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Openreach Aerial Drone Brings Rural Full Fibre Broadband to Village in Wales

Sometimes getting fibre optic cable from one point to another over difficult terrain (rivers, unstable rocks etc.) can be tricky, which is partly why Openreach (BT) has today become one of the first in the world to use an aerial drone to help deploy the cable for a new FTTP network in the village of Pontfadog.[1][2] The development itself shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, not least because Openreach[3] has previously hinted about their plans to test such an approach and BT‘s mobile sibling (EE) also appears to have gained plenty of experience in the field by using similar technology to deploy 4G mobile connectivity (details[4]). Nevertheless using a drone to carry optical fibre cables is a very different challenge.

In this example the target for Openreach’s first public test was the small rural village of Pontfadog in the rugged Ceiriog Valley (Wrexham, North Wales), which until recently would have struggled to get much more than a handful of Megabits (ADSL MAX) out of the local Glyn Ceiriog exchange. The good news is that a new 1Gbps capable Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP[5]) based “ultrafast broadband” network has now been rolled out to almost the whole village on the valley floor. Sadly around 20 premises sat further up one side of the valley (described locally as the “dark side” of the village), which made them tricky to reach.

In other words, digging trenches and erecting roadside cabinets wasn’t an option. Wireless and Satellite[6] solutions were also been ruled out, although it’s unclear why (Openreach don’t appear to build those, so that may be the main reason). At least they were tricky, until a group of Openreach’s engineers used a portable drone to land cabling on the isolated group of homes.

Openreach Aerial Drone Brings Rural Full Fibre Broadband to Village in Wales The deployment itself took place as part of the state aid support Superfast Cymru[7] programme, which aims to make “fibre broadband” (FTTC[8]/P) services available to around 95% of Wales (currently around 92% of premises can already order “superfast” speeds of 24Mbps+). Many of those that are left to finish off under the current contract will use FTTP instead of slower hybrid fibre FTTC[9] (VDSL2) connections.

We should point out that the Welsh Government are currently consulting on a plan to extend this roll-out so that “fast reliable broadband” (defined as 30Mbps+) can reach “every property” in Wales by 2020 (here[10]).

Andy Whale, Openreach’s Chief Engineer, said: “It’s a bit different to connecting an apartment block in London, that’s for sure. We managed to connect up virtually the whole village in the valley floor, but getting to this group of 20 houses up one side of the valley was a bit trickier.

There’s a particularly steep drop-off from these houses back down the valley, and it’s covered in dense trees and scrubland. We also had the river running along the bottom to contend with, so dragging a cable and digging it in wasn’t really an option. If we tried running the cable through woods it was also very likely we’d get it caught up in branches and other natural obstructions, so we figured the best option was to fly it in over the top of the tree canopy and then lift it up to make sure it was clear of the tree line.

Had we tried to lay the cable using standard methods, even if it were possible, this process would have taken days, but in the event it took us less than an hour. We’re constantly trialing new techniques and technologies to help us take fibre broadband further and faster, and importantly to drive delivery costs down. All this means we can now deliver high-speed broadband in situations where traditionally it’s been impossible for any business or partnership to justify the work.”

At this point any buddying drone enthusiast will point out that the kit being used by Openreach is too small to lift all that cable over any kind of distance and you’d be right.

Instead the drone was hooked up to a length of high strength fishing line, which was then flown around 100 meters and dropped across the top of the trees. That line was attached to a draw-rope – itself attached to a fibre cable – and the cable was then pulled over. Openreach said they were “not aware of this technique being used anywhere in the world to deliver fixed line broadband in such a situation,” although the basic idea of using drones to carry new cabling is not a new one (e.g. they’ve already been used to help connect cables for new bridges).

The operator is now likely to conduct further trials and after that they will considers “plans to equip and train selected engineers to pilot drones in engineering teams across the UK.”

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References

  1. ^ Openreach (www.openreach.co.uk)
  2. ^ FTTP (www.ispreview.co.uk)
  3. ^ Openreach (www.openreach.co.uk)
  4. ^ details (www.ispreview.co.uk)
  5. ^ FTTP (www.ispreview.co.uk)
  6. ^ Satellite (www.ispreview.co.uk)
  7. ^ Superfast Cymru (gov.wales)
  8. ^ FTTC (www.ispreview.co.uk)
  9. ^ FTTC (www.ispreview.co.uk)
  10. ^ here (www.ispreview.co.uk)

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