Our fixed line network normally runs really smoothly, but sometimes things way beyond our control happen to those all important underground and overhead cables....
When you sign up to Vodafone Broadband, your devices will thank you for it. Why? Because they’ll be benefitting from all the magic inside our fixed line cables, and those fibre optic pipes are capable of sending information at incredible speeds. But, as with any technology, sometimes things go wrong – often in unpredictable ways.
We never know what kind of natural or man-made event is going to cause headaches for our fixed network engineers next. For example, did you know that not all fixed line cables run underground, and that some have to run up telephone poles? Which means all sorts of things can cause a line break. So what happens when we find out about one? Vodafone’s fixed line networks manager, Sean Teggart, reveals all…
The fixed line lottery
First of all, before we find out what causes a fixed line break, we need to understand exactly what it is we mean by ‘fixed line’. Over to Sean, for that one:
“When we talk about fixed line, essentially what we’re talking about is our fibre optic network,” he explains. “And that network is used to connect all of our Vodafone Broadband customers as well as most of our business customers – fibre optic cables connect to the BT exchange nearest our customers’ homes, office or premises, and it also connects our mobile base stations back to our core network. So, these cables help underpin our mobile network, too.”
So those cables are hugely important to the whole network and everyone who uses it, whether they’re Vodafone customers or customers of other businesses. And that’s what makes fixing them such a priority whenever an accident or a natural event causes them to break, as Sean tells us:
“A fibre break can be caused by many things, but it’s most typically by what we call ‘street works’. And that’s because JCBs and fibre optic cables do not go together well! We find that whenever we get a fibre break, 80% of them will be attributable to construction work.
“A big fibre break from recent memory, for instance, is one we experienced earlier this year where there was significant demolition work going on in a town centre, and our fibre cable was very close to the edge of the demolition site. In the course of tearing down the buildings the contractors dropped a huge concrete beam, which landed on the duct carrying our fibre cable.
“Underneath London there’s a maze of Victorian tunnels, and lots of today’s utility companies use them to carry cabling…”
“Underground fires are another recent example,” he adds. “Underneath London there’s a maze of Victorian tunnels, which were built for various transport and postal systems, and lots of today’s utility companies use those tunnels to carry cabling – including us. In April this year, when another company’s cables caught fire, it caused a larger fire within the tunnel, which had a major effect on our fibre cable running through the same tunnel.”
Ok, so we’re starting to get a picture of the kinds of things that can cause cable breaks now, but it’s about to get weirder, as Sean reveals that animals can also have an impact:
“We get rats chewing through cables, too,” he says. “And rodent damage is quite common. But another, even less predictable fibre break is due to birds on pylons. If you look at the top of electricity pylons you’ll notice a thin cable, which is actually the earth wire. Our fibre optic cable is often wrapped around that earth wire. So when birds rest on the cable near freshly sewn farmland and local farmers shoot at the birds, they damage the cable.”
What’s the impact?
As you can imagine, it’s one thing to predict major building works, so we can hopefully make sure those don’t impact our fibres, but another entirely to pre-emptively protect our cables from stray diggers, gunshots or hungry rats, which is why when things do break we have to be on the scene really quickly to get things back up to speed:
“We probably get an incident every week of that nature,” says Sean, “but some of them are very small, impact a very small number of customers, and they get fixed quickly because they’re obvious breaks and access to the site is straightforward; there are spare fibre cables in the tunnel or duct that we can utilise to replace the damaged fibres; or because they only impact resilience, so the service continues to operate. Some take longer, and that’s often troublesome for the customers affected.”
“When a fixed line break occurs, broadband customers lose their home internet connection while mobile customers might lose coverage if the fixed line break cuts off service to their nearest mobile base station,” says Sean. “What’s more, with cash machines, tills in some of your favourite stores, and TV and radio services all connected to our fixed network, it’s really imperative to keep the fixed network running as smoothly as possible. And if a break does happen that the impact is kept to an absolute minimum.
“In a more typical outage, it’ll take between four and six hours to restore things back to normal, but we can get things up and running with a temporary solution much quicker than that.”
And we’re always looking to improve. “We’re investing significantly in our fibre infrastructure so that we have multiple fibre cables between locations,” says Sean in closing. “Our ambition is to make things much more robust, to ensure our customers are always connected, be that via broadband or mobile.”
Time to get things fixed… So those are just some of the unexpected things that can cause a break in our fixed line network, but how exactly do our field engineers go about fixing them? Stay tuned to Vodafone Social to find out!