Local authority innovators: Colchester’s ultrafast network

Business case study for Colchester's ultrafast network

Point Topic met with Steven Eke, Senior Delivery Consultant (Digital Sector Lead) for Colchester Amphora Trading Ltd, to discuss the aims of the project, how the Colchester Town Centre network was deployed, the challenges encountered, plans for further development, and the results seen so far.

Colchester’s open access passive full fibre ultrafast network delivering speeds of up to 1Gbps over active Ethernet and GPON connections is the first example of its type to have been deployed by a local authority in the UK. The award winning network provides coverage to more than 850 SMEs and passes 1,100 residential addresses in what was a previously underserved area of the Essex town’s centre, and has been led by the local authority, Colchester Borough Council (CBC). The network is available to all ISPs and business connectivity providers on an equal and open basis.

Point Topic met with Steven Eke, Senior Delivery Consultant (Digital Sector Lead) for Colchester Amphora Trading Ltd, the council’s commercial arm. This case study explains the aims of the project, how the Colchester Town Centre network was deployed, the challenges encountered, plans for further development, and the results seen so far.

Background leading to network deployment

The initiative is part of Colchester’s five-year Digital Strategy 2017-22, published in September 2017 setting out a vision of Colchester Borough as the best-connected place in the East of England, and a magnet for the creative, media and technically innovative industries.

The strategy sets out how Colchester will achieve and make the best possible use of world-class connectivity, including future 5G mobile telephony, across both urban and rural parts in addition to the Borough’s main economic development zones.

The original plan focused first on creating connectivity for business parks. This was then shifted to focus on the town centre, a compact area which had BT ADSL coverage but often only first generation. Businesses were only able to access broadband speeds of 2-6Mbps download and up to 0.5Mbps upload or were having to use expensive private circuits for gigabit services. Since digital as a sector already accounted for 10 per cent of the local economy with emerging apps and software development, and several medium-sized digital marketing companies, it meant they were effectively being prevented from expanding due to poor broadband connectivity.

Finding a new approach

Both Openreach and Virgin Media were approached by the Council for higher speed solutions but both made clear they had no plans in the foreseeable future for large-scale full fibre rollout. This situation has not changed, more than three years later. However, this galvanised CBC’s economic growth team to look again at the possibility of using the CCTV assets to deliver improved connectivity. Some work on this approach had already been undertaken as part of the town’s deployment of a meshed wifi network in 2013-15.

Figure 1: Installation work including civils and wall box connection for final drop

Photographs: Colchester Borough Council

A cost-effective solution to deployment of fibre final connection points was to mount them on the walls of CBC-owned or controlled assets.

The result was the first deployment of an open access, dark fibre network undertaken by a local authority in the UK. The model is used to great effect elsewhere in the European Union, particularly in Sweden, and according to Eke, Sweden’s Stokab business model was studied closely by the Council in developing its business case.

The resulting network is one of nine proposed workstreams under the Digital Strategy to deliver ultrafast/FTTP connectivity not just to the town centre, but to the whole Borough – in turn, achieving its ambition to make Colchester Borough the best-connected in the East of England by 2022. There are currently four workstreams up and running, now incorporated into a bid for capital funding from the Government’s Local Full Fibre Network Wave 3 programme.

The project was developed by the Council’s Economic Development Team in cooperation with infrastructure provider Fibre Options and specialist construction and civil works contractors. There was also cooperation with Essex County Council over civil works, as well as the Department of Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) over the model of deployment being used. DCMS has since cited Colchester as an example for other local authorities which own CCTV infrastructure that may be repurposed as a cost-effective means of deploying FTTP networks.

Figure 2: European Broadband Award 2017 and network speed test

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photograph: Colchester Borough Council

 

In November 2017 the initiative was named by the European Commission as one of five winners of its annual 2017 European Broadband Awards, in the category for “Cost reduction and co-investment in a future-proof infrastructure”. By leveraging existing council assets, particularly existing CCTV infrastructure, and including innovative final-drop deployment measures to simplify the cost and logistical issues involved in rolling out full fibre broadband to premises, it is estimated this deployment model reduced costs by 80 per cent compared with building from scratch.

Services and marketing

The network gained some 30 business customers during its first year of operation, ranging from small taxi companies of under 10 employees, to an architect’s design studio, a multi-unit business centre and CBC’s own corporate wifi networks. It has served high-profile public events, including two annual gaming festivals in which it serviced more than 500 concurrent connections. The network is within reach of some 850 businesses within a 50 metre drop and 1,100 residential addresses. The project has made pure fibre connectivity to the premises in Colchester town centre available for the first time, and available at prices 40 to 60 per cent below the comparable leased line or private circuit solution offered by BT Business, Virgin Media and other players.

It is hoped the network will play a crucial role in attracting new creative and digital businesses, with another of the CBC’s recent projects, the Creative Business Centre, being the first to offer the capacity for gigabit fibre-to-the-desk.

Figure 3: Outside and inside the Creative Business Centre at 37 Queen Street

Photographs: Colchester Borough Council

37 Queen Street is a listed building in the Town Centre which CBC converted into a creative and digital business centre, it became the first building in Colchester to have gigabit-capable connections to each desk.

Stimulating competition

A by-product of the network already appears to be stimulating competition from other providers. Since deployment of the Colchester Town Centre network, Openreach has installed six street cabinets for FTTC services in various locations on a commercial basis. According to Eke, the whole initiative is about promoting competition and addressing market failure. He also notes that Openreach is offering a very different product in terms of VDSL asymmetrical services over copper versus pure FTTP symmetric bandwidth. Virgin Media has also been active, with increasingly competitive deals now available for private circuits, including five-year contracts with zero installation costs.

A model for others

Point Topic’s conclusion is that this initiative is achieving strong results and could well be a model for local authorities elsewhere with a pre-existing CCTV infrastructure. It builds on Colchester’s strengths in digital media and innovation, and on the assets it owns such as ducts and distribution points from its CCTV network.

Key to the project, however, has been the political support received from Colchester Borough Council and the way in which the local authority has given responsibility to officers to actually get things done.

Get the full analysis

If you found this free sample useful and think you would benefit from our full report which includes more information about the approach to Colchester’s ultrafast network deployment, future plans and current achievements, please telephone +44 (0)20 3301 3303 or e-mail simona@point-topic.comThe full report is also available to subscribers of Point Topic’s UK Plus service.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Background leading to network deployment
    • Finding a new approach
    • Funding for initiative
  • Approach to network deployment
  • Services and marketing
    • Take-up by business so far
    • Creating a space for digital expansion
  • Stimulating competition
  • Looking to an extended network
  • A model for others
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