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Category: Micro trenching

Fibre deployment: The advantages and disadvantages of different fibre deployment methods

By Shane Chorley, CEO at Frogfoot Networks

In a digital era where activities such as remote working, eCommerce and online education have come to the fore, connectivity has become just as important as other utilities such as electricity – and fibre is crucial in ensuring that people can have access to the internet more cost-effectively. Currently, fibre network operators (FNOs) adopt different approaches to laying fibre in order to connect as many people as possible. While each method has its advantages and disadvantages there is no difference for the end-user when it comes to bandwidth or latency.

This first method of fibre deployment is through trenching, where trenches are dug on both sides of the road within the servitude lane, which is the piece of land between the road and the property wall that has been set aside for services provided by the council, including water, sewerage and in some cases electricity as well as gas lines – all at different, allocated depths. In addition, cuts have to be made across intersections at the end of each block in order to connect both sides to the network.

It should be noted that before any fibre is deployed, wayleaves have to be secured from the local government authorities so that FNOs are aware of the services that are located within the servitude, in order to prevent accidental disruptions to existing services for residents. However, there can be instances where services are laid at incorrect depths, which leads to problems later on. For example, some services that are laid in the servitude might need repair or maintenance, such as replacing a water pipe, and fibre lines get damaged in the process.

Temporary pain for long-term gain

Traditional trenching is an invasive process and residents in areas where this is actively happening will know the frustration of having trenches not only throughout their neighbourhood, but even through their driveways and, in some cases, verge gardens. However, once the fibre has been laid, the holes closed, and the grass and gardens grow back, the frustration becomes a memory as residents start benefiting from cost-effective, broadband internet connectivity.

FNOs have looked at reducing traditional trenching in servitudes by turning to microtrenching, where a machine with a huge blade is used to cut small holes in the road, before fibre optic cables are laid and the holes are closed and resurfaced. However, the aforementioned challenges remain, as various services also cross the roads, and operators use ground scanning equipment in order to avoid disrupting other services when they create pathways for their fibre network.

Then, there can be instances where the road surface is brittle and can be damaged by microtrenching. FNOs need to keep all of this top of mind as trenching and then repairing afterwards is an expensive exercise – once they start cutting into a road, the local roads agency will hold them accountable for the fixes.

FNOs are continually looking at ways of improving communication with communities where fibre is to be deployed – and especially where trenching will take place – as well as making sure that driveways and verges are rehabilitated, and that areas of the road that they work on are fixed.

Ultimately, FNOs are looking to bring access to cost-effective broadband internet to as many South Africans as possible and this requires that they look at multiple network deployment methodologies – including those that reduce costs and speed up deployment times – in order to make this a reality. And, this reduction of costs is passed on to end users, enabling them to access more digital services and opportunities. In the next part of the article, we will explore the advantages and disadvantages of aerial fibre, and how this deployment method can help operators extend their coverage in high-density communities.

How aerial fibre brings affordable, reliable internet to more South Africans

We previously looked at how traditional large suburbs have ample servitude space that allows for conventional trenching, but this is not as easily available as network operators look to expand into more densely populated communities. Here, the aerial fibre approach is taken, where fibre optic cables are strung from poles, in a similar manner to how legacy copper networks were rolled out for telephony services – or how electricity is still distributed in many communities.

This is not an uncommon deployment methodology and is used even in developed countries such as the United Kingdom to provide fibre connectivity to high-density neighbourhoods. Aerial fibre also helps better tackle the challenge of adequately catering to the number of users within a property. In traditional suburbs, the number of users per erf is more certain, while in more dense neighbourhoods, there can be uncertainty about the number of homes that need to be connected within a particular property. FNOs deploying aerial fibre also do not have to worry about addresses, as they can just look at which is the closest pole to the user.

This method also gives operators flexibility during the design phase as they do not have to overbuild in advance, as the requirement for additional capacity in a particular community can be easily addressed. In the conventional trenched approach, operators have one chance to plan properly as they don’t want to go back and trench again.

FNOs adopting the aerial approach just need to ensure that their poles are erected to the correct heights as required. Depending on whether it is located within the suburb, along a minor road, or a major trunk road, height restrictions will vary in order to facilitate the safe movement of large vehicles. While aerial fibre deployments require fewer people on-site, due to the lack of trenching, erecting poles correctly and at the right height requires that contractors have the necessary skills and specialised equipment.

There are few instances where additional poles need to be installed and the only available space is within someone’s erf, which first requires the permission of the land owner. This is generally avoided where possible, because in certain circumstances these poles can become a security risk.

A disadvantage of aerial fibre deployments is that the cables are exposed to the elements. For example, strong wind conditions can cause the cables to break. Another example is when cables contract (when it is cold) and expand (when it is hot), and this continuous movement ultimately impacts the lifespan of the infrastructure. The good thing is that because the cables are just strung up on poles, breaks can be easily identified – as opposed to trenched fibre where advanced detection equipment is needed – and fixed or replaced. In addition, being private sector players with a brand and reputation to protect, FNOs tend to ensure that their poles are well-maintained and cables are strung to requirements.

For the community, by the community

With traditional suburbs being saturated with fibre, and operators looking to further expand their networks into densely populated communities, it is very likely that this will be achieved through the use of aerial fibre. Such a method of deployment allows FNOs to get into more areas and bring users fibre connectivity at a rate that they can afford.

Aerial fibre is also ideal as maintenance becomes easier – the network operator knows which string provides a particular user with connectivity and which pole they are connected to. Once people get used to the reliability and stability of fibre, network interruptions can be especially frustrating; as a result of the aerial deployment methodology, the network operator can respond more quickly and take the necessary action to restore connectivity.

Of course, there is the concern that aerial fibre, with its exposed infrastructure, might be more prone to being targeted by criminal activity. It is quite likely that there will be theft in the beginning, before criminals quickly realise that there is no resale value to the fibre optic cables. FNOs are also turning to the communities themselves in order to take care of the infrastructure that has been brought in, by using locals for a variety of activities ranging from sales to activations, while contractors are encouraged to have local maintenance teams.

Ultimately, fibre is going to add value to the local economy and help uplift communities, and community members will look to protect infrastructure as it makes a difference in their lives, by bringing broadband connectivity to all.

Ready to take the leap and get connected with Fibre? Check for coverage here!

What is micro-trenching?

When a telco installs cables of any sort between one point and another, there are a limited number of ways of doing so.  Cables, copper or fibre can be installed underground or overhead between poles.  Overhead (or aerial) cable is quick and cost effective to deploy, but it is unsightly and at the mercy of both the elements and wayward vehicles.  Underground cable is usually installed in ducts or pipes which connect manholes where the cable can be accessed, split and joined as needed.  The conventional method of burying these pipes involves digging trenches with pick and shovel, positioning the pipes and then backfilling over the pipes and restoring the surface to its original condition.  These trenches are usually routed along road verges and pavements, but can also be positioned across or at the edge of the roadway.

Over the years, alternative methods of deploying underground cable have evolved; one of these involves using storm water drains and sewers (as Link Africa do), while another involves using a machine the size of small car to cut a slot in the road surface.

Depending on the type of road and the depth of existing services such as electrical power and water, this ‘micro-trench’ can be 20mm to 60mm wide and 300mm to 500mm deep, usually near the edge of the roadway.  The machine has a blade in front (much like a giant angle grinder) which cuts into the road surface. Depending on the terrain and the experience of the team, a 4-man team and a machine can conceivably complete between 200m and 400m of trench per day.

The benefits of micro-trenching are:

*Less disruption of roads and sidewalks.
*Faster deployment.
*More cost effective trenching.

Micro-trenching machines come in various shapes and sizes, depending on the make of the machine and the purpose of the trench. The machine makes about the same noise as a lawnmower and the dust resulting from the cutting blade is managed with the use of water.  All in all, far less disruptive than a small army of workers with picks and shovels.

This method of trenching is used extensively in Europe and the USA, but has yet to become widely accepted by municipalities here in SA.  Frogfoot are in the process of setting up a Proof of Concept projects with both Tshwane and Cape Town municipalities.

Ready to take the leap and get connected with Fibre? Check for coverage here!

Why the Fibre rollout process is slow

“Fibre rollout is slower than Telkom’s dial up. More chance of leaving the country, than actually getting it installed.” This comment left on the Frogfoot Fibre page represents a common frustration from residents eager to get fibre and unaware of the processes that have to be followed to deploy fibre in an area.

So, why exactly does it take so long?  Rikus Stander, Head of Department: Planning, at Frogfoot provides some insights.

For the purpose of this explanation, we will describe what happens in an area where Frogfoot handle BOTH layer 1 (deploying the fibre) as well as layer 2 (lighting up and managing the fibre).  In some areas, Frogfoot is dependent on a 3rd party to handle all layer 1 activities.

The process of rolling out Fibre To The Home (FTTH) into a neighbourhood starts with community engagement, usually after the Ratepayers Association, a similar representative group or community member approaches Frogfoot.  Exploratory discussions are followed by proposals and further talks.  Frogfoot usually does some high level network planning to develop a business case before discussions are concluded and a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) is finalised.  This can take 3 months or longer.

After the MoU has been signed, high level network planning is done to confirm the business case before discussions start with the local municipality to go over the masterplan, the approach and preferred methodology.

Once agreement has been reached on the masterplan, Frogfoot then needs to engage with all municipal departments and local utilities and telcos that have infrastructure in the area. This involves getting detailed information about existing services that need to be included in the wayleave application.  Frogfoot’s plans must take existing services into account in order to be least disruptive.  Very little, if any, of this information is in electronic format and needs to be manually captured into Frogfoot’s plans. It takes at least 1 or 2 months to complete the first draft.

Low, medium, and high voltage power lines need to be detailed as well as street light power.  Water pipes; mains, distribution and house feeds need to be drawn in. Telecoms cables from Telkom, Vodacom, DFA, Neotel, or any other licensed telco with infrastructure in the ground must be included.  All of this infrastructure needs to be taken into account while drawing detailed plans and engineering drawings, showing how risks to existing services will be mitigated.

These detailed plans are then compiled into a document known as a ‘wayleave submission’ which is submitted to the municipality for approval.  Every department that may have services affected by telecoms cable routes needs to sign off on the plans.  Frogfoot is one of many telcos submitting wayleave applications and municipalities are often short staffed. Once all these signatures have been obtained, a wayleave approval is issued.  If the design is accepted by all, this can theoretically happen on the first pass, but usually the plans are returned to be amended, sometimes as a result a department having future plans for changes to roads, services, etc. which they need taken into account. A small change can take a day, more complex changes a week or two.  Another round of requesting signatures then commences. This can easily add a month or two to the process.

Once wayleaves have been approved, a project kickoff meeting is held where all the parties that approved the wayleave are supposed attend to walk the routes. During this exercise, planners are supposed to point out anomalies where ‘as built’ is not quite the same as what exists on paper. Parties are supposed to identify issues which need to be taken into account. Final plans are then amended.

The project then starts with Frogfoot scanning the routes with Ground Penetrating Radar to identify pipes, cables and services that are not where they are supposed to be.  Pilot holes are dug where unmarked services have been identified. Despite all these measures, there are often instances where unmarked services are missed and are later disrupted.

Engineers, supervisors and contractors then meet on site to finalise the trench lines.  Once the trench lines have been marked out, permission is obtained from the municipality to commence work and work permits are issued.  Management of any 3rd party contractors involved in drilling, trenching and rehabilitation is vital.

The ‘civils’ work; trenching and drilling now starts. At this point, many people think that once the trench passes their house, they should be able to get fibre, but a lot work still needs to be done before that happens.

First, the drilling teams create ducts under roads and in some cases where it is necessary, under driveways and other obstacles. Frogfoot has a ‘as good if not better’ rehabilitation approach.  If it is determined that it will not be possible to rehabilitate to that standard, Frogfoot may, at their own discretion, use drilling to avoid trenching.

Once the drilling is under way, the trenching teams move in after them to prepare the backhaul links, then the feeder links between the node room and the various points where the fibre will be split into distribution networks are completed.  This is a time consuming process which needs to be done with care to minimize disruption to residents and municipal services, while ensuring the integrity of ducts and fibre is such that future service levels can be maintained at a high level.

Soon after the financing of the project has been approved, Frogfoot and the community representatives start a process to identify and acquire node rooms in the area.  A node room needs to be acquired, converted and populated with node equipment by the time the core network in that construction zone is completed.

As each trench is completed, ducts are placed in the trench and tested for integrity after the trench is filled and rehabilitated.  Once the ducting is in place, the fibre is ‘floated’ through the ducts, spliced together, or split where necessary, and tested before the network is commissioned.

Only once the network is commissioned in an area with backhaul, core, and distribution networks lit and commissioned, can orders which have been placed for fibre broadband be fulfilled.  This involves trenching from the manhole at the corner of the property, across the property to the nearest point in the house close to an AC power outlet.

Orders are processed depending on where the network is first live and ready. Depending on the company deploying the fibre network (Frogfoot makes use of FTTH fibre being rolled out by other companies), once the fibre past your gate is ‘lit’, it can take anywhere from 2 to 8 weeks to process your order, configure equipment, schedule a team for the access trench and complete the home drop.

The installation fee charged by the Internet Service Provider (ISP) covers the first 30m of trench, duct, and fibre, from the corner of your property closest to the nearest manhole to the closest electrical point in your house.  If the closest electrical point is more than 30 metres, you will need to negotiate a price, for the remainder of the distance, with the contractor installing the fibre.

Depending on the nature of the terrain, the agreed method of deploying the fibre and any specific conditions you might negotiate, the fee can be anything from R50/m upwards.

Please note that the commercial agreement for any work regarding the excess distance over and above 30m does not involve your ISP or Frogfoot Networks.

There are usually 3 items that are mounted to the wall on the inside of the house to enable Internet access via the fibre, the first being a small box in which the fibre from the road is terminated.  This is known, for obvious reasons, as a Fibre Termination Box and needs no AC power.  Close to this, an Optical Network Terminator (ONT) is installed which sends and receives light down the fibre.  Once the ONT has been installed, the link can be handed over to the ISP who then installs an Internet Router and connects it to the ONT. All Internet services such as browsing, email, video streaming, Voice over IP, etc. are enabled by the Internet Router.

It can appear at times that the fibre company is ‘doing nothing’.  Deploying a large FTTH network is complex and costly; requires careful planning, execution and liaison between many different parties to ensure it is successful. Rest assured, the Frogfoot team are as keen as you to see every home in every Frogfoot fibre precinct connected to Frogfoot FTTH.

We ask your patience while we attend to the detail that ensures a quality fibre network is available to serve you for years to come.

Ready to take the leap and get connected with Fibre? Check for coverage here!

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