Space

High in Fibre Optics

London may be an economic powerhouse, but it lags far behind its rivals when it comes to internet speeds. To help correct this anomaly, The Howard de Walden Estate has been working with a dynamic new telecoms company to provide tenants with access to a high speed fibre network

Words: Mark Riddaway

This is London: a global city, an economic powerhouse, a hotbed of technological innovation—and, when it comes to internet speeds, a miserable backwater. In 2014, analysis of the average download speeds of European capitals found that of 33 cities London was mired at number 26, outpaced by the likes of Bucharest and Vilnius. Even more remarkably, its slowest neighbourhoods are among its richest and most economically active: last year, a list of download speeds in the 650 UK electoral constituencies placed the Cities of London & Westminster at number 630, below such technological powerhouses as Banff & Buchan, Ynys Mon and South Holland & The Deepings.

“It really isn’t very good,” says David Sangster, with admirable understatement—people in Marylebone have been known to describe their internet service in more colourful terms. David is the managing director of G.Network, the communications service provider currently working to correct this strange anomaly by installing state-of-the-art fibre connectivity around central London, including Mayfair and Covent Garden. Over the past year, David and his team have been working closely with The Howard de Walden Estate to give businesses and residents on many of Marylebone’s streets simple, affordable access to the kind of rapid web speeds seemingly enjoyed by their peers in the Baltic.

Fibre is the future
Optical fibre is the future (and in many of the world’s cities, the present) of internet provision, but most homes and small businesses in London are still forced to depend upon the copper wire that has dominated telecoms since circuit-switched telephony was invented in the 19th century.

“Copper lines will always have significant constraints in both speed and reliability,” says David. Even when performing at their theoretical peak, ADSL services—the asymmetric digital subscriber lines that deliver the internet over copper—use a narrow frequency spectrum that precludes the possibility of genuinely adequate speeds. And very rarely do they perform at their peak: “Copper lines can get oxidised, which hampers performance, and the relationship between the length of the line and the speed you can get is quite stark: the longer the line, the slower the speed,” David continues. When you’re told that your broadband speed is “up to 24Mbps”, that’s like me saying that my running speed is “up to 24mph”—it’s a hypothetical possibility, but not a realistic one.

In the early years of the internet, this didn’t matter too much. But as online technologies and behaviours have evolved, particularly with the blossoming of cloud computing and high definition streaming services, so our need for speed has become ever greater. “These days, we’re all hammering the internet,” says David. “Ten years ago, the idea of needing 100Mbps might have seemed ridiculous; now for most people, even that’s nowhere near enough.”

Direction of travel
It’s not just the quantity of data that’s the problem, it’s also the direction of travel. “The A in ADSL stands for ‘asymmetric’—that means you get different speeds for the downlink and the uplink,” explains David. “When everyone started using the internet, it was all about downloading content—text, pictures, video—so the download speed we’re given is several times higher than the upload speed. The problem is that people are now sending as much data to the internet as they download. For example, a business might well upload all its activities to a remote data centre on a daily basis. It used to be that you needed the speed and capacity coming down to your laptop, now you need it as much going up, and it’s just not available.”

It is certainly available through a fibre connection. In a single cable, each of the dozens of tiny fibre filaments has the capacity to more than satisfy the current upload and download demands of even the most data-hungry of premises. In fact, optical fibres have the potential to carry considerably more data than we’re presently capable of sending from the equipment either end. Install them properly today, and these fibre connections will be fit for purpose for decades to come.

For any resident or business without very deep pockets, the option of a fibre connection in central London has, until now, been largely out of reach. Like so many of Britain’s major privatisation programmes, the transformation of the telecoms industry from state monopoly to dynamic marketplace has been severely hampered by a complex mix of logistics and politics. While BT and its major competitors are committed to rolling out fibre, progress has been slow and haphazard. Even in those areas where fibre is being provided, this is mainly what’s called FTTC: fibre to the cabinet. It’s a bit of a fudge: rather than running all the way to your home or business, the optical fibres from the local exchange terminate at a roadside cabinet. The connection from this roadside cabinet to your router is then made using copper wire, with all its inherent limitations. 

Prohibitive costs
If you want a genuinely fast service, you need the fibre to run all the way to your building—known as a ‘full fibre’ service—and under normal circumstances that has meant having to cough up for a leased line, the cost of which is beyond the means of most homes and small businesses. “The provider will go away and work out how much it costs to connect you to the nearest piece of fibre, which if you’re lucky will be in your street, but it may well not be,” explains David. “They will then charge you for that cost. For SMEs and residents, it’s really prohibitive. The entire London market is basically ADSL copper, which in the past was fine but now isn’t good enough, or fibre leased lines, which are expensive, have high up-front charges and take a long time, because you have to get permission to dig.”

G.Network takes a different approach. Its services are FTTP (the telecoms industry just loves initialisms): fibre to the premises. Methodically, street by street, the company is building a central London network that allows every business or home along the way to be quickly and efficiently provided with an end-to-end fibre connection.

Rather than following the lead of most service providers, which rely on leasing access from BT Openreach, G.Network is going it entirely alone. “All of this infrastructure is ours,” says David. “It’s our ducts, our fibre, our equipment. We control the service end to end. We want to build the highest quality network for the future, so we’ll do it all ourselves.”

Usually, G.Network’s decisions around which London streets to serve with its fibre, and in what order, are based purely upon demand. In Marylebone though, The Howard de Walden Estate’s determination to improve connectivity to as many tenants as possible has led to it collaborating with the telecoms provider on a project that covers the area in a more comprehensive and concentrated way. “The Estate has realised that as a responsible, progressive landlord, you have to provide electricity, you have to provide water, but you also have to provide the internet,” says David. “They have really bitten the bullet.”

A viable option
One of the main benefits of the Estate’s involvement has been the ease with which wayleaves are processed. “A wayleave is a legal agreement that allows us to put our equipment in your property and install the fibre,” explains David. “It can be a real challenge—in some places, it takes months. What the Estate has done is make that process as quick as possible—they have a dedicated person responsible for turning them around in just a couple of days, which makes such a difference.” With the Estate’s help, G.Network can usually provide a full fibre connection to a property within 72 hours of the tenant’s order being placed. Remarkably, that means that users can typically begin sending and receiving data at high speed just 25 days after G.Network’s diggers first start working on their street.

Unlike with a leased line, there are no connection charges, making this a genuinely viable option for households and small businesses. All they need do is get in touch. “What we say, and what the Howard de Walden Estate says on our behalf, is: this has been done, it’s there if you want it,” says David.

The first phase of G.Network’s Marylebone programme, consisting mainly of the Estate’s north-south arteries, has been completed and the second phase, covering the east-west streets, is well underway.

People of Banff & Buchan, citizens of Bucharest: enjoy the view for now. Street by street, central London is crawling its way up those lists.

Phase 1: Completed

Bentinck Street
Devonshire Place
Harley Street
Queen Anne Street
Marylebone Lane (part)
Upper Wimpole Street
Welbeck Street
Wimpole Street

Phase 2: Due for completion in the coming months

Beaumont Street
Bulstrode Street
Chandos Street
Devonshire Street
Harley Place
Mansfield Street
Marylebone High Street
New Cavendish Street
Portland Place
Weymouth Street
Wigmore Street