Stretton SY6 fibre to the cabinet

Links and notes relating to fibre broadband (also known as fibre-optic broadband, fibre to the cabinet, FTTC) in the Strettons (Church Stretton, All Stretton, Little Stretton), South Shropshire, SY6.

On this page:

This page was created as a resource to accompany the article I wrote for the Stretton Focus, and comes with a disclaimer. See the footnotes for more.

Fibre broadband availability checker

There are a couple of checkers you can use to check whether you can get FTTC broadband on your line. The prettiest of these is the Connecting Shropshire when-and-where map. Don't go by the colours on the map – these are just postcode areas, and not all properties within an 'enabled' postcode area can get FTTC broadband. Use the search box at the top left of the map, with your phone number or full post code. The page will tell you if you can get FTTC broadband, and the most optimistic possible prediction of what speed you could get. It will also tell you what cabinet you are connected to. If it tells you 'Fibre broadband not available', doesn't mention cabinets, but says 'You are connected to the Church Stretton exchange', then you have the EO problem. See later.

Alternatively for the full geeky experience you can use the Openreach fibre broadband availability checker. There is no postcode alternative for this – it checks by phone number only. It is not as pretty as the Connecting Shropshire checker, but it does give more information in terms of the range of speeds you might get, rather than just the most optimistic.

With the Openreach checker, you are looking for the "FTTC Range A (Clean)" and "FTTC Range B (Impacted)" rows in the table as an indication of the range of attainable speeds. For what it's worth, I am getting something very close to the most optimistic 'A' speed indicated for my line.

Exchange Only lines (EO lines)

For most premises, the phone line from the premises goes to a cabinet, which hopefully isn't too far away. At the cabinet it then joins to a cable that goes on to the exchange.

For some premises, the phone line goes direct to the telephone exchange instead of via a cabinet. This is a problem for fibre broadband, because due to regulatory restrictions (well-intentioned but problematic), cabinets are allowed to be enabled for fibre broadband but BT telephone exchanges are not.

To see if you're affected by the EO lines problem, you can use the Connecting Shropshire when-and-where map and enter your number in the search box. If it tells you that fibre broadband is available for that number, then all is well and good. But if it tells you 'Fibre broadband not available', doesn't mention cabinets, but says 'You are connected to the Church Stretton exchange', then you have the EO problem.

If using the Openreach fibre broadband availability checker to check if you are affected by the EO problem, look at the second line on the report about your line, immediately under the 'BROADBAND AVAILABILITY CHECKER' heading. For most premises it will say something like this:

Telephone Number 01694729999 on Exchange CHURCH STRETTON is served by Cabinet 3

For a few numbers, you may just get a top line without mention of any cabinet. e.g.:

Telephone Number 01694729999 on Exchange CHURCH STRETTON

In this case (no cabinet mentioned), you are probably on an 'exchange only' (EO) line.

The Bradley Stoke journal has a good explanation of the EO problem from another area of the country.

The work-around for this is for Openreach to install one or more cabinets just outside the exchange, and connect the affected lines to those instead of directly into the exchange. They can then enable that cabinet for fibre broadband, and everyone is happy.

Cabinet #10 near the telephone exchange in Church Stretton (see next section for locations) is there to deal with the EO lines problem. Phone lines that are currently routed directly to the exchange (i.e. EO lines) will be re-routed to go to Cabinet #10, where they can be hooked-up for fibre. The physical cabinet for #10 was installed at the end of 2014, but Connecting Shropshire say it'll be summer 2015 before it goes live.

Location of cabinets in Church Stretton

Church Stretton has eight new cabinets for fibre broadband. Shown below is the one on Sandford Avenue outside the TSB on the corner with the High Street.

Cabinet 4, at the corner of Sandford Avenue and the High Street

The link below takes you to a map of the fibre broadband connection cabinets around Church Stretton. The closer you are to a cabinet, the better fibre broadband speeds you can get.

Fibre broadband cabinet locations in Church Stretton

Little Stretton and All Stretton aren't particularly well served, because their cabinets are at the south and north ends of Church Stretton (cabinets 5 and 6). So all premises in Little Stretton and All Stretton have quite a long line back to the cabinet, along Ludlow Road or Shrewsbury Road.

Telephone cables are generally buried in ducts under the pavement or road. So when estimating line distances, the route by road is your best approximation.

How broadband speed varies with line distance

Maximum attainable broadband speed decreases as you get further from the cabinet (fibre broadband) or exchange (regular ADSL). The graphs linked to below show how the typical speed varies with distance.

ADSL speeds vs line distance

Fibre broadband speeds vs line distance

Remember that for ADSL, it is the distance from the telephone exchange that matters. Stretton's telephone exchange is next to the fire station on Sandford Avenue, opposite the Spar post office and convenience store.

For fibre broadband, it is the distance to the cabinet that matters. See earlier on this page for a map of cabinet locations in Church Stretton. Most premises are much closer to a cabinet than they are to the exchange – this is part of what makes the fibre broadband network faster than ADSL.

Connecting Shropshire

In most areas of the UK where there is competition from cable providers for connecting homes to super-fast broadband, BT have been meeting the cost of enabling the area for fibre broadband. In South Shropshire, where there is no cable alternative, it has taken quite a bit of public money to persuade BT to provide fibre broadband.

The organisation behind the drive for fibre broadband in Shropshire is Connecting Shropshire. Their justification for using 16m of public money to get Shropshire wired for fibre broadband is the long-term economic benefit that it will bring to the area. South Shropshire has always been a great place to live; now it is a great place for the new generation of digital gurus and online content creators to work, too. Without the efforts of Connecting Shropshire and dispensing of public money, Stretton and other South Shropshire rural towns and villages would have had a very long wait for fibre broadband, if it ever came at all.

BT Wholesale sell the fibre connectivity to whatever ISP it is you choose for connecting your home or business, so BT will be earning money from each connected premises. So if and when fibre broadband take-up exceeds 20% in the area, Connecting Shropshire get to go to BT and say, "See, I told you so", and BT then start paying back some of the money that was paid to them for installing fibre broadband.

Choosing your ISP

Your choice of Internet Service Provider (ISP) is critical in getting the best internet connection speeds. Your physical fibre broadband connection will be done by a BT Openreach engineer (BT have the monopoly in the provision of the cabinets and the physical line to your premises), but it will be arranged through and paid for by your ISP. BT currently has 79% market share for fibre broadband as an ISP (BT is allowed to compete as an ISP, as well as having the 'pits and poles' monopoly), which many say is an unhealthy state for what is supposed to be a competitive market. Happily, there are plenty of ISPs other than BT, many of whom are highly-rated for service and performance.

Many people fail to get the theoretical speeds their line is capable of and blame their line or area for it, when in fact the problem is that their ISP has over-sold their broadband provision and it is the ISP's congested system that is causing the poor performance. There are plenty of ISPs who can do things a little bit cheaper and a little bit worse, and the customer who chooses solely on price, 'special offers', or glossy leaflets, is their rightful prey.

Review and comparison sites can help when choosing an ISP. Many just compare prices and features, whereas what annoys users most is poor performance and bad service. The ISPreview.co.uk site includes rankings based on feedback from users on things like reliability, service, and actual speeds. There are lots of things that can go wrong with an internet connection, many of which are down to the setup in the home rather than the ISP. So whatever ISP you choose, you'll find someone complaining of a bad experience of it. But averaged out across lots of users, some ISPs clearly are better than others when it comes to keeping most of their customers happy.

Beware of ISPs that want to lock you in to long contract terms – you could get stung for a surprising amount for getting out of the contract if your ISP turns out to be no good. You'll probably be better off going with an ISP that hopes to retain you though good service, rather than one that intends to keep you by locking you in to a long contract.

Hardware

On changeover day, the Openreach engineer will visit the street cabinet that your phone line comes from, and connect up your line for fibre broadband. This is a wiring change to do at the cabinet, so that the VDSL (fibre broadband) signal is injected onto your phone line.

In olden days (2014 and 2015) the BT engineer would then visit your house to fit a new faceplate on your master phone socket. This has an outlet socket (RJ11) for connecting to your VDSL modem, and a socket for connecting to your telephone. You can wire extension phone wiring from the back of the removable bit of the faceplate if you want.

The fibre broadband faceplates are quite thick – they stick out quite a way. See picture below.

Openreach faceplate and modem

And back in those days, the Openreach engineer would also leave a VDSL (fibre broadband) modem for you. This is the box with the LEDs on it, shown in the lower part of the picture above. It turns the fibre broadband signal into something your router can understand. The modem has sockets for: power in from your mains power supply; VDSL signal from your faceplate; RJ45 socket for an Ethernet cable to go to your router.

Your router would need to be able to do PPPoE. Your ISP will talk you through all of this. If your existing router doesn't do PPPoE and your ISP doesn't provide one, routers that do PPPoE can be bought from about 30.

Note that because BT Openreach have the monopoly on the physical connection to your home, the outlet socket and modem if supplied will be branded 'BT' and 'Openreach', even if your ISP is someone other than BT. BT Openreach supply the connection, but at the other end of the connection it is through your ISP that you are connected on to the internet.

But these days (2016), it's different. BT Openreach are converting loads of premises to fibre broadband. They have to visit all the cabinets, but they'd rather not visit all the premises. So the most likely thing is that your ISP will send you a fibre modem in the post and ask you to plug it in for yourself, and no one will visit to change your master socket faceplate.

So because BT Openreach haven't come to change your faceplate, you'll either have to fit a splitter faceplate like this to your master socket, including wiring your extensions off the back of the new splitter plate. Or you'll have to use plug-in filters like these on all your phone sockets – master and extensions.

Splitter block diagram

If you already have filters (plug-in or faceplate) for regular ADSL broadband, they will do fine for VDSL fibre broadband. A splitter is just a low-pass filter that makes sure that only the voice telephone signal is sent to the phone, and everything else is sent to the modem. It doesn't matter to it as to whether that 'everything else' is ADSL regular broadband or VDSL fibre broadband.

The modem that you get from your ISP will almost certainly be a combined modem-router-wifi device. Your ISP may even send it pre-configured so all you have to do is plug it in to get started.

What happens if loads of people connect to my cabinet?

The fibre-optic cables aren't about to get overloaded

The physical fibre-optic cables to the cabinet aren't going to get overloaded any time soon. Each of them can do 1Gbps, which is enough for 125 full-rate FTTC connections to homes. And there are half a dozen fibre-optic cables coming in to each cabinet.

Although the fibres to the cabinets run at 'just' 1Gbps (for reasons of ease of handling and lower cost of equipment), getting 100Gps along one fibre is routine these days, and there are successful trials in getting 200Gps or even 400Gps on a single fibre and over long distances (like 300km - waaaaay more than from your exchange to your cabinet).

Crosstalk can reduce your connection speeds

As your cabinet gets busier, you could find that your connection speeds go down because of an effect known as crosstalk. The wires in the bundles that travel under the roads are all squished in together. This means that signals from one cable can be picked up in adjoining cables.

The effect is similar to trying to have a conversation in a pub. At the beginning of the evening when it is just you and your friend in there, you can talk quite quickly and softly. But by 10pm when the place is busy and everyone is chattering away, your friend is either going to have to talk a lot louder or a lot slower if you want to be able to understand her.

With FTTC there is no option of talking louder – the lines are run at full level from the start. So the only option is for your modem to negotiate with the cabinet, effectively saying, "Sorry, I'm not getting that clearly because of all the other chatter going on from the other wires; you're going to have to slow down a bit." You experience this as a drop in connection speeds of perhaps 20% or more. Long lines are more affected than short lines, because they start with a worse signal anyway, plus they have more distance along which to pick up interfering signals from adjoining wires.

There is a technology called vectoring which can reduce the adverse effects of crosstalk considerably. The good news is that at the beginning of 2014, according to Broadbandtrends, the majority (57%) of telecom operators plan to deploy vectoring technology by the end of 2014. The bad news is that BT (the UK's monopoly provider) is not one of those operators. BT are trialling it at the moment (summer 2014). Vectoring probably will come to the UK, but quite possibly not until 2016 or later.

Your cabinet could run out of connections

Different size cabinets have different numbers of connections, known as 'ports'. The smallest has 96 ports and the largest has 288 ports. Once all those ports are connected up to premises that want FTTC, the availability checker will start showing messages like: "Sorry, this cabinet is currently unavailable. Capacity will be restored as soon as possible."

Once your cabinet is full, BT Openreach have to consider whether or not it is worth adding another cabinet to serve your area. If it is just you on the waiting list, your chances are not so good. If it is you and a hundred others then your chances are better, but it could be months or even years before the work is done. Cabinets cost many thousands to supply, install, and connect, and generally these things are weighed up as a 'business case' (i.e. will there be enough people connecting to the new cabinet for it to pay its way).

What's next after fibre to the cabinet?

Download speeds of 70+ Mbps seem pretty amazing now. But in the world of IT it is always a dangerous thing to say that a current level of technology ought to be enough for anyone – those sorts of quotes always have a habit of coming back to haunt you. Online media is a prime driver of online speeds, and with 4k ultra-high-definition television around the corner, it is possible to think of a time when 70Mbps will not be enough.

Fibre to the cabinet is pretty much the end of the road for squeezing every last drop of performance out of Victorian-era twisted copper pair technology. So if and when we want more speed than that for our homes and offices, it will most likely be delivered by using fibre all the way. At the moment, fibre to the cabinet is like coming home from holiday via Birmingham international airport. You speed there at 500mph in an airplane, but then have to change to an Arriva diesel commuter train to trundle along for the last bit of the journey home. Fibre to the premises is like taking the jet all the way.

Fibre is more tricky to handle and join than twisted copper pair. Plus there is the issue of the sheer ubiquity of twisted copper pair, available everywhere right now and connected to millions of homes and businesses. Changing to fibre to the premises (FTTP) would mean renewing huge amounts of the UK's telecommunications cabling infrastructure in, under, and over our streets and homes. But when FTTC starts to be a limiting factor in what we want to do, FTTP will most likely be the next new thing.

FTTP can deliver speeds in excess of 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps), and that ought to be enough for anyone. Oughtn't it?


Footnotes

This page brought to for the fun of it by Steve Aze, SY6 resident and creative geek. It was created as a resource to accompany the article I wrote for the Stretton Focus (September 2014 edition) about fibre broadband in the Strettons.

The information on this page and in the accompanying article may be out of date, incomplete, not applicable to your situation, or just plain wrong. Check and confirm any information contained herein before making any decision relating to it. I take no responsibility for your decisions, whether based on information from this page or not. If you spot a mistake, please let me know – my email address is at the bottom of this page.

I run an educational software business and am not connected with any of the organisations listed on this page in any way. For the record, I am about 300m from my local cabinet in Church Stretton, my ISP is the excellent and wonderful Zen internet, and with my fibre broadband connection I get consistent measured connection speeds of 75Mbps download and 17Mbps upload.

Revised to 13 Jan 2016