Time for AltNets in gigabit push - Neos Networks

Time for AltNets in gigabit push

An interview with Jeremy Chelot, CEO of Netomnia; Tom Brook, Head of IT at Broadband for Surrey Hills (B4SH); and Andrew Ingram, Director of High Tide Group

In today's challenging economy, staying agile is key for businesses. This makes having fast, high-capacity internet more important than ever. It's essential to boosting efficiency, facilitating seamless communication, and support the growing demand for data-intensive operations.

In many places, alternative network providers (AltNets) are the answer: these unsung heroes fill in the gaps left by the major national telecoms providers.

We asked our interviewees what the future holds for AltNets and the network landscape they’re helping to shape.

As the latest Project Gigabit reports show 73% of the UK is gigabit-capable, there’s still some way to go before 85% of the population levels up in time for the 2025 deadline.

Tom Brook says: “Gigabit provision will likely be achieved by the national telecoms provider in time – even for almost all of the hardest-to-reach areas. AltNets have an excellent opportunity to provide services far sooner and in better consultation with those in the hardest-to-reach locations.”

“AltNets may also be able to provide the next generation of speeds earlier than the national telecoms provider. We already see some providers offering 2.5, 3 and 10-gigabit services across their network, where the national provider is only just starting trials.”

Jeremy Chelot is quick to point out the achievements of AltNets: “Without us, Openreach and Virgin Media would still be relying on an ancient copper network, no longer fit for serving the needs of the country. Plus, some AltNets are already focusing on the toughest 20% of the UK and doing a very good job at addressing those gaps!”

Opportunities ahead

Post-pandemic growth has been sluggish in the UK, but one way businesses can look to the future is high-capacity, high-speed connectivity. As they seek to do that, AltNets will be aiming to get their piece of the pie. But how?

Tom Brook says: “As other providers eventually cover the properties AltNets have already built to, AltNets like ours will hope to remain the customer’s preferred provider – by being competitively priced for a gigabit service. The customer also needs to feel confident that their service is monitored for reliability, problems are proactively investigated and should they contact their provider, they’ll speak to someone only a few miles away.”

Essentially, when AltNets begin to service areas missed by the major national providers, they need to make the most of their head start. As well as pricing, they need to focus on customer service if they want to compete beyond the short term.

Branching out and offering more value

Rural areas will always be a target for AltNets, particularly where lower connectivity speeds hamper everyday business operations and UK households.

Andrew Ingram believes this policy has now yielded some interesting results: “I’m starting to see that rural areas, in a number of cases, are now getting better connectivity than people in urban centres.”

He continues: “I feel providers have already done the low-hanging fruit in the client centres and now moved to rural areas as the planning, funding and additional costs are less. For example, parts of city centres have high costs for traffic management.”

Tom Brook says: “The presence of any AltNet for a rural business is instantly going to improve their internet speeds and increase productivity. And where multiple full fibre services exist in an area, AltNets can provide higher upload speeds in comparison to the major national provider. Or there could be a vastly lower cost service if the rural business has previously had to buy in a leased fibre line.”

Jeremy Chelot builds on this point: “We have built both a Dark Fibre and a 10-Gbps (XGS-PON) network outside London – to give more options to businesses. With XGS-PON, businesses can access 10-Gbps services (contended) at a fraction of the cost of a leased line, but with the same level of service.”

Challenges to overcome

Of course, rural projects are far from being straightforward operations, and AltNets sometimes have to solve the entrenched problems that the major national providers don’t. Installing their own infrastructure is sometimes the easiest one to overcome.

Tom Brook says: “One issue we come across a lot is a landowner who is unwilling to provide wayleave. Sometimes, this can be as simple as someone falling out with their neighbours. Or it can be a large-scale landowner who is unresponsive or requires many levels of approval and communication, leading to the request stalling or getting lost.

“Another challenge is customers perceiving their existing connectivity as adequate and not engaging with the project. AltNets sometimes have to rely on help and coordination from the neighbourhoods they plan to cover, so it’s difficult to organise installation without this.

“AltNets will need to know where demand is for increasing connectivity speeds – led by a digital-first approach for businesses. But despite rising demand, there shouldn’t be pressure on capacity. If this occurs, then an AltNet has failed at their capacity planning.”

Jeremy Chelot also points out the importance of planning: “A number of factors go into the decision to invest in a new area, but our number-one priority is to never build over another AltNet.”

On the topic of being more sustainable, Chelot talks about the importance of physical infrastructure access (PIA) to AltNets, to “control our cost and speed of deployment”. When AltNets are allowed access to the Openreach network through ducts and poles, they save money and time – and the community suffers less engineering work.

The way forward for AltNets

Even when projects are straightforward, AltNets must keep in mind that they’re not as trusted as the major national providers and have to outperform them at every step.

Tom Brook says: “Upholding high standards in connectivity reliability, speed and customer service is vital. These standards must be above those of the national telecoms provider (and their resellers). If the customer perception of AltNets is damaged, it’ll hinder the enthusiasm, take-up and viability of every AltNet.

“While build timescales can be difficult to estimate, it’s also important to provide reliable expectations on when a build can start and when a customer can order service. Contacting an area and then never building, or building years after the initial promise, also causes harm to the reputation of AltNet provision as a whole.”

Andrew Ingram thinks AltNets will soon face more competition: “The worry I have is that at some point, the likes of BT and Virgin Media will move into rural areas, forcing the AltNets out. AltNets will need to be smart in their investments and growth areas to prepare for this.”

Jeremy Chalot sees such competition as crucial to the expansion of fibre: “Financial savvy and long-term stability among network providers are the most important things to maintain a high level of competition to support rural areas.”

One thing is certain: the 2025 Project Gigabit deadline is looming large. With increasing urgency behind fibre expansion, AltNets have a golden opportunity to deliver the high-capacity, high-speed connectivity that British businesses need. Now they have to rise to the challenge.

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