FEELING THE HEAT

At 06:00 the early sun is still casting long shadows across the road. The stars have long faded and, with a lack of loft insulation, it’s not been a warm night. I’m feeling warm on account of a long brisk walk along the coast path and I’m now heading home towards a shower and breakfast. Pausing to catch my breath I rest my hand on the green cabinet sheltered by the bushes — and I’m shocked by its heat.

The manhole cover alongside declares its GPO origins. This dark green pavement heater is part of BT’s network that pumps data signals down somewhat resistant copper wires. Even at 06:00 broadband pulses are throbbing — homes catching the news and email, early-rising children revising for exams or online games, half asleep parents grabbing the chance to catch up on last night’s F1 highlights. Even businesses are getting into stride for a new day of transactions — and already the network can feel the heat of digitally hammered copper.

The proud owners of this pavement heater call it a superfast fibre network — but here in that green box is where the fibre stops. Here is where efficiency ends and brute force takes over. Here is where the service stops being super, fast or fibre. This green box is an extension of the old telephone exchange outsourced to a pavement a little bit nearer your home. From here on the signals are like my legs after this long walk — fading fast and aching to reach home. The further from this green box, the slower your service.

It will, of course, be wonderful in winter: small frost-free islands that will save the shrubbery and encourage early growth. They might even provide comfort for homeless souls. In places that really need pavement heating (e.g. northern Sweden) they might get by with a feed from the community heating network but few would design a system based on underfoot wiring. But this is the UK where innovation is driven by market performance — where ‘leveraging’ (or sweating) the assets is a fine excuse for avoiding investment in a future.

But all that sweating is not working. Four decades ago design engineers were struggling to create a modern replacement for the old electro-mechanical telephone exchanges. When facing some seemingly impossible hurdle they would leave the lab, visit the old local exchange and watch the whirring, clattering, stuttering switches responding to distant fingers in rotary dials. ‘If’, they mused, ‘they could make this work, then surely . . .’. Now, back to the lab, guys.

But those mission-focused days are long gone. Such was the determination to leverage — to squeeze every last digital gram of capacity value and profit from their beloved copper network — they came up with a scheme to provide a shared fibre service to a pole near your home. The snag was that poles didn’t have a power supply — but no matter, they could use your own home electricity to heat the birds’ nests atop their poles.

Cue Doogle, shaking his head sorrowfully, and muttering ‘What a way to run . . . ’.

But leveraging — eking things out — is short rations, much in tune with an era of austerity. On this long voyage it’s not just early morning walkers who can reach out and feel the heat. Will major shareholders order insulated mittens for the new CEO or will fingers get burned?