Does your BT broadband connection pass through THIS?

I was amazed by what I found deep under the earth, buried beneath my own house. Exploring the infrastructure that delivers the internet to our homes is a rare opportunity, and for me, located inside the footprint of the old Roman walls of London, it was one to be grabbed with both hands.

Does your BT broadband connection pass through THIS?

These subterranean corridors are normally locked tightly shut: if it’s not the fear of terrorism, it’s the health and safety panic of sewage leaks, extreme proximity to a tube line, or lurking carbon dioxide from under-ventilated underground carparks. These are places where human feet rarely tread.

Down, down, deeper

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The invite came from Ian Ratcliffe, MD of Vision Fibre Media: a small player in the internet connection business, specialising in estates that suffer from a lack of service or interest from BT. The Barbican falls directly into this category, where the ubiquitous granite-chip, rebar-packed concrete construction hides 60-year-old wires laid in half-inch pipes.

This may sound like an isolated kind of problem, but it’s not the only scenario in which a complete resupply of connection is the only hope for high-speed broadband. While Vision Fibre Media focuses on consumer services, its services hold appeal for businesses stuck in 1980’s “science parks” whose broadband connections are hobbled by telephone service delivery over aluminium wires.

The problem with aluminium for internet traffic is that DSL depends very heavily on the electrical characteristics of copper wire. Any deviation from top-quality wire or perfect, on-spec connections and your speeds will suffer. Even if you meet the standard for the wires, there are emerging problems with many DSL signals crowding together in electrically noisy spaces – such as, for instance, an iron pipe thrown hastily into liquid concrete in 1947.

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While walking through the tunnels, we passed BT-owned infrastructure that looked like it had been installed by Alexander Graham Bell. I doubt that many people think about the number of joints in the wire between their DSL wall socket and the hardware in the exchange, but fewer still would expect those joints to be bare wire wrapped around little slotted screws, sitting just beneath a cast iron sewage pipe. The engineer and I were horrified – we didn’t even dare blow the dust from the soldered wire posts to see if there was anything there at all.

Rust and plastic

You might reasonably wonder how BT could allow such crucial infrastructure to get to this point, but the crux of the issue is that BT Openreach have no remit, no internal charge code, to deal with these fossilised installations. Yank a bit of the century-old copper wire and the insulation will crumble, the conductors may snap – and then you’re going to have to painstakingly trace it through walls, pavement and earth to rewire it from scratch. Worse still, it might even require you to even rewire other people’s connections, along with the one that raised the fault call. This is a manpower nightmare.

barbican-vision-fibre-media-rack-installation

The contrast with the modern infrastructure installed by Vision Fibre Media could not be starker: just look at the rack cabinets above. They look pretty neat and modern – and you can’t tell from the spaghetti of optical cables that this rack services something like 2,000 premises. Amazingly, though, while the rack plays a key part in the proceedings, the lynchpin of the whole show isn’t visible in this picture. It’s the odd-looking little box of flappy plastic trays pictured below. Does anything about them scream “unpowered optical-only digital signal splitter”? No? Well, it should.

Each little grey plastic flap is a separator, breaking up a multi-signal optical feed into distinct sub-signals for distribution to groups of households. The kicker, though, is that there’s no power supply, and, as a result, this splitter will survive in environments that would destroy traditional metal cabling and powered signal splitters. However, it’s not just impressive for the technology: this dramatically reduces the difficulty of rolling out new fibre installations, hugely benefitting the customer – and very likely horrifying the legions of BT Openreach workers. The term “game-changer” really doesn’t do it justice.

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Splitting light

The critical bit of tech is a planar optical splitter. VFM are using a 3M component – and if you’re interested, you can delve into its advanced technical capabilities here. It used to be the case that you needed smart, mains-powered boxes with fibre ports and enough processing power to decode and encode a stream of data to split out a fibre pipeline for multiple tenants – but not anymore. Optical splitters dramatically reduce the difficulty of wiring up a mid-sized area and the chances of electrical issues breaking thousands of internet connections.

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The impact of the technology is potentially enormous. Under the BT-led, copper-based architecture we have all been using, the point at which our data packets are grouped together is inside a phone exchange, with each 6ft rack serving a maximum of a few hundred customers and requiring a constant, significant amount of electricity. Go optical, and that need for a heavily secured, dedicated building and resilient power supply disappears entirely. 

This rewrites the budget required to get people connected, and uses connection methods that are likely to have a much longer service life and provide far more easily diagnosed failure modes – more so than the current copper nightmare inflicted by BT. The only remaining challenge? To figure out where best to put those little plastic flaps, to optimise the amount of fibre required to link up all the customers.

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Once we emerged from the corridors of concrete, rust, and abandoned phone wiring, daylight revealed hands and clothes covered in corrosion and grime, all from our trip through BT’s ageing, exposed-wire infrastructure. With those old rusty telephone boards now superseded by grime-resistant optical wizardry, my 1Gb internet connection is set to arrive at the end of the month – and not a moment too soon.

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