Superfast Altnets Begin to Find Their Niche

March 26, 2012   |   Annelise Berendt

Point Topic research highlights a growing role for alternative networks in superfast UK

As BT and Virgin Media start to build scale in premises passed and customers sign to their superfast broadband services, some of the UK’s alternative network operators are beginning to find their niche. Although not all altnets will be successful, there are circumstances in which their varied and localised approaches look set to bring superfast broadband to individual communities that have often been struggling with access to even the most basic of broadband services.

According to leading analyst firm, Point Topic, the country’s alternative network operators have increased their residential customer base by 85% since mid-2011, and had around 8,400 fibre-based superfast end user connections at the end of 2011. These include fibre-to-the-cabinet, fibre-to-the-premises and fibre-to-the-building providers whose customers are receiving download speeds of at least 25Mbps.

“This connections number is small fry compared with the big network owners BT and Virgin Media, but it is highly significant for the communities being reached, some of which would otherwise run the risk of being left without superfast broadband, at least for some years to come,” says Annelise Berendt, Senior Analyst at Point Topic. “There is evidence, including from BT, that take up of superfast services is highest in those areas previously experiencing poor speeds of 2Mbps or below, and this bodes well for those addressing such markets and aiming to make the business case stake up.”

Point Topic’s regular survey of alternative superfast infrastructure projects shows that some of those working closely with specific communities are seeing results, both in terms of getting infrastructure in the ground and in getting customers onto their networks.

“Players such as Call Flow Solutions and Rutland Telecom using sub loop unbundling to provide fibre-to-the-cabinet solutions are building solid customer bases in the areas in which they are active. That is in small but not necessarily very remote communities, which tend to be located some distance from their serving BT exchange, and which are often prepared to put money into network rollout themselves.

“Local knowledge of potential demand and the geographical terrain, as well as being able to tap into local enthusiasm for broadband provision, are essential to getting these networks up and running. Indeed it is no surprise that several local authorities are recruiting ‘broadband champions’ to canvas support and demand registration for their Local Broadband Plans, and to feed back ideas from the ground up. It is also notable that new approaches to raising finance and negotiations with local land owners on wayleaves help to turn a desired deployment into a viable business venture.”

Initiatives to make the growing number of scattered alternative networks more readily available to the country’s internet service providers and especially the larger more well known brands will become increasingly valid as the numbers of these networks rise.

“Fluidata’s wholesale platform and the Quality Marque being developed by INCA, the Independent Networks Cooperative Association, are good examples of projects that could make a real difference to the ability of these altnets to flourish over the longer term.”

Point Topic’s research also highlights the innovative use of alternative backhaul networks. FibreSpeed in Wales and NYnet in North Yorkshire are each being used by internet service providers to bring their offerings to more remote communities. Players such as AB Internet and Netserve in Wales through the ‘FibreSpeed spreads its wings’ initiative, and Moorsweb and LN Communications through the Connecting North Yorkshire project are using wireless technologies to provide broadband.

“While not as high speed as fibre networks, improvements in wireless broadband capabilities are resulting in some premises receiving superfast speeds. And of course such offerings would not be possible were it not for access to affordable backhaul provision,” concludes Berendt.

Point Topic’s superfast broadband survey carried out bi-annually, tracks the progress of the country’s fibre-based infrastructure providers. In addition to the alternative network operators ranging from those specialising in rural and remote communities to those targeting the fibre-to-the-building market in UK towns and cities, it lists projects by BT and Virgin Media, and plots the progress being made by local authorities looking to access public funds in the Government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) process.