Fibre island: How Jersey went ultra-fast

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent
@BBCRoryCJon Twitter

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WATCH: Lessons from Jersey's full-fibre internet

Full-fibre broadband for everyone - right to the door.

That was the new standard set by the UK government back in the summer. Just 5% of homes can get that right now, so making it available nationwide will take years of work and billions of pounds of investment.

But in Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, things look very different. It has just completed the rollout of its full-fibre network to 40,000 homes and business premises.

Now, it is making an extraordinary claim: that it is the first jurisdiction in the world to make fibre-to-the-home available to 100% of broadband users.

That has meant laying fibre-optic cables up every country lane, every residential street, even across the causeway to the historic Elizabeth Castle just off the coast at St Helier.

In the UK, most people buying fibre broadband are actually getting fibre to the street-side cabinet, with their connection coming down a copper cable for the last stretch to their home.

"In the UK, they build a motorway to the end of your street. We take it right to your front door," is how JT (Jersey Telecom) chief executive Graeme Millar puts it.

Some customers say it is already making a big difference.

As her 200 Jersey cattle made their way into the milking parlour at Lodge Farm, young dairy farmer Becky Houze explains that each of them is hooked up to a monitoring system by a chip in its ear.

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Dairy farmer Becky Houze

The farm's wi-fi network beams the data to Becky's own computers and across to the UK, where it is monitored by the milking equipment manufacturer.

"It's made us much more efficient," says Becky. "We can spot any problems within seconds."

The Beaulieu Catholic School for girls has given all of its students connected devices such as Chromebooks and put all of its lessons in the cloud, so that teaching material and homework can be accessed as easily at home as in the classroom.

The school used to have hundreds of computers connected to the internet via ethernet cables. Now, a fast wi-fi network handles everything - meaning a big saving on equipment.

"Everything's faster, simpler and cheaper," says assistant head teacher Rory Steel.

So, how has Jersey been able to afford to do this when for years the likes of BT have argued that it would be too expensive for the UK as a whole?

The service does not come at a bargain basement price for home users - about £40 per month for broadband and line rental.

Installation is free, while JT reckons it costs £1,300 per home to roll out the service. That will take eight or nine years to recoup.

And unlike in the UK, customers can get only one flavour of broadband The copper cables are being retired, so a cheaper, slower connection is not an option.

The Jersey landscape is relatively forgiving. The average cost per home to install fibre across every part of the UK could be as much as £2,500, according to Graeme Millar.

But he reckons the big advantage the island has is that JT is 100% owned by the Jersey government.

"It's looking for a long-term return on the capital invested rather than having to report to the stock market every three months," he said.

"I view it a bit like the Victorians putting the sewers into London. The fibre's going to be here for a very long time."

It was back in 2011 that Jersey made the decision to spend £50m on going full fibre, a move that has since been followed by countries such as Spain and Portugal.

Back then, the UK government was promising that the country would build the best superfast broadband in Europe. But it turned out that "superfast" was not fast enough.

"We are now building a nationwide full-fibre broadband network for a Britain that is fit for the future," a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport official told me this week.

Apparently UK officials are now coming to Jersey to find out how it is done. Perhaps they should have done that some years ago.