Bridge Fibre: science and business park specialist

A case study

Point Topic recently met with Andrew Glover, chair of the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA), chief executive of IT support company Bridge Partners, fibre broadband operator and service provider Bridge Fibre, and co-founder of fixed wireless access provider Air Broadband,  at his offices in Cowley Road, Cambridge, to understand how these various businesses have developed, his ideas for the future and his observations on broadband in the UK. We also visited one of Bridge Fibre’s broadband deployments located on Cambridge Innovation Park, a leading enterprise site in the area, to hear about broadband requirements from site landlord and developer, Paragon Land & Estates Ltd.

BACKGROUND

Bridge Fibre grew out of the established IT provider Bridge Partners, which was founded in 2001 by joint managing directors Andrew Glover and Daniel Kleeman.

Bridge Partners connected its first building with broadband connectivity in 2006/7 at St John’s Innovation Centre in Cambridge where it was then located. It had been providing IT support to businesses on the site for some years, and, following several customer complaints about regular over usage charges, Bridge Partners bid for the connectivity tender when it came up for renewal having sourced dark fibre from Telstra which had a data communications centre literally next door to their office. Unlimited bandwidth was a key feature of the Bridge Partners offer, and this remains the case today.

For Bridge Partners becoming an internet service provider was also a good move in terms of attracting new IT contracts. In 2014, Glover and Kleeman decided to launch Bridge Fibre as a separate business providing dedicated access to internet services for SMEs, science and business parks.

Bridge Fibre is now growing at 20 to 30 per cent a year. Its financial year ends in August, and last year it turned over £2.1 million; this year it is projected to turn over £2.6 million. The operator has around 750 customers on 34 sites. Take-up on sites varies with some at 100 per cent penetration.

HOW IT WORKS

Bridge Fibre has all flavours of MTU site, from science and business parks with multiple buildings to smaller locations such as farms housing small business centres. The common factor is that each site is covered by a single landlord. Glover explains, “This means one set of wayleaves, and one process to sort out how to connect the buildings.”

Sites usually have two Layer 2 connections to backhaul. The operator runs its own core network linked to three data centres located in Telecity, Hoddesdon and Cambridge. It has its own transit and peering arrangements, its own IP addresses, and manages the core network itself. It uses carrier neutral bearer connections to access sites including those from SSE, TalkTalk, Virgin Media and FluidONE. Bridge Fibre then lays fibre on site to deliver connectivity direct to tenants, rather than using GPON architecture.

This network is usually owned by the landlord with Bridge Fibre operating it; Bridge Fibre does not have exclusivity at sites except on the use of ducts, comms room, power supply and backhaul.

Bridge Fibre sells connectivity separately to the various tenants. Landlords include details on Bridge Fibre’s connectivity offers as part of their marketing pack for any particular site. Glover says the operator has been both educating landlords in the benefits and importance of high-speed connectivity and also “riding the wave” of growing interest from landlords in broadband provision. “It’s now the first or second question they receive from potential tenants,” notes Glover.

BRIDGE FIBRE PRODUCTS

Bridge Fibre offers three core products – connectivity, telephony and hosting. It also offers consultancy to clients from pre-planning and feasibility, through infrastructure design and procurement to the delivery of Gigabit fibre and wireless services to tenants and landlords; colocation hosting; inbound telephony; and IT support through Bridge Partners. It uses Broadsoft as its VoIP telephony hosting platform.

Pricing is said to have no hidden charges and contract terms are available from 30 days to five years. All services are unmetered with no consumption or usage charges, subject to Bridge Fibre’s acceptable use policy.  Pricing varies site to site depending on associated costs, especially of the bearer to that specific location, as well as how many customers are on site and what investment the landlord puts into the installation.

Product set

Dedicated

Uncontended symmetrical connection that is the equivalent of a dedicated fibre. The service is specifically designed for enterprises where a private circuit is essential

Premium

Low contention service provided over a symmetric connection, ideal for working with incoming services like VPN and cloud-based applications, recommended for SMEs

Contended

Basic asymmetric connection recommended for start-ups, which need to carry out essential business communications online

Point to point

Connections can be provided to satellite offices or other locations

Symmetrical

Equal amount of bandwidth for upload and download

Asymmetric

Majority of two-way bandwidth is dedicated to download. Upload speed is 10 per cent of download


AIR BROADBAND

Glover is also co-founder of wireless internet service provider Air Broadband, which provides fixed wireless access (FWA) services. Air Broadband was set up by Glover with James Dening in 2013 after several years of discussion with a number of friends on how to solve the issue of broadband not-spots.

Air Broadband now has around 600 users and covers locations in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Northamptonshire, as well as some parts of North Yorkshire and Suffolk. Customers are predominantly residential although around one in 10 are SOHO businesses including a number of farms. There are also a few packing firms with international links. Turnover is around £200,000.

Air Broadband has acquired other WISPs, including Village Broadband Ltd, based in Northamptonshire in June 2016. This has scaled up the business and it now employs two full-time technical staff. Installation work is outsourced and operational support is provided in-house.

LOOKING AHEAD

In terms of the future Glover is quite clear that the UK broadband market has undergone a sea change in the past year. “With the likes of CityFibre, Gigaclear and others in the prime conquest of FTTP, and the Government push on full fibre of a year ago, market sentiment and expectations have completely transformed. Wireless has a part to play but it is now about a hybrid concept,” says Glover.

Glover is now looking at bringing together fixed wireless provision with full fibre deployment in the form of a fibre build company to construct and operate fibre networks on an open access basis. The plan is to offer WISPs an “under-build” fully-provisioned fibre infrastructure in villages already covered by FWA networks. Essentially this is an off-the-shelf fibre network package for WISPs.

Glover is looking to bring together around 10 projects and then approach Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund (DIIF) investors. Other investors might be individuals and even communities on the B4RN-type model. Examples from wind and solar farms in terms of investment frameworks are useful here according to Glover.

With the tentative name of Fibre Assets, this new venture would use direct fibre rather than GPON architecture, and deploy two fibres to every premises in order to future proof the network and maximise consumer choice. There could be some exclusivity on network use for a number of years for the WISP as part of the arrangement. Total cost per premises is expected to be around £1,000.

LOOKING TO NEW MARKET CONDITIONS

Underpinning this, Glover believes there will be increasing overbuild in more rural areas as the market moves on, and players such as Gigaclear begin to run out of places without any form of superfast broadband provision. In terms of 5G, there may be scope for fibre to the lamp post to enable local authority services such as CCTV in local communities. But he sees power supply as a key issue here because networks will no longer be copper.

He also believes there needs to be more collaboration within the broadband industry. “Between government at national and local levels and also between industry and industry sectors,” Glover notes. This includes working with other utilities on elements such as smart metering and sensors. “This is the sort of conversation we need to be having,” says Glover.

Glover also believes the country may be at a tipping point in terms of FTTP with Openreach no longer owning the lion’s share of infrastructure. “If we have say one million FTTP lines now and 50 per cent of those are supplied by the altnets, we could see the point at which Openreach is no longer the largest provider,” says Glover, “we may end up with Openreach being far less influential in the wholesale FTTP market, and perhaps have a similar situation to the consumer retail sector with about four big suppliers.

FULL STORY

The full version of this report is included in Point Topic’s UK Plus service. Please contact Simona Pranulyte on +44 (0)20 3301 3303 or e-mail simona@point-topic.com for more details.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Bridge Fibre emerges from IT business
    • Business model
    • Bridge Fibre product set
  • The Air Broadband Story
  • Tour of Stirling House
    • The landlord’s perspective
  • Looking ahead to new ventures
    • Looking to new market conditions
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