Towards a full fibre CX in the UK

In the UK, the Department For Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (which, naturally, is responsible for defining the country’s broadband ambitions – odd set of things to throw it in with, perhaps, but that’s another discussion) has recently published a swathe of documents setting out its ambition for broadband infrastructure in the UK. The Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR for acronym fans).

*SPOILER ALERT* The target it sets is for full fibre – FTTP – by 2033.

Quick reality check – it’s 2018. So why are we getting excited about this? And what does this mean for telco customers?

About 10 years ago, I wrote a feasibility study for BT looking at the different options for evolving its broadband network infrastructure. Make no mistake, the benefits of moving to full fibre are (on paper) significant:

  • Glass is (supposedly) far lower maintenance than copper, so you save a lot in ongoing costs. Although this does assume that some careless water, gas or electricity supplier doesn’t accidentally put a digger through your connection
  • Fibre optic connections can deliver higher speeds over longer distances, so you need fewer things between the end customer and your backbone to propagate and boost the signal. That makes it cheaper and less disruptive to build out – fewer powered kerbside green boxes – compared to copper which needs power to boost, manage and moderate the signal. Ultimately, you can even remove your costly exchange buildings.
  • Fibre optic connections are more stable. Unlike copper which will change its electrical characteristics – and hence the speed you get – dependent on the weather (and we get a lot of that in the UK), fibre should deliver the expected speed come rain, or shine.

From a CX point of view, this last benefit is potentially the greatest. Alongside billing, broadband speeds are the highest source of complaint to UK telcos – contributing to around 40% of all inbound queries. If a customer can reliably expect to have the speed they’ve bought all the time and, more importantly, get the services they’ve paid for delivered reliably all the time, then they should be a happier customer. Win-win.

So, if those are the benefits, why on earth haven’t BT been throwing all their money into rolling out fibre already? Let’s take a step back for a moment and look at a few reasons why full fibre is not necessarily the land of milk and honey.

  1. Access to communication services remains fragmented and prone to change, based on the relationships between communications companies. As the current situation with Virgin Media illustrates, customers can still lose access to TV channels, or other subscription services, through no fault of the technology delivering comms to their house.
  2. There are a lot of things between the computer, or TV/fridge/thermostat/baby monitor, in your house and the service you’re consuming which affect the quality of that service. The comms technology between your premises and the nearest exchange or cabinet is only one of these. The parts of the network where your data shares the road with other people’s data can become congested, even if the first mile to or from your house is clear. Think of it like driving down your private driveway to get to work, only to join a big traffic jam as soon as you hit the main road.
  3. More of those things which affect your speed exist inside your premises. Poor customer premise equipment (routers/hubs), dodgy internal wiring, or just pesky solid walls weakening your wifi signal will all stop you from enjoying the speed your fibre connection can deliver.
  4. It’s actually really expensive to lay a completely new network in the UK. Typically it’s around £1000 per address passed, so for the 26 million or so households in the UK, that’s an average of £26billion, before you even get to the business premises. At that sort of cost, it’s not exactly surprising that rollout has been slow and pragmatic thus far. While the savings in ongoing maintenance may ultimately pay this off, it’s a hard cheque to write.

Given which, it’s not surprising that the UK has spent time trying to squeeze more out of its existing infrastructure. Or “sweating the copper” as it’s been termed (don’t blame me for that one, I’m only borrowing the phrase).

So, at a point when copper broadband technology looked like it could only deliver 24Mb/s, and as HDTV was the new consumer fashion, of course it was easy to justify arguments to move off copper as soon as possible. Today, however, with innovation enabling copper to deliver over 500Mb/s, the picture is not so black and white. Whether the industry has done itself any favours by referring to this as “fibre broadband”, is another issue (and one which CityFibre, among others, would argue strongly).

Copper will still struggle to hit these headline speeds in various scenarios, so it can’t be the answer everywhere, but it’s done enough to justify its place in a mixed technology rollout; Allowing higher speeds to be delivered more cheaply and quickly (in theory) where viable over copper and focussing on full fibre in other areas.

From a CX perspective, as I wrote about before, if I can get the services I want, should I care whether the circuit going into my house is glass, or copper, or coaxial, or 5G or satellite? Certainly in an industry landscape where disagreements between communication companies can cut off subscription services and the number of providers of those services is ever-growing, having a particular infrastructure connecting my premises is just one of a number of factors.

So, what’s good for customers in this initiative?

The key will be in the new products and services which full fibre infrastructure enables. Whether it be through autonomous, self governing vehicles or smart cities, or wider availability of public wifi, IoT, plenty of new and disruptive technologies will emerge to take advantage of the higher bandwidth and 5G. Even in the short term, the convergence of fixed line and mobile data will enable greater simplicity for customers and extra benefits, should telcos choose to pass this on.

It’s fine for Government to set lofty ambitions, but if it doesn’t disrupt the things which inhibit achieving them, it’s no real help. The detail around the FTIR do seem to address some of these inhibitors. In particular changes to Streetworks (digging up roads to lay the fibre) should make this a more straightforward process. Moving away from a situation where a telco has to submit lots of individual approvals and encouraging Councils to look at the strategic picture when reviewing these plans can only help. More could be done to automate this process, there’s still a lot of manual hand-off in it but hopefully this is mitigated by the opportunity to work on larger plans.

Funding is another of those inhibitors. That £1000 per address figure will still loom large in the minds of telcos. One can argue about the rights and wrongs of Openreach being part of BT, or not, but it doesn’t change the need for investment to get infrastructure delivered. There is still work to do for the infrastructure builders to find ways of reducing this cost, whether that’s through new technology or process improvement, but seed capital for the investment cannot harm.

It will, however, be interesting to see how this plays out in the newly competitive infrastructure market. There was some simplicity in the time when a single infrastructure provider would be asked to deliver a network which all could then use. However, with more telcos now wanting to build and own their own network infrastructure, the risk of funding going to multiple organisations all building fibre in high demand areas and still leaving unprofitable locations untouched will need careful monitoring.

For customers, too, this may create problems and make customer choice more difficult. If part of the decision a customer has to make revolves around who owns the infrastructure and, hence, which services they can subscribe to, this may sustain a degree of complexity for the customer which currently revolves around the speed which Openreach can deliver – and whether Virgin Media also supplies them.

For telcos, gaining or retaining revenue streams will also be a challenge. If those new services are delivered by new companies, the ability for a telco to form a relationship with the service provider and gain a slice of the revenue is not guaranteed. Telcos came to the party on Netflix quite late, in some cases, at a point where many people already had subscriptions direct with Netflix. Forming a viable rival content service is an expensive and complex challenge, but it will be very difficult to recoup the investment (subsidised or otherwise) if you’ve not found ways to increase your ARPU or share of wallet.

The impetus added by Government – both in the public sector and private sector – to push with a clear focus on full fibre will help unblock many of the issues encountered so far. But telcos, Councils and service providers still need to put in the hard work to ensure this momentum isn’t lost or the CX opportunity fumbled.

Setting the Right Expectations – a CX Cornerstone

The route to the top of Customer Experience in the Broadband market, especially in the UK, has been fought, as much as anything, over headline speeds for downloads as any other feature.

BT offer an 80Mb speed, Virgin trump it with 100Mb. BT counter with 150Mb, Virgin respond with 200MB and so on, seemingly ad nauseum.

In some UK telcos, complaints or queries over broadband speed can comprise upwards of 40% of the inbound calls and queries from customers. Only billing rivals speed as a source of customer dissatisfaction; all other issues are some distance behind.

And, to be honest, it’s not really surprising. With most other goods and services, you expect a correlation between what you’ve been sold and what you get. Buying a backpack or suitcase advertised as “holding upto 80 litres” only to find it would struggle to hold half that volume would lead to complaints, so why not a broadband service that claims to offer “upto 80Mb” but in practise only gives 40Mb?

From a technical, network perspective there are dozens of reasons why broadband speeds vary from house to house, let alone country to country and the purpose of this blog is not to explore them in depth. Suffice to say that – for the most part – in countries such as the UK which rely predominantly on copper connections, the longer the wire – the slower the speed. And the more people using the network the slower any one person’s experience of it will be.

New rules are coming in which will seek to address this head on but, as with many other technology-related laws it remains to be seen whether the intention matches the outcome. I’m sure that nobody involved in the legislation regarding cookies used on websites intended to leave every internet user plagued with notifications taking up the screen every time they visit a website.

There are two key lessons for fixed line telcos to learn here. One is, perhaps, more obvious than the other. The more straightforward-sounding lesson is to be more honest about what the customer is being sold.

The new legislation will help towards this. It is obliging CPs to move away from selling broadband based on a headline “upto” speed and towards an average speed. There will be a formula that CPs have to use to determine what figure they can use for this average speed – based on a distribution curve of what customers currently taking the product receive today; speeds achieved during quiet periods ( weekday mornings) and those achieved during the busy hour (typically early Friday evenings) for customers of the same type as them.

It should go without saying that a customer sold a broadband package on the basis of “average 40Mb download” is likely to be happier with the purchase if he’s getting 40Mb, than if he bought the same thing when sold as “upto 80Mb download” even if everything apart from the name is identical between the two. Set an expectation with the customer that you can, and will, meet is hardly rocket science in the world of CX.

Dig a little further beneath this, though, and things will get a little more complex. Especially in a market like the UK which has such a mix of technologies delivering broadband; where some customers are still stuck on technologies that cannot deliver more than 8Mb, others 16Mb, still others on 24Mb, right the way through to the annointed few with full fibre (FTTH) connections who can get hundreds of MB.

Even worse, millions of premises will be served by more than one of those technologies, meaning someone could be paying £40+ per month for an “upto 24Mb” service when a cheaper, faster service is already available to them. And, to complicate matters further, for some people their speed on the faster service may actually be lower than their actual speed on the slower, older technology.

Still with me? Phew!

So, confidence that this new legislation will guarantee a country full of happy customers, who are getting exactly the broadband service they want and need is, understandably, not quite at 100%.

Maybe it should go a little further? Gas and electricity suppliers have recently been obliged to start telling existing customers whether they are on the cheapest tariff. Maybe telcos should be obliged to provide clear options to customers about the services available, a realistic view of the performance they are likely to recieve, and their cost? For example

  • You are currently paying £40/month for our 24Mb service and you are getting an average of 21Mb
  • You could switch to our £25/month service where we predict you will get an average of 38Mb
  • Or our £30/month service where we predict you will get an average of 72Mb

Certainly, most telcos will have these facts to hand, based on their own knowledge of their network and its performance.

However, this leads to my second suggestion on how to improve this experience. What do these numbers mean, to ME as a customer?

Based on the example, above, I can see that it’s silly for me to be paying more for a service that gives me less. But what does 38Mb actually mean to me? Do I need that extra 34Mb, or will I just be spending £5 a month I don’t need for a 72Mb product?

If you are a quadplay telco, your range of products and options for customers to choose will already be hellishly complicated – different TV packages, sport or no sport, HD, SD, Netflix, on demand, IP calls, PSTN calls etc etc. Asking customers to also choose whether they want 38 or 72 (or 150 or 300 or whatever the future offers) is an unnecessary complication.

Bandwidth does not need to be a primary differentiator. In itself it does not do anything for your customer, apart from a tiny bragging right to their mates, for some people. For the rest of us, bandwidth is a means to an end.

Living on your own, or not interested in streaming ultra-high definition content? You’re unlikely to need more than 16Mb. Ever.

A switched-on family with kids at home? Likely to need to support multiple HDTV streams and HD sport and gaming (and uploading a Twitch stream) and phonecalls? Much below about 60Mb is going to mean someone in the household will miss out.

So maybe the smart way to resolve the customer experience around broadband is to stop making the broadband customer experience about speed and move it to services. In the immediate term, this would remove issues around customers who are paying for an “upto 80Mb” service and only receiving what they’d get from a cheaper “upto 40Mb” service – and eliminate potential cases of mis-selling.

In the longer term, this gives customers a simpler buying experience and, in all likelihood, a simpler in-life service experience. Ignore whether I’m getting 40, 80, 150Mb and focus on whether I’m consistently getting the services I’m paying for at the quality I expect:

  • Do all my Netflix films stream in HD?
  • Does my football match, or grand prix buffer?
  • Does my audio download jitter?
  • Are my phonecalls clear?
  • Do my online games lag?

If the answer is always yes, your customers won’t care what their download speed is and customer satisfaction should improve. Sustainably.