The Rise of the Alt-Nets

Schools Broadband CEO David Tindall looks at how broadband technology is changing and what that means for schools

In October I was delighted to speak at the EduGeek EDIT Conference 2023, an event where ISPs and IT professionals in the Education sector gather to share insights into the ever-changing world of education technology. In my talk I covered DfE guidelines, the move from FTTC to FTTP technology, and the rise of a new breed of ISPs known as “Alt-Nets”. The techies among you can get all the detail in the highlights video above, but I’ll simplify the key points here.

DfE Broadband Standards for Schools

In March 2022, the DfE published their Digital and Technology Standards for Schools and Colleges, outlining requirements for broadband internet, security and safeguarding. In a nutshell, the broadband requirements are:

  • Broadband should be provided using a full fibre connection
  • Primary schools should have a minimum 100Mbps download speed and a minimum of 30Mbps upload speed
  • Secondary schools, all-through schools and further education colleges should have a connection with the capacity to deliver 1Gbps download and upload speed

I was one of a select few members to sit on the steering committee that guided the development of those standards so I’m very familiar with just how necessary they are for schools, who are increasingly reliant on technology to properly function. It’s with these standards in mind that I consider the changing landscape of broadband technology and what that means for schools now and in the near future.

The Future of Broadband Technology

Full Fibre broadband generally refers to Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) and Leased Lines, and is a requirement outlined in the DfE’s standards. Many smaller schools and those in rural areas are still using Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC). This does not qualify as Full Fibre, as the fibre part of the connection only goes as far as your nearest on-street cabinet, and from there the connection is carried over copper cables to your school. The problem with FTTC is that the further your traffic needs to travel over copper, the slower the speeds you will receive. FTTC caps out at 80Mbps, just short of the DfE’s minimum required speeds for primary schools and well below those for secondary schools. On top of this, it’s also less reliable than Full Fibre. In the past this is something that schools have simply had to put up with if FTTP was unavailable in the area, but FTTP is rapidly being deployed across the country, in part thanks to the rise of a new breed of ISPs: the Alt-Nets. So, if there’s just one message I want to get across to schools right now, it’s this: Whatever you do, do not lock yourself into a five-year contract for FTTC with your incumbent provider, at least not without a get-out clause to allow an FTTP upgrade when it becomes available. Or you could find yourself missing out on the new technologies being deployed across the country and failing to meet DfE standards for years to come.

“Whatever you do, do not lock yourself into a five year contract for FTTC.

You will miss out on the new technologies being deployed across the country right now.”

The Rise of the Alt-Nets

So, who are these mysterious “Alt-Nets”? Alt-Nets are smaller ISPs building their own independent fibre broadband networks, and they’re increasing fibre coverage across the country at an unprecedented rate. There are already 100 Alt-Nets in the UK, many have already built their networks and are now focusing on onboarding customers. This is great news for schools in rural areas who otherwise may have found themselves with a lengthy wait for the major carriers to provide full fibre coverage.

So, are these Alt-Nets a good choice for schools looking to move away from FTTC? Well, the short answer is yes. If you’re in an area where the major networks aren’t offering Full Fibre coverage and an Alt-Net is, it’s easy to see the benefit. And even if Full Fibre is readily available, as Alt-Nets aren’t as restricted in the pricing they’re able to offer, you may find that you’ll get a better deal with them. Alt-Nets are a particularly good for individual schools because:

  • They’ll probably be bringing their costs down
  • They’re likely to give you faster, DfE compliant speeds
  • Some can offer extremely fast synchronous connections (meaning upload speeds are the same as download, a DfE requirement for secondary schools)

However, Alt-Nets aren’t without their downsides. Due to the infancy of their systems, many provide an inferior customer experience than you might be used to with a major network such as BT or Virgin. Several of them have already collapsed or been taken over by competitors, while others are in the process of merging with each other. So, it’s wise to do your research and be careful when choosing your provider so you don’t end up facing any disruption. A good way of ensuring this due diligence has been completed on your behalf is by purchasing through DfE recommended frameworks such as YPO, or by going with trusted ISPs who have an Alt-Net offering, such as Schools Broadband. 

Switching to an Alt-Net

Delivery time can be longer with Alt-Nets, particularly when street works are needed, so you should allow extra time and make sure you have a backup plan with your existing and/or new supplier. If you get your broadband service through a local authority, it’s likely that they will be unable to offer Alt-Net services, restricting your choices. So again, I’d recommend thinking carefully about your choice of provider and avoid locking yourself into any long-term contracts with councils.

The reason I said Alt-Nets were particularly good for individual schools is that Multi Academy Trusts have a raft of extra considerations when it comes to switching to an Alt-Net. As a MAT if you take a variety of services from multiple suppliers, you will need to manage multiple supplier relationships, different SLAs, separate portals, and your WAN and any hosted applications will not have guaranteed speeds between sites. But that’s not to say that MATs should avoid Alt-Nets altogether. If you go with a supplier like Schools Broadband that can combine those services into a single customer portal, then it can massively simplify the management of those services. We can also assist when it comes to escalating any issues, helping to alleviate those customer experience problems that Alt-Nets can be prone to.

Key Points to Take Away

  • Full Fibre is here, so don’t lock yourself into FTTC contracts
  • Alt-Nets are a great option, particularly for individual schools in areas where the major networks aren’t yet offering Full Fibre
  • When switching to an Alt-Net, ensure you have a backup plan in place and go through a trusted, well-established ISP like Schools Broadband – especially if you’re a MAT
  • Visit our Full Fibre page for more information

Request More Information

Contact Us Form