It’s hard to miss the huge broadband work sites all over Lavender Hill – blue fences and rubble abound, and slowly but surely a network of green pipes is being installed under our streets. G. Network, the company behind all this, is spending vast sums to set up their own completely-new fibre broadband networks, essentially to create an alternative to the Openreach network (run by BT, and which evolved from the old UK telephone network).
And when we say vast, we mean it! They raised a cool billion pounds from sources including Natwest and a major pension fund for university staff, and are gradually digging up around 4,500 kilometres of streets in 13 of the more central London boroughs to install fibre, ultimately aiming to connect 1.4 million buildings to the new network.
They’ve already connected up 160,000 buildings, and in May they announced a £105 million investment to install 230 miles of fibre and connect 100,000 properties in Wandsworth. The first area to be connected is set to be (you guessed it) the Shaftesbury Ward, which is essentially the area around Lavender Hill. This explains the sudden emergence of worksites and holes seemingly all over the place, and there’s a lot more to come.
In the short term – this has echoes of the big rollout by lots of cable companies in the early 1990s (which eventually all got bought up by NTL and then Virgin Media), where pavements were dug up all over the country, and it inevitably means a lot of excavation and parking disruption – so those with cars will need to keep an even closer eye than usual on the yellow parking restriction signs (which are usually put up three days in advance but which can appear with less than a days’ notice in some cases). And we can expect to see ever more chicanes made up of quietly humming green telecoms boxes scattered about the pavements.
But in the longer term this will be an unambiguously good thing. It will provide much more powerful broadband connection options that don’t rely on the 1960s phone cables strung about our streets – and as whole parts of the economy increasingly rely on fast networks, it will ensure that Battersea has some of the best connectivity in the world. G.Network’s connection speeds start at 100 MPBS – which is about 40% faster than the current London average speed – and run up to 10,000 MBPS for some users.
It will also give us all a wider choice of providers, which should keep offers more competitive. Because at the moment, there’s really a choice of Virgin, or of someone who’s using the BT network and paying them to do so, or a rather small number of other providers who have their own owned networks like Hyperoptic & Community Fibre who have reasonable presences in parts of London. BT and Virgin have been building their fibre networks for years, though they’ve not yet matched the rather dramatic pace at which G.Network has got going. G.Network will be a direct broadband provider – but unlike their rival Virgin media (who only use their fibres for their own customers), G.Network plan for their fibres to run as an ‘open network’, which means they’re also happy for other companies to pay to lease their lines and run competing broadband services.
There’s a bit of a race on between broadband providers to install fibres – and G.network is certainly making a big bet on London’s broadband. It’s a credible business: led by Macedonian-British telecoms entrepreneur Sasho Veselinski, and with a management team drawing from pretty much every telecoms company you’ve ever heard of. Central London is the company’s first target – where there’s a high density of people and businesses (but where digging up streets is particularly complicated). It plans to then move on to the outer boroughs, and maybe further afield. And it’s clearly pretty good at working with landlords to be able to do work within their buildings – for example recently reaching an agreement with Westminster to wire up pretty much all of its estates with fibre broadband (nearly 20,000 flats!).
So all in all – there’s no getting around the fact that digging up almost every street is likely to be pretty disruptive. But it’s probably worth it.