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Hyperoptic interview: ‘PIA would let us bring fibre to the people’

When telecoms watchdog Ofcom decided to not formally separate BT’s network arm Openreach from the main company, many ISPs seemed less than happy

Hyperoptic, however, seemed pretty upbeat about the outcome. We caught up with managing director Dana Tobak to chat about Ofcom’s decision, what it means for the company and the implications it has for the UK telecoms industry as a whole. 

Tobak was also able to give us a brief explanation of PIA – Physical Infrastructure Access – the BT service that lets other ISPs have access to its nationwide network of ducts and poles in order to install their own fibre optic links. Or at least it does in theory; in practice, no company has made use of PIA despite it being available for roughly five years. 

It’s perhaps unsurprising that one of the things Ofcom now wants BT to do is lubricate the PIA process in order to create an environment where it’s easier for rival ISPs to access BT’s poles and ducts to create networks parallel to the Openreach one. 
Ofcom is currently consulting with BT on how this will happen and there’s more detail on page 38 of the regulator’s initial Strategic Review, which you can read here

In the meantime, here’s what Hyperoptic’s Dana Tobak had to tell us. 

Recombu: We were surprised to see Hyperoptic being so positive about it considering how negative others were being. That said, the decision raises lots of questions about the future of BT and how ISPs using Openreach will make use of it. Will Hyperoptic ever sell any services via the Openreach network? How might you now use BT’s assets? 

Dana Tobak: What we are focussed on is that we would use the pole and duct access, specifically in our case the duct access, the PIA, in order to essentially reach more homes than we’re reaching today. 

Today we’re focussed on large, multi-dwelling buildings and blocks of flats. With PIA, we have the opportunity to bring the size of those buildings down and potentially even go to individual homes, townhouses, mansions. 

We aren’t going to be reselling any BT products, but we would be using that duct access to build our own infrastructure.

R: So you’d be potentially creating a competing network alongside Openreach?

DT: Correct.

R: Is this something you’d potentially open up to other ISPs via a service level agreement or would you only sell purely Hyperoptic services for the foreseeable?

DT: I think for the foreseeable future it works best if we provide the end-to-end solution as well because it brings as close as possible to our customers. Our customer service team sits right next to our network team, so there’s no handing over. We like that customer experience, it’s a good fit for us and our customers. But as we grow, it’s something that we’d reconsider, if it makes sense.

R: I know that Openreach has considered a kind of ‘Uber for Engineers’ service that means ISPs can more or less see where the vans are in real-time. This isn’t a consumer-facing service at the moment, but it could be. Is this something Hyperoptic would consider developing for customers? 

DT: All of our customers before an installation get a call the night before from a Hyperoptic engineer. They’ll then talk through timing and what the installation itself will entail. Then of course it’s that same person who actually shows up at the door. They also give notice before they arrive to let customers know they’re on their way. We think that’s a pretty good experience, we’d like to automate more of that, but we’re still growing.

R: Hyperoptic wanted to get half a million customers signed up by 2018. Are we still on track? 

DT: We are on target on getting those homes passed, whether that’s by 2018 or 2019 is another thing so we’ll have to see how that plays out. We are considering whether through PIA we can make that a bigger number. That’s essentially what this year’s going to be all about. We’re not ready to announce a new target just yet though. The point is we can definitely reach that 500,000, but the question is now, how much further can we go?

R: What’s the next stage of the process with Ofcom and what’s your ideal outcome?

Dana Tobak: “At some point everyone will be on a fibre connection”DT: The thing we’re the most focussed on is the PIA product. We have been involved in the industry working group [run by the Office of the Telecommunications Adjudicator] which was set even before this announcement, because PIA has been a product although it’s currently baldy defined, I would say, despite BT saying that nobody wants to use it. 

They do want to use it, they just don’t like the way it’s defined and how difficult Openreach has made it to use. We’re involved saying how we want it defined and what changes we want to see. As part of that process, we will work with Ofcom to essential force BT to make a product that’s fit for purpose, which it is not currently.

Another thing we look forwards to is the civil infrastructure directive which is due out this summer. This is the law relating to the use of not just Openreach ducts, but all utility ducts in the provision of superfast broadband.

So there’s two different things going on that we’re engaged in that we think can bring some momentum around our ability to use PIA in order to develop and deliver services. That’s why we’re looking for this to be our year of planning our own type of R&D in terms of how that can apply to a model, so we’re in a better position to make predictions for the end of the year.

R: For the benefit of people like me who aren’t network engineers, could you elaborate on the whole PIA process and why you think it’s not fit for purpose? Is cost a barrier?

DT: No, actually, cost is relative but it’s a very serial process. For example, the very first step is you have to be established as a customer for the product, which we did last year. This took about five to six months. That’s just to be allowed to consider using the product.

Then you need to put in an application for maps for a particular area. That can take up to 20 working days for Openreach to respond with the details.

Then you’ll need to do a survey for the areas you want to come to. Openreach then requires you to give them the results of your survey and then owns the results of that survey. After that you then have to put in another request to reserve a route.

And then after that you then have to put in a request to actually do the physical work.

This is the process that Openreach has defined for using its ducts. I think one of the frustrations the industry has is how long it takes and how serial the process is, and there’s cost implications along the way, but I think that the largest cost is just how much effort the process takes. You might be going to a particular area two or three times between surveys and actually doing the physical work.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The industry is working with Openreach about what it would like to see change, and we’re still waiting for a response.

Much of this will perhaps be unsurprising to those not close to the UK telecoms industry, especially those actively involved in the discussions around PIA. 

It does provide an exciting vision of the future where companies like Hyperoptic, which mainly (but not exclusively) targets customers living in fancy new builds and inner city apartment blocks, can more easily reach the suburbs and commuter corridors of the UK’s towns and cities. 

Sure, superfast broadband is nice and a considerable improvement on last-gen ADSL, but if you could easily get an FTTP (Fibre to the Premises) line with the potential to go up to a gigabit as and when you needed that, which would you prefer? 

Ofcom has said it will announce results of its discussions with BT on infrastructure ‘later this year’, which should give us a better idea of when this vision might come to pass. 

More recently, BT has made encouraging noises about its plans to roll out FTTP in more places, announcing a pair of business-only trials in Bradford. We’ve also yet to see if Sky and TalkTalk’s trial with CityFibre will bear any fruit. CityFibre’s just announced Southend-on-Sea as its latest Gigabit City, paving the way for potential residential rollouts in the future. The UK telecoms landscape could look very different a year on from now.