Given their arrival on Segways following a laboured performance by street dancers trying to convince delegates of the need for fibre in order to satisfy Generation Y’s appetite for gaming, you expected a big bang from the hosts of the FTTH Council’s annual conference.
But the announcement that there are just 12.3 million FTTH/B subscribers in the European Union, albeit with year-on-year growth of 60 percent, proved to be more of a warning than a celebration.
The paltry numbers, both in absolute terms and when compared to the rest of the world, were the backdrop for an event that continues to promise much but deliver little.
The organiser’s host country, Poland, provided two government ministers to explain FTTH is “a priority” and the country is “the largest broadband construction site in Europe”.
Magdalena Gaj, President of Poland’s national regulator, dismissed as “myths” arguments that there is no demand for FTTH, that the business model is too risky and too expensive for operators.
She said: “We need to be visionary. Consumers and businesses want more bandwidth...without modern infrastructure we are going nowhere.”
Outgoing FTTH Council President Karin Ahl commented: “I’m increasingly optimistic about the future. Operators get 46 percent higher revenues from FTTH subscribers compared to DSL equivalents.”
She said progress in her three years at the helm could be measured by the number of regulators and operator groups who were now happy to engage and come to talk at the event.
For the record, BEREC Chairman Fatima Barros did a keynote promising to change the reputation of regulators by being more forward looking. ETNO and ECTA were also on panels.
Operators willing to talk up fibre were present as well. Gustav Grundin, Chief Strategy Officer at O2 Czech Republic, explained why he had come round to the idea.
“Two years ago I said copper will remain resilient but things have changed," he said. Grundin cited big screen TVs, the number of devices per household and bandwidth wastage, namely the network not differentiating what is required, as trends that had made him become a fibre fanatic.
Frederico Guillen, President of Alcatel-Lucent’s Fixed Networks business, summed up the positive vibe. He told European Communications: “Two years ago the market was sceptical about fixed networks but fibre is the end game...we have to accelerate roll out.”
But here’s the kicker; according to the A-L exec, it is fibre “as close as possible to the end user” that really counts.
He said: “Operators have to deploy whatever is best for their business case as long as you offer the best service [in terms of coverage and speed].”
He made a point of not saying FTTH. Clearly, the France-based vendor has a vested interest in not only talking up one technology – it has a range of other products to sell to operators as well.
Behind Ahl’s optimism lies the bare fact that not enough is being done to install FTTH in European streets. She laments: “Operators are focused on short-term fixes.”
In particular, Ahl worries about two of Europe’s biggest markets, Germany and the UK, which have not gone down the FTTH road.
She had harsh words about the UK, which is mostly reliant on BT’s FTTC architecture. G.Fast is coming next year.
Ahl claims to have has received calls from “lots of companies” who are leaving the country because of a lack of capacity in the network.
To rectify this, the President says pressure from government and the public is required. But this seemed at odds with BEREC’s Barros, who said “less intrusive regulation” was one of her goals.
Ultimately, operators and vendors are in agreement that consumers don’t care what the technology is, as long as it delivers the required service. A-L’s Guillen says: “FTTH cannot be viewed in isolation...it has to be viewed as just one part of the network. Many operators are continuing to mix deployments [of network infrastructure] because the typical take-up rate of 10 percent over five years for FTTH is not high enough.
“The conversations we are having here are mainly about how to achieve a better return on investment.”
Guillen presents a graph to demonstrate a two-step business case from an operator that claims to show how a mixed copper and fibre network deployed over a 20 year timeframe can reduce the period of negative cash flow from seven years to two.
“We are not going to see FTTH deployments increase by a factor of 10 over the next few years but what we will see is a huge increase in deployments of [technologies that provide] fibre-like speeds.”
Research from Ovum confirms FTTH numbers will remain low over the next few years. It predicts Western Europe will have 24 million FTTH subscribers by 2019. It says deployments are strong in emerging markets and where there is a national broadband plan.
As Ahl prepares to depart, she says the low numbers represent a failure for Europe. There is nothing to suggest a big bang that will change this is on the horizon.