There are a number of challenges to building a network. CDS works with providers and communities to address these challenges.
Street works access
Access to local roads is needed to build fibre networks which requires CDS and its contracted broadband providers to work with local authority highways co-ordination teams to plan road closures and other traffic management. Every effort is made to limit disruption to local communities and businesses.
CDS helps secure complex agreements with landowners – called wayleaves – to use their land to host digital infrastructure. Sometimes access is refused which means planned fibre routes have to be reviewed which can cause delays to construction.
Parts of the network are built overground with fibre running along poles. Sometimes there can be opposition to the location of poles. CDS works with providers and communities to resolve disputes around the positioning of poles.
Engineering challenges to building the network include buidling across bridges and trainlines as well as working around trees and hedges to help conserve natural habitat.
Spotlight on the challenges facing Airband’s build
This statement sets out some of the challenges in delivering CDS contracts across Devon and Somerset and some of the solutions and mitigations. While specific to Airband in this case, the challenges and solutions can be seen as common to all fibre providers attempting to deliver to hard-to-reach rural premises.
As a comparatively new industry, the fibre sector faces inevitable challenges as it evolves in a period of rapid growth across the UK. Along with most other alt-nets, Airband is responding to these challenges and constantly adapting.
Challenges and solutions
Foremost among these challenges is that of industry capacity, especially in the key areas of civil engineering, fibre engineering and fibre design. While initially dependent on recruitment on the open market, Airband has invested in and now launched, an Academy structure to grow its internal capacity and reduce reliance on the volatility of the market. Initially operating out of Airband’s Worcester base, the company is finalising plans to open a southwest Academy later this year, based in Exeter.
Of equal importance as recruitment is the retention of staff. Airband has continued to successfully grow its team across critical roles, retaining and expanding a cohort of staff with significant experience from other parts of the industry. Overall, since winning the CDS contracts, Airband has seen net staff growth across the company while retaining a high proportion of existing staff in a competitive labour-market.
Significant progress has also been made in the establishment of mature supply-chain relationships with sub-contractors. Airband has reduced the number of smaller sub-contractors and instead now works with larger experienced contractors, allowing them to provide these with consistent fluid work over the short-to-medium-term. This approach also has a positive impact on access to purchase of critical equipment and materials (such as connector blocks, cabinet fixings and backhaul routers) which is an area where there have been some shortages in recent years, leading to smaller suppliers losing out to larger operators.
Delivering fibre to rural and hard-to-reach communities, presents its own particular set of challenges. CDS contracts, targeted exclusively at premises with the lowest speeds, are almost exclusively comprised of rural build and these challenges have a disproportionate significance for contract holders, as compared to commercial alt-nets operating in the region.
The proliferation of fibre builds across the region has increasingly resulted in more than one fibre provider needing to work on (and close) roads in any given rural parish. While invariably building fibre to different parts of the parish, providers are often denied access to the roads they need to work on because these are simultaneously providing the diversion route for another provider’s road closures. Airband and partners in the region’s highways teams are collaborating to develop increasingly agile solutions to this congestion, involving co-location of works, night-working and advanced planning. These road closure/traffic management permits are therefore dependant on working around other sectors/utility companies who also need to access the highway networks in the region and the delays this can result in.
While much of the national fibre deployment strategy is predicated on significant use of PIA (Passive Infrastructure Access) there is still a need for providers to erect some poles where none currently exist (or are at capacity). Experience over the last year shows that community sentiment to new poles can be hard to predict, with ducted urban-fringe residential areas being particularly sensitive. Airband has acknowledged that its initial approach to notifying communities was lacking and has significantly improved its consultation through engagement with parish councils, running webinars and the establishment of a dedicated route for queries about new poles.
Where build moves from the highway onto private land, the ability to secure landowner approvals is critical to rural builds. Airband has continued to revise the phraseology of wayleave agreements and improve its engagement, especially to explain the consequences of a single landowner’s refusal to the wider community.
Resolving the above issues are all vital even before a provider can begin to physically build, at which point they need to address the usual expected and planned-for challenges of tree cutting, bad weather in the winter, critical tourist routes in the summer and ongoing recurrences of COVID.