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29 February 2024
The challenges CityFibre and Up-Connect must tackle before any newly built, full fibre network can go live across the UK - including those for Project Gigabit.
Fibre Exchanges are a critical part of CityFibre’s mission to rollout full fibre infrastructure to a third of the UK. Without them its broadband and Business Ethernet connections couldn’t be powered or managed. But, as the man who leads CityFibre’s Fibre Exchange Acquisition and Delivery Team explains, site acquisition would be much harder without its FEX hunters, Up-Connect.
Unlike most UK network infrastructure builders that commonly use BT operated telephone exchanges, CityFibre has its own nationwide estate of over 120 modern Fibre Exchanges, used to power all its Ready for Service premises today. And when it comes to getting a new FEX in situ, there’s little scope for compromise.
“Finding FEX locations that work with our network design and meet our access and connectivity requirements is complex in itself,” explains CityFibre's, Phil Johnson, who's team is responsible for both FEX acquisition and delivery. “But agreeing lease terms with Landlords efficiently and securing any wayleaves so we can get each facility live, can be the difference between us delivering services to communities on time, or as much as a year later.”
It’s this challenge that CityFibre shares with specialist property consultants, Up-Connect; experts in site sourcing, surveying and acquisition, as well as predicting and managing all the issues that can cause delays.
The hunt begins as soon as Up-Connect receives a new FEX site requirement from CityFibre. Most suitable sites are not actively marketed by local commercial agents though, so proactivity and good local knowledge is the name of the game.
“Once potential sites have been identified, Up-Connect validate them with our network design team to ensure they work from a network planning perspective”, continues Phil. They also check each Landlord is open to CityFibre’s purchase or lease terms. All viable options are then discussed, looking specifically at any design or build difficulties and the implications of existing services and land designations”.
Every FEX site requires full planning consent. This is often the most challenging part of a project and goes hand-in-hand with understanding the concerns of local communities and the councils that represent them.
“Up-Connect help to minimise planning risks by looking into everything from flood, noise and ecological impacts, right through to the presence of nearby trees, homes, existing underground infrastructure and even bats! It’s a critical stage because the more that’s understood, the better placed we are to make adjustments and put minds at rest.”
In parallel, Up-Connect continue to engage with Landlords. Their goal is to agree a robust set of Terms before any lawyers get involved, to minimise the cost and time to secure a lease or purchase. Due diligence is also needed during this phase to identify complications that could arise during the legal process – e.g. ransom strips and restrictive covenants.
“Every stage demands attention to detail as well as great communication, collaboration and negotiation skills", says Phil. "And so far, Up-Connect have been faultless, using their expertise to navigate every issue faced and ensuring a positive outcome.”
Right now, house building is a priority across the UK. Not only does this make land increasingly hard to find, but building onto it can be strongly opposed by residents, especially when the intended use of land is poorly understood.
Having the support of local authorities is vital, whether that’s helping to identify plots of land, supporting planning applications or assisting with wayleaves. Together CityFibre and Up-Connect have already engaged with numerous councils nationwide, explaining what a FEX is and what CityFibre’s investment and network presence means.
“It’s time well spent because once local authorities understand the societal benefits of better connectivity and the economic upside of CityFibre’s investment, they are more likely to support us through the processes and help us explain the benefits to local people”.
Without any local authority support though, it can be an uphill struggle, especially as CityFibre begins to extend its network into harder to reach areas as part of Project Gigabit.
The nine Project Gigabit contracts that CityFibre has won so far, mean that over 464,000 government subsidised homes and businesses are now dependent on the team getting the new networks up and running on time.
“Of the 30 FEX sites currently being ‘hunted’ for UK wide, over 85 per cent are related to our Project Gigabit commitments. For our FEX hunting team this means finding dozens of sites in a short space of time.”
When CityFibre’s focus was almost exclusively on urban areas, Up-Connect would hunt for centrally located sites, like empty warehouses or small unused pockets of land in industrial areas. For Project Gigabit, the search often extends out to semi-rural industrial areas and even farmyards.
“Sites need to tick similar boxes as before, but we also need to minimise ‘dead dig’ (excess fibre spans needed just to reach a far-flung community). Access to sites can be trickier because non-urban roads are often narrower and parking isn’t always so freely available. Street works must also be minimised because road closures in rural areas can cause much longer diversions than those in towns and cities.”
Stepping up to meet the rural challenge is not for the feint hearted, but Up-Connect are already delivering results, with a number of Project Gigabit related FEXs already in build.
“Since being appointed in 2020 to find and acquire land or leases, Up-Connect have secured around 80 FEX sites and assessed thousands of alternatives. The fastest took just over two months but the average is closer to six months. And so far they’ve never failed to find a site in an area we've instructed them on. They even found a suitable site in Bath – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – where two other firms had failed,” said Phil.
Although Up-Connect clearly bring CityFibre the expertise that’s needed, they also share their understanding that speed is of the essence, in more ways than one. That’s because, ultimately, it’s all about delivering the benefits of reliable, multi-gigabit Internet connectivity, sooner rather than later.
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