modem. This meant Openreach staff could quickly revert from the fibre back to the copper in the event of any failures. 

The Kesgrave trial went well with all of the internal friendly customers asking to retain the service. 100Mb per second was not to be sneezed at back then and as we came to what should have been the end of the trial no one wanted to hand back the equipment! I found a simple way around this, Openreach had to develop a schedule of service speeds features & known faults and to allow Kesgrave to go ahead as the first live 21CN GPON & FTTH Network. 

I was also able to convince Openreach that having a small patch of live customers running would offer them the chance to service the area for faults and start to put together an issues and solutions document to be used in the NOC when the service went fully live. It was an exhilarating project to work on and it was great to know I had 100% support from the very top levels of Openreach. 

 

When managing major infrastructure delivery projects, how important is it to secure a flexible workforce with the right skill set? 

It’s hugely important. When working in the UK the workforce was all flexible and were up to learning new skills. They were also great at doing “Show and tell” as toolbox talks for an audience of one – me. The teams we got were enthusiastic and wanted to learn because they could see that FTTH would eventually mean the demise of the copper networks and that there was a huge amount of work to be done that protected their future. 

Overseas things were very different, particularly in regard to the PON OSP and also the ISP works. In the middle and far East, the workforce are predominantly unskilled labourers. This with the inevitable language barrier means that it is hard to make forward progress. The outdoor PON has to be regularly inspected by what we would call supervisors in the UK. However, even with supervision, the OSP is often done to a very poor standard. It is usually the prime contractor who chooses and “supports” the OSP gangs. Unfortunately, this tends to be done on a matter of cost and not skill.  

When I was working in the UAE, I used to run one-day seminars in the main HQ lecture theatre on all aspects of the OSP and ISP work that the contracting companies were doing. This included splicing and testing, both with a light source and a level meter with an OTDR.  

“To get decent results you need decent workers.”

When a team is allocated to do a job in the UK, they usually all have the right skillset or at least one or two in a gang would have the necessary skills. I was able to make sure that there was a cross-fertilization between all the gang members. In the Middle East, none of the gang members had the skills to deliver the OSP elements of the projects. 

To get decent results you need decent workers. In the UK it’s easy to get a good gang and gang leader from any one of the many civil’s companies in the GPON & FTTH field. In the Middle East, the issue with workforce skill set is exacerbated by the fact that a new company is appointed to do a package of work. They will not have gang leaders who are knowledgeable in FTTH OSP work, therefore, members of my team and myself have had to go out to the sites all day every day to try and maintain some element of quality. 

When I was working with Openreach and other vendors, I was provided with skilled installers. I was also supported by a very skilled and knowledgeable QA officer to do all the inspections and checks on the equipment install as well as documentation to support the installation and commissioning. 

 

Your work has taken you all over the world, how does the UK’s telecommunications infrastructure compare?  

When I have been working in the UK I have found that the installation, commissioning and testing are done to a very high standard on an OSP network that has been designed and installed to cover all of the requirements for a ten-year span. This can be seen in large exchanges where spare footprints, power capacity, and ODF presentations have been left as allocations for the future

I instigated the use of a 1-2 splitter in the exchange so that if a particular fibre was approaching GPON capacity then a new GPON port would need to be allocated and patched on to the street fibre and the 1- 2 splitter removed.  

“There is a will and drive to provide FTTH to every home and telecommunications use in one fell swoop in the East.”

In the East, I didn’t win the battle over data centre splitters! The philosophy there was to provide a GPON port to a street fibre and to track the port usage to see how close to capacity they were running. There was never a solution available for when the customers on each of the thirty-two ports increased their required speed so that there was no more capacity available. 

 As I am sure you can imagine, the build standard in the UK and by and large with Openreach is built to standards that can be traced back to the old Post Office Telephones. Whereas in all the other countries I have worked in they are only just starting to understand the need for quality networks to be designed and built.  

The topologies in some of the countries I have worked in now carry a one plus one feeder to the in-building splitter with each of the feeds coming from a different “exchange”. All in all, I would say that the basic infrastructure has the differences, however there is a will and drive to provide FTTH to every home and telecommunications use in one fell swoop in the East. This generally happens as the planning and civils pass by the area and the fibre is run in. 

 

This pioneering project has had huge implications for the future of fibre and there’s still plenty of work to do a decade on, with only 8% of the UK enjoying full fibre coverage. Huge thank you to Stuart for sharing his experiences with us. If you’d like to get in touch with Stuart you can connect with him on LinkedIn.