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Sunday, 13 November 2011

The True Cost of Britain's Copper Infrastructure I

(Written on an iPhone, uploaded from home, apologies for typos)

This headline grabbed my eye as I waited for the train at King's Cross today: "Lives at risk as thieves disconnect 999 services. Metal gangs target communication cables". Not one to purchase The Times normally (ever), I succumbed. (It's a long way back home with only 15 minutes free wifi and patchy mobile coverage all the way up the East Coast mainline.)

This blog post can be read at

We've done, over and over again, the reasons why FTTH makes sense from a consumer, business, public sector, community, economic and environmental point of view, and why the copper needs pulling out the ground sooner rather than later. Jeremy Hunt was quite clear during his visit at Rheged last week that this government understands the need for Fibre To The Home - in fact, he was quite clear that he didn't want to hear that argument again from ECCBF! However, we all know that we are being held hostage to the business plans and shareholder interest of private companies and that must stop. So, to keep the pressure on, let's do what all scientific journals, media and tabloids etc do and make copper the big scare story for people's health and lives.

The theft of copper cables has so far, this year alone, caused 240,000 minutes of delays on Network Rail. Apparently, these thefts have cost Network Rail £43M over the last 2 years, but no doubt this fails to take into account copper stolen from railways such as Tickhill that NR were planning to re-open. There is no indication how much the train delays have cost British businesses with staff being late, missed appointments, lost productivity etc, let alone the long-term losses from visitors to this country (tourism brings in at least £10bn p.a.) who hesitate to return, and don't ....

The figure given for cost of all copper theft, not just from railways, is given as more than £1 billion per year. (It seems to be rising fast as last year it was estimated at £770M per year) That £1 billion probably fails to fully take into account many hidden losses e.g to homes, families, SMEs, SOHOs etc etc when the communication network and infrastructure relying on copper fails.

Britain has an estimated 20-25 million tonnes of installed copper, approx 60-65% of which is thought to be cables and wires, according to this article. (Remarkably similar figures to El Reg article which looked specifically at BT's copper) At £4350 per tonne scrap value, (down from £5k on El Reg 2 months ago but expected to rise continuously into 2015) the cables would appear to be worth at least £52 billion taking the lower estimates alone.

Now, it's difficult to know whether all of that could be replaced with fibre but it's not hard to guess that a vast majority could be - discounting the power cables, but these would seem to be a small part of the actual copper plant. However, here we stumble on an issue that this post would like to make more of than Fiona Hamilton and John Simpson did.

The emergency services, for instance, often become a victim of these thefts, not necessarily because they are connected to the copper directly, but because of the process known as "overlay". This is where a telco e.g BT does not pull out obsolete or even broken infrastructure, which adds additional cost to a job unless you factor in the resale value of what you have pulled out the ground; the telco simply overlays the new cabling on the old. Leaving the copper as an attractive target for theft whilst making the newer infrastructure closer to the surface doubly vulnerable.

Ironically, as an aside, some places have had to suffer the ignominy of copper overlay (onto fibre) because of BT's insistence to use the ADSL product instead of the more advanced FTTH, that would have been feasible over the fibre if it wasn't for asset sweating. This begins to seem as much a backward, greedy step as a total liability.

Copper thefts are occurring at a rate of 700 incidents per month against the energy industry, 8 attempts daily on the railways, and enough against BT's own network to see a special task force launched (imaginatively named the OpenReach Metal Theft Taskforce).

To date, no innocent person has been recorded as being killed, although at least 6 people have been electrocuted on railways during thefts. One can only imagine the circumstances that have led to these people taking to crime, but no doubt their families feel the effects of their deaths as much as any other family would. The fact is that 6 lives have now been lost, and many more will be if this continues. Not just of criminals but from rail or air accidents, emergency services' disruption etc.

Additionally, as with all such crimes, it is not always possible to be aware of just how far the ripples spread to affect the innocent, and a 36 hour outage for the Solent Coastguard and a 999 outage in Wiltshire recently could easily have caused problems, if not deaths, as a direct or indirect consequence. Cabling stolen from an Air Traffic upgrade at Stansted recently ought to bang home how potentially serious these thefts could become if there was any failure for air traffic control.

Whilst the Private Member's Bill to be tabled on Tuesday addresses the sale of such copper, it fails to address the real issue which is

why the copper is even still there in the vast majority of cases.

Especially a) in the 21st century, when it is well past its sell by date and usefulness except for BT shareholders b) when it is worth so much more out if the ground than in and c) when sentences for nicking copper are so light as to not put anyone off.

Surely, in light of comments such as that by Luke Beeson, general manager of BT security:
"It's only a matter of time, I think, before we unfortunately get a fatal incident"
it is time for BT et al to step up to their corporate responsibility to limit the chance of loss of human life by the continuing existence of a 19th/20th century temptation for crooks when it needn't, and shouldn't, be there.

As well as further cost, inconvenience and damage to UK Plc and its citizens by the very existence of copper in the ground instead of fibre, there should be an urgent move to force the hand of these companies to remove as much of the source of the problem as possible. Particularly now serious crime gangs have their eyes on that £52 billion+ of copper wire in order to commit a crime which is now described as the most serious threat to UK railways after terrorism. Action taken to prevent threats to the personnel of the emergency services should also be extended to safeguard the infrastructure which brings the blue lights to our homes and businesses when required. Before more people die unnecessarily.

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