15th January 2021

Virtual1 take on the fibre future

Kevin Blyth, Connectivity Product Manager, discusses the upcoming changes to Virtual1’s Access services to kickstart their journey to the fibre future.

Kevin Blyth joined Virtual1 two years ago as Connectivity Product Manager, to focus on the development of Ethernet and Broadband Access products. Prior to this, he worked in the Strategy and Transformation area of Openreach, looking at the UK’s ‘fibre future’. Kevin also spent a number of years within BT as product manager for Ethernet products and has been involved in a number of significant technical delivery projects.

In a recent interview, Kevin discussed the upcoming changes to Virtual1’s Access services to kickstart their journey to the fibre future.

What are your current priorities as Connectivity Product Manager?

The main priority for us regarding our connectivity portfolio is to make sure that our products are futureproof. The base product we need to deliver to ensure this is connectivity through fibre, which will feed through to support add on products like SD-WAN and cloud services.

We currently deliver some of our products using copper technology which will soon be replaced by fibre, particularly Fibre to the Premise (FTTP). So, our key priority is to migrate these legacy products to open up new possibilities for developing our product portfolio.

We’re also looking at how we can ensure our Ethernet products—our bread and butter—continue to evolve as the market changes.

How are you looking to develop Virtual1’s product portfolio in the fibre space?

Virtual1 have access to around 1100 exchanges in the UK, which are focused on areas where business operates. Most of our unbundled exchanges are in city centres like central London, Manchester and Bristol – and our priority is to ensure that for those exchanges we’re enabling FTTP.

Our first step will be to do this at the ‘wires only’ level. This means we will deliver a standard FTTP product to an end user premise and work closely with our partners to make sure they deliver the right customer premise equipment (CPE) onto those services. The second step will be to add on our own carefully chosen CPE. This will allow customers to split their bandwidth and route traffic as desired – allowing them to prioritise work over their household’s film streaming. Where we are not on-net we will be using equivalent products from trusted partners such as BT Wholesale and TalkTalk Business.

Once we’ve fully launched FTTP, we’ve then got a good foundation to start being creative in our portfolio, particularly with security and SD-WAN applications and new home working solutions. Fibre connectivity gives much more capacity and flexibility around the products customers can deliver, so we’ll be looking at offering new propositions once we’ve got the base building blocks in place.

When are these phases expected to take place?

We’re aiming to achieve the wires-only piece in Q1, 2021. The CPE phase we’re currently planning for and we’d expect this to take place later in the year. All of these products will be available via our award winning 1Portal, giving partners instant access to where these products are available. In the meantime, my aim is to work as close to our partners as possible to help them find the best ways to sell these products.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of FTTP?

It’s important to note that FTTP is still a shared product. The way traffic flows to end customer sites means there are certain pinch points that force contention at exchanges. For customers, this means there may be congestion at peak times and this is where Ethernet remains a solid proposition. Ethernet is uncontended from the exchange to the customer premise so, if you want a service that always delivers the capacity you require then Ethernet is still the best option.

FTTP is also ‘asymmetric’. This means you can download more data than you can upload which is great is you’re a residential consumer using the internet for things such as shopping and gaming. However, businesses often need to upload as much data as they want to download and this again, is where Ethernet’s symmetric traffic shaping comes to the fore.

A key benefit of fibre-based products is their reliability. Copper-based products degrade over time which causes service issues as the speed of service possible declines the further away you are from the exchange. Neither of these things happen with fibre. The speed will always remain the same and fibre optic glass is a much more resilient material.

FTTP is also cheaper and faster to deliver than Ethernet. The FTTP network consists of a series of fibre spines that run down the streets of the UK and, typically, connecting an end user requires laying fibre a few metres from this spine. This means that FTTP usually has a quicker delivery lead time compared to Point-to-point services and there is less chance of prohibitively expensive Excess Construction Charges (ECCs) putting a brake on the delivery.

Finally, because FTTP is higher capacity than copper it allows you to start looking at creative propositions above your baseline, such as homeworking solutions to split traffic. This will continue to be important as homeworkers need to prioritise their internet usage for business applications such as Microsoft Teams.

Ultimately, how does FTTP compare with Ethernet?

Many end customers will still value the private, low latency characteristics of ethernet products. They are also backed by rigorous SLGs and business grade service surrounds. The ability to burst between bandwidth levels to cope with unexpected peaks is easily supported. Therefore, Ethernet is still very much the first port of call for businesses that need to service their headquarters and branch offices reliably.

FTTP, on the other hand, has a more residential flavour, with end users able to download more than they can upload, and due to there being the potential for congestion. It is a quicker product to deliver and comfortably meets the business requirements of the high street branch, or the business line homeworker. It also has the potential to be used as a cheaper access tails in MPLS / SD_WAN deployments.

Why should customers adopt FTTP through Virtual1?

A benefit of buying FTTP through Virtual1 is that customers can see its availability through 1Portal, at a glance. Availability data will be refreshed based on the latest data sets from Openreach, giving partners a high degree of certainty. Partners will be able to order FTTP in the same way they order Ethernet or FTTC, making it a really simple process. Every week the number of business premises passed in the UK increases and almost as soon as the latest availability data is published it is out of date. We’re always keen to discuss our partners’ specific requirements as we can check what future build plans Openreach has and ensure they have accurate information to feed through to their customers.

An important thing for partners to realise is that, as part of the copper network closure, the PSTN network (the old phone network) will also close. Many partners who sell legacy voice services will need to migrate their businesses to the delivery of IP voice services and FTTP products are ideally suited to provide the hooks for them. That’s a conversation we can have with partners about how to approach this inevitable migration requirement.

We’re happy to help guide our partners on how these new products will impact their solutions, to steer them in the right direction for their business model. These discussions then create a feedback loop that is also invaluable to us as it influences how we develop our products. This ability to provide the personal touch is something you don’t always get when you communicate with the big beasts.

What are the risks to those who don’t adopt FTTP?
Openreach are declaring the Salisbury exchange as the very first full fibre exchange later this year. The only alternatives on offer will be FTTC and G, fast and only where there’s good reason that a full fibre delivery can’t happen. An example of this might be a stately home with planning permission regulations refusing the right to dig up the grounds to lay the fibre.

Once FTTP is available to a minimum of 70% of the geographical area, all exchanges will soon be declared fibre-first. Partners need to be on top of the timetable for how these exchanges are migrating because if you are behind the curve you could lose customers to competitors with compelling IP voice and connectivity propositions.

While the headline of the 2025 PSTN switch off is in people’s minds, it seems people haven’t grasped that it isn’t like the digital tv switch over which happened in a day. Migration will happen gradually, starting now, and its key for partners to have a strategy to adopt the new product sets.

At Virtual1 we’re all about that connectivity underneath the voice product and can talk you through how the market is changing to ensure that you mitigate the risks, and capitalize on the opportunities a full fibre Britain presents to the communications market.

What puts Virtual1 in good shape to provide FTTP?

We’re currently the fastest growing Openreach partner which means we have strong relationships with their senior management at all levels. We’re also active participators in many of the top industry forums and committees, so we know about the market and have an accurate view of what Openreach and the rest of the altnets are doing.

For all of our on-net services, we use Openreach to deliver the last mile of connectivity. We are fully integrated with Openreach for Ethernet ordering which means that any orders placed via 1Portal are passed directly to them and as a result, we can install 13 working days faster than the market average, with far fewer complications. FTTP will make use of the vast majority of this existing automation so we expect to offer similar service levels as it becomes a reality.