Poor connectivity can drive us to the absolute limits of our patience and it also seriously impacts our productivity. But could Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) – the ultimate bandwidth-bottleneck solution – really help to save our planet too? A recently published whitepaper by Carbon Smart, titled “Our digital infrastructure needn’t cost the earth” certainly suggests so. And after reading the evidence for myself about the carbon-saving qualities of both full-fibre infrastructure and the technologies it enables, I’m inclined to agree.
Former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, once said: “Saving our planet, lifting people out of poverty, advancing economic growth. These are one and the same fight”. He went on in the same speech to explain the need to “connect the dots”, and how “solutions to one problem must be solutions for all”. AlthoughKi-Moon was talking about sustainable development generally, he could easily have been describing the precise outcomes of building one capacity rich, full-fibre network to serve all. i.e. a single solution capable of enabling digital inclusion, transforming public and mobile services and driving growth among businesses and the economy at large.
When you consider all these powerful, potential outcomes and then add the fact that full-fibre infrastructure is also less carbon intensive than its copper predecessor - at every stage of its lifecycle - you can’t help but question why we are still having to fight so hard for wide-scale commitment to it.
A remit for fibre revolution
CityFibre's sole aim is to deliver best in class, full-fibre infrastructure to whole-cities across the UK - fast. Demand is and always has been our driving force, coupled as it is with a passion and determination to make a discernible difference to the UK, to underpin Industry 4.0 and to step up rebelliously to the challenge of what others once said was not possible, or in some cases, simply did not want to do. The fact that there's an upside for our environment is yet another positive outcome that will continue to fuel the fibre revolution and make others step up to the challenge.
The simple fact is that the UK needs what wide-scale deployment of full fibre delivers - on every level! Not ‘sometime in the future’, but with immediacy that is becoming painfully apparent as more and more aspects of our daily lives become dependent on the kind of robust, high-bandwidth connectivity that we can plan a long-term future around.
We’re already woefully behind dozens of other OECD countries – many of which prioritised full-fibre infrastructure investment years ago. That fact alone threatens our competitiveness as a nation. Before too long, if not already, it will noticeably stifle inward investment, make it harder to retain our talent and compromise our ability to innovate and export the product of that.
These are consequences that also threaten the GDP of our nation and the stability of tax and interest rates. They make the issue urgent for us all. Even more pertinently in a pending, post-Brexit era.
Fibre is the foundation for environmental revolution
In an industry that measures best infrastructure choice by factors such as bandwidth, resiliency, latency and security, what’s seldom discussed is the fact that if planet Earth itself had a choice, full fibre would also be it. And while our incumbent operator bargains with caveated FTTP commitments, the environmental cost of a rambling, power sucking, legacy-infrastructure network continues to bite.
In the annual Fibre to the Home (FTTH) Conference that took place in Valencia, Spain in February 2018, WIK-Consult gave a fascinating presentation about the socio-economic impact of FTTH. It drew on data rich sources from around the world, but one epic statistic stood out:
In Europe, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with FTTH/P infrastructure are 88 per cent lower per gigabit, compared to other access technologies. It’s a statistic that’s astonishing but motivating. Especially if, like me, the virtues of freshly built, full-fibre networks are what get you out of bed in the morning!
Short term pain equals long term gain
Some will counter-argue that there are carbon costs associated with digging up roads, sourcing and transporting new build materials and deploying manpower in vehicles to complete wide scale fibre deployment. They're not wrong of course, and like for like, a Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) or G.Fast deployment over an already existing (albeit creaking infrastructure), versus a modern, resilient fibre deployment alternative, does have lower immediate carbon impact. But when you widen the viewfinder, as Carbon Smart’s report does, a different reality emerges.
The paper considers a full lifecycle view of the decision to invest in FTTC versus FTTP. In doing so it becomes clear that the sheer inevitability of a shift to full fibre at ‘some point’ renders any energy spent on short term solutions as environmentally irresponsible. Logic dictates that the sooner the ‘carbon hit’ of that switch is swallowed, the sooner the significant, comparative, in-life carbon benefits will kick in.
Once installed the in-life power consumption of a fibre network is dramatically lower than that of a copper network (which requires constant power). The passive, robust nature of fibre and its track record for fewer faults means that any initial environmental cost associated with deploying it is rapidly offset. In fact, the period is “within little more than a decade” according to PwC. And this was based on a 2008 study, long before the full force of fibre-dependent ICT related climate change benefits could be factored in at today’s level of understanding.
The planet needs gigabit speeds
In the USA, a combination of higher speed services and carbon-saving ICT solutions enabled by them, enables FTTH users to spend 12.8 days working from home per month, compared to an average of 10.8 days for DSL and cable users. And, according to Boston Consulting Group, the potential climate benefits of ICT-enabled solutions will equate to around one fifth of global emissions by 2020. That's akin to removing all emissions from fossil fuel use and industrial sectors for the EU and US combined.
BT Group's last company report also highlights the vital role of ICT in tackling climate change - pointing to its own commissioned research as evidence. And there's also no question in anyone's minds that ICT solutions are becoming increasingly data-intensive and that more and more bandwidth capacity will be needed to ensure the innovation and opportunity they bring about isn't stifled for the future.
We must unite to drive change
Whether you support full-fibre infrastructure build for its economic, social or environmental benefits, one thing is clear; no single company can deliver a UK wide, full-fibre network in the timeframe it is so desperately needed. We must unite to achieve this common goal. Infrastructure builders must all commit wholeheartedly to it, the channel must educate and sell across it and, as end customers, we must all demand and embrace it.
The report was produced by Carbon Smart on behalf of CityFibre. It draws on a variety of published academic, industry and media sources, it explores the environmental benefits of full-fibre network solutions across the full life cycle from manufacture, transportation, installation, operation, maintenance and end-of-life. It also considers the wider environmental benefits supported by FTTH networks in the context of 2015 Paris Agreement and the need to achieve substantial cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions.
 Baliga, J., Ayre, R., Hinton, K., & Tucker, R. S. (2011). Energy consumption in wired and wireless access networks. IEEE Communications Magazine, 49(6), 70–77. doi:10.1109/MCOM.2011.5783987
 RVA (2011). Broadband Consumer Research. Sosa, D. (2015). Early Evidence Suggests Gigabit Broadband Drives GDP.
Caroline Hughes is currently CityFibre’s Head of Portfolio Marketing & Campaigns. This opinion piece was first published by Caroline on LinkedIn. The views contained within it may not necessarily be endorsed in full by CityFibre.
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