The choice of Luxembourg as the host country for the FTTH Council Europe’s annual summit perfectly summed up the conflicting world of fibre broadband on the continent.
As reported yesterday, the number of premises passed with and subscribers signed up to FTTH/B technology in European Union countries remains tiny.
The growth rate declined year-on-year as operators continue to sweat their copper assets and cite deployment costs and return on investments as key barriers to deployment.
FTTH Council President Edgar Aker says he is “not at all worried” by the latest results.
“We’re in this for the long run, we’re in our 13th year of existence...It’s not about year-on-year numbers,” he says.
Aker is realistic enough to recognise the challenges that operators face.
“They are going to invest where they can make the quickest RoI which is not always the most sensible one for the long term.
“But I’m convinced that everyone knows how the game is played, they all have back up plans in their pockets.”
Germany, in particular, is an interesting case this time around.
It has made the FTTH Council’s ranking of leading countries in Europe for the first time, but not thanks to Deutsche Telekom.
Instead, municipalities were the drivers of fibre deployments.
“[DT] will need to react, yes they need to respond,” says Aker. “It’s the logical thing to do.”
He is cautious on telcos relying on improved terms in the Digital Single Market package of reforms that is working its way through the European Commission to help with their future fibre strategies.
“It’s one building block in the house, it’s not the magic bullet but a stepping stone,” warns Aker.
His overall message to operators is this: “Make sure investments are future proof so that when you do a VDSL or G.Fast deployment, you can make an investment in fibre as the next step.”
The industry body he leads served up Luxembourg as the 2016 poster child for how fibre in Europe can look.
It bestowed its annual award on the 100 percent state-owned operator POST Luxembourg for achieving 50 percent FTTH coverage.
The company has a similar set up to BT in the UK, whereby an infrastructure arm, POST Technologies, is separated from its retail business.
It is the market leader in fixed, mobile and broadband, and number two in TV.
But with such a dominant market position and a population of just 550,000, it has to be asked what the FTTH laggards in Europe could realistically learn from it.
One tip could be a national broadband plan, which has been in place since 2010. But Gaston Bohnenberger, Head of POST Technologies, is keen to point out that the company has had its own plan in place – hybrid fixed-copper cables – since 1997.
“We didn’t have the transmission technology at that time to use the fibre part,” says Bohnenberger.
A more pertinent insight relates to what he regards as the biggest deployment challenge, in-house cabling, which he reveals is absent from more than half of the country’s “multi dwelling buildings” constructed before 2011.
“Fibre stops in the basement,” laments Bohnenberger.
POST has three solutions, including G.fast, but the exec is very keen to point out that it’s a temporary solution.
“If you say to the building owners that they can keep it they will never invest in inhouse cabling,” Bohnenberger says.
“So we say G.fast will be removed after three years if they haven’t invested in [what we need to deploy fibre].”
The operator plans to reach 60 percent FTTH coverage by 2017 and 80 percent thereafter.
In common with this peers, Bohnenberger is investing in sweating the copper as well.
POST’s VDSL coverage has an impressive 90 percent coverage.
“Speeds are increasing every year. If we don’t invest in our copper network then we lose customers,” Bohnenberger says.
“We want to keep customers on our copper network only until the fibre is ready, then we move them over.”
When asked what he would say to peers in other countries who appear set on much wider deployment of what he terms “interim solutions” Bohnenberger is unequivocal. “They must move to fibre,” he says.
As mentioned earlier, that is far easier to say in a country like Luxembourg that, say, neighbouring Germany.
“Maybe I would get fired,” laughs Bohnenberger when asked how he thinks the CFO of Deutsche Telekom would react if he insisted on fibre as the German operator’s hypothetical CTO.
Yet his passion for the technology is to be admired.
“Why we have this long-term vision for fibre is that we are all working a long time in the company.
“It’s important to me that when I retire POST is still the biggest operator in Luxembourg.”