Published On21st Aug 2023
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.
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