Former BT Exec Warns Fibre Cabinets At Risk Of Battery Theft

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Fibre to the cabinet is “one of the biggest mistakes humanity has made” former BT exec tells the House of Lords

A former BT executive has warned that fibre cabinets are vulnerable to theft and that the deployment of fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) is “one of the biggest mistakes humanity has made.”

The comments were made by technologist Peter Cochrane, who has recently made something of a nuisance of himself to BT when testifying at the House of Lords inquiry into the national broadband strategy.

Back Of Pack

Last week he told Peers that the UK’s broadband plans are not sufficiently funded or ambitious enough and said that the UK must be prepared to invest £15 billion more in broadband to avoid being “frozen out of the next industrial revolution.”

“True high-speed, unlimited access to the social, economic and democratic benefits the internet brings is a fundamental human right,” he told the Lords communication committee last week. “In terms of broadband, the UK is at the back of the pack. We’re beat by almost every other European country and Asia leaves us for dust,” he said.

BT at the time was not particularly impressed by the ‘back of the pack’ label, calling Cochrane’s comments overly negative.

“Peter Cochrane has taken an unnecessarily negative view of the UK broadband market and where it is heading,” BT told TechWeekEurope at the time.

Battery Theft Risk

But Cochrane didn’t stop there. According to Wired he also told the House of Lords inquiry last week that fibre cabinets will be at risk from thieves, because of their batteries.

“Once the local bandits have recognised that there’s a car battery in the bottom you can bet your bottom dollar that the crowbar will be out and the battery will keep disappearing,” Cochrane reportedly said.

A fibre cabinet is visibly different to the traditional copper-based street cabinet, making it relatively easy for thieves to determine if the street furniture is actually a fibre cabinet containing a battery. In July 2010 conservation groups in Brighton claimed BT’s 1.8 metre high fibre cabinets were unsightly and ugly.

But BT told TechWeekEurope that the battery in the fibre cabinet is a bespoke battery and is not suitable for other uses, such as a car battery. The fibre cabinet is also designed to be highly secure and the company will be instantly alerted to any tampering.

“Our fibre cabinets do contain a small 12 volt battery which is used to provide a back-up power supply in the event of a network power outage,” BT told TechWeekEurope in a statement. “It is not a ‘car battery’ but is specifically designed to fit into our cabinets and is not something that could be readily adapted to power anything else.”

“All of our cabinets are highly secure and fully alarmed so that if there were any attempted unauthorised entry – we would know immediately,” said BT. “If the battery pack were to be removed the power supply to the cabinet would not be affected.”

The battery in the fibre cabinet acts as a backup power supply in case of mains electrical failure and is thought to provide up to four hours of backup power.

BT is of course facing a huge issue with theft, but this is mostly to do with its valuable copper cabling.

Earlier this week it unveiled the Rapid Assessment BT Incident Tracker (RABIT), which monitors the whole of BT network and can quickly and accurately pin-point an incident to a road or street. Back in 2010, BT announced a nationwide campaign against the cable thieves and also started using SmartWater, an invisible paint that can link thieves to the crime scene.

Flawed FTTC Concept?

Cochrane also criticised the concept of deploying fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) as a flawed way of rolling out superfast broadband, and suggested that FTTP was a much better solution, although he did accept that FTTC was a cheaper and more widely deployed method.

BT is using FTTC for nearly all of its fibre deployment in the UK and is only deploying FTTP (fibre to the premise) in limited numbers in the UK. It is estimated that just 250,000 homes and blocks of flats in the UK are wired up to FTTP out of a population of 62 million.

“Fibre-to-the-cabinet is one of the biggest mistakes humanity has made,” Cochrane reportedly said. “It ties a knot in the cable in terms of bandwidth and it imposes huge unreliability risks.”

Broadband Plumbing

Cochrane also suggested network operators could provide fibre to the middle of villages or to apartment blocks, but then it would be up to members of the public to connect their homes to the network, in the same way as the public is responsible for their plumbing or other services.

BT is now offering a similar solution with its FTTP On Demand option, but only for areas that have a FTTC connection. This allows punters to pay for a fibre connection from the FTTC cabinet to their home.

Cochrane also said that Ofcom should force companies with unused fibre (i.e. dark fibre) to open it up to smaller operators and suggested that the problem in the UK is that it is dominated by two operators, namely BT and Virgin Media. He feels that a fund should be set up to encourage new competitors into the market.

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