Saturday, October 25, 2008

Next generation access stinks...

...literally, it would seem:

Bournemouth's sewer Fibrecity kicks off,39024661,39317961,00.htm

"For the residents of Bournemouth, super high speed internet access is creeping closer after work officially started on the Fibrecity project. The scheme will give the town's residents a chance to connect to an FTTP (fibre to the premises) network, built by H2O Networks, with speeds up to 100Mbps.

The project will cost around £30m and will be the largest of its kind in Europe, according to the company. Bournemouth homes and businesses in the BH10 and BH11 postcodes can opt-in to the scheme. The city's sewers will play home to the fibre optic cables themselves, a small trench will take the fibre to a box installed on the outside of the customer's home."

A previous item from May this year suggests schools are on the radar too:

Bournemouth to be UK's first Fibrecity,39024661,39215331,00.htm

"Uses of the network will include real-time traffic monitoring via CCTV, improved IT in schools and videoconferencing to help social workers carry out their jobs more effectively."

I suppose we should hope this all goes down the tubes and that they're soon flushed with their success?

I'll get my coat.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A universal service obligation for broadband?

Further to my previous post, discussions are underway within the European Commission regarding possible reform of universal service obligations for telecommunications to include broadband provision, which is not a requirement at present.

Some recent additional news coverage of this issue:

Commission Calls for Broadband Access for All Europeans

The Commission's 2008 Report on the Scope of the Universal Service in Telecoms: FAQs

There are a couple of very interesting aspects to this. Firstly, if broadband is included in a future USO, this could have a significant impact on the UK, where there are a not insubstantial number of "notspots" beyond the reach of DSL services, primarily as a result of either line quality or the distance from an exchange. How might a new USO require these to be addressed?

Secondly, proposals to mandate transparency of traffic shaping polices are also being considered, as referenced in the recent Caio review. Taken together, thse two developments would represent quite a shift in the broadband marketplace?

This recent communication from the European Commission has this to say about a possible broadband USO:

"Coverage of broadband networks is now very high in most Member States, being available, on average, to 90% of the EU population. Use of the internet is now approaching the level of a service used by the majority, with 49% of EU households using the internet, 36% of which are on broadband. Although broadband is not yet used by the majority of consumers (the first of two considerations identified in Annex V of the Directive) and is therefore not encompassed by the USO as laid down and described by the present wording, take-up is approaching the threshold of use by a majority of consumers. Furthermore, it is reasonable to anticipate that, in a relatively short horizon of time, narrowband will no longer answer the requirement of being "sufficient to permit functional internet access" (as laid down in Article 4(2) of the Directive). Thus the situation does need to be kept under review."

This debate is set to continue for some time, as the Commission doesn't expect to propose any new legislation before 2010.

Additional recent communications address the second aspect, suggesting transparency of traffic shaping should be a mandatory requirement. This one, a speech by Viviane Reding, Member of the European Commission responsible for Telecommunications, on 2nd September 2008, has this to say:

"Competition brings with it lower prices, better quality services and more choice, so consumers are the real winners! But I do not kid myself, and I can see the Parliament shares these concerns: choice needs to be real. Consumers need to be empowered to make the most of competition and that also means being properly informed. That is why the enhanced ability to switch your supplier is so important, and why I welcome Parliament's support on the need to ensure that number portability is completed within 1 day. If it can happen in Australia in 2 hours, then 1 day should be entirely feasible in Europe. I also welcome the clarity that Parliament has added with its changes on enhanced consumer information; so that consumers really know what service they are getting from their providers and can make useful comparisons. This enhanced transparency also serves to support the open architecture of the internet. If there are any restrictions on accessing the internet, it is imperative that consumers are clearly informed of what those restrictions are. I am glad to see that both the Commission and the Parliament stand in agreement on these points."

...while this one provides a little more detail:

"For the European Commission, the open architecture of the Internet is of key importance for the Information Society. The Commission in particular considers that the following "net freedoms" should be general guidelines for regulators and policy makers: right for users to access and distribute (lawful) content, to run applications and connect devices of their choice.

The Commission therefore proposes, in the EU Telecoms reform, a transparency mechanism concerning possible restrictions on consumers’ choice of lawful content and applications so that consumers can make an informed choice of services and reap the full benefits of technological developments. In practice, consumers will get clear and timely information from their service providers about any restrictions that the providers place on their access to or use of Internet or mobile content and applications. This will allow them to pick and switch to the operator which best suits their needs. Where consumers have no alternative, service providers should not be allowed to block or restrict such access."

Worth keeping an eye out as these developments progess through the EU legislative process. More on this in an article from Silicon News:

Fibre era fraught with roadblocks: EC,39024659,39283620,00.htm

"Following the European Parliament's first reading of the EU Telecoms reform proposals on 23 September, the European Council of Telecoms Ministers will then discuss the proposals on 27 November. The EC reckons a political agreement on the final legislative texts could be achieved by the end of the year, with a new regulatory framework potentially becoming law in all 27 EU Member States by 2010."

NSPCC renew call for pre-installed internet safety software

Three out of four children visiting the NSPCC's children's website have seen images on the internet that disturbed them. 377 of the 497 children that participated in a recent poll on the site claimed to have been disturbed by internet images. Full story at

As a result, the charity has renewed its calls that computer manufacturers and retailers should install security to stop children finding violent or sexual content.

This provides an interesting comparison to Tanya Byron's recommendations in this area earlier this year:

"Our aim should be to encourage parents to engage with the technical tools available to help keep their children safe. In order to do this, some parents will need to adopt a different mindset by moving from what a psychologist would call a state of precontemplation (not engaging with, nor thinking about the issue) to a state of contemplation (deciding to engage with and think about the issue), where they are really thinking about what they can do to make their children safer online. We know that parents take action where an incident has already taken place. However, I believe that a more effective approach is possible, where technical tools take parents through a series of steps which require them to mentally engage with the issues and think about what parental controls are appropriate for their family. Having filters set on by default would not make parents engage, since they are presented with a simple choice of leaving the filter on or turning it off…I do not recommend requiring computer manufacturers to pre-install filtering software which is switched on by default."

Difficult one to call, this. I fully agree that parents should engage more fully with Internet safety issues, but configuring parental controls so they are effective without being intrusive is a non-trivial task likely to be beyond the patience of many, me included I expect.

An intereresting consideration for our Home Access endeavours too.

Mobile broadband: is it any good?

Takeup of mobile broadband services has exploded over the last twelve months or so, as these figures from Ofcom reveal:

new mobile broadband connections
Source: The Communications Market 2008
This is a staggering amount. From the same study: "In the five months from February 2008 (the first month for which data are available), an estimated 510k mobile broadband connections were sold by the UK’s five mobile network operators, 425k of which were contract connections (an average of 85k contract subscribers a month)."

Also interesting, again from the same study, are the numbers of users employing a mobile broadband connection as an alternative to a fixed connection, shown across different user age ranges in the chart below:

mobile vs fixed broadband

...but, despite this, there are some interesting question marks over whether these services actually deliver an acceptable level of service, and, perhaps more significantly, whether they will actually provide any significant new revenues for mobile operators.

Again, to quote from the same Ofcom study:

“Revenue from mobile broadband contracts is typically between £10 and £20 per month, while nearly half of all mobile contract connections sold with a handset in Q1 2008 were in the £30-£40 bracket, and average revenue per connection for mobile contract customers in 2007 was £33.06.

Clearly, therefore, although mobile broadband may come to represent a significant new revenue stream for mobile operators, in terms of both volumes of subscribers and revenue per subscriber it is dwarfed by current voice and text revenues from mobile phones. A projection of three million subscribers accessing broadband via a mobile dongle in the next couple of years at an average of £15 a month per subscriber would generate a total of £540m per year – or just over 3.5% of the £15.1bn total retail revenue generated by the UK’s mobile operators in 2007.

It is also worth noting that, compared to voice, the revenues from mobile broadband are massively disproportionate to the network capacity required; T-Mobile announced in April 2008 that data traffic already exceeded voice traffic on its network (Informa, Mobile Entertainment, April 2008).”

Coupled with this, there are also a number of concerns over the performance of mobile broadband services, which often seem to provide much less than what it says on the tin:

T-Mobile, Virgin broadband ads fall foul of watchdog,1000000085,39518866,00.htm

To quote:

"The Advertising Standards Authority has taken issue with claims that mobile broadband is interchangeable with its fixed-line, 'home' equivalent.

The Advertising Standards Authority's (ASA's) adjudication follows a complaint from a member of the public over a T-Mobile flyer that stated: "All the benefits of home broadband, on the move. No wires, no waiting, no worries". The ASA said the flyer may mislead consumers into thinking mobile broadband would deliver the same speed and quality as traditional home broadband.

T-Mobile, however, said the leaflets referred to the capacities of mobile broadband, not its speed, and "maintained that they did not make any claim that implied a direct technical comparison to fixed-line broadband", according to the ASA.

The ASA, however, disagreed with T-Mobile. "We understood that mobile broadband was unlikely to offer speeds comparable with those of a high-speed, fixed-line service and that, due to the technology's reliance on obtaining a signal from mobile-telephone networks, it could not guarantee the same continuity of service," the ad watchdog said in its adjudication.
"In particular, we were concerned that activities such as streaming, downloading and online gaming were unlikely to be available to mobile-broadband users to the same standard as to fixed-line broadband users," the ASA added."

The coverage and performance of mobile broadband services seems to me to be at best variable and at worst unusable. Some of this may be down to network coverage, but it may also be that these services are simply victims of their own success: it's simply the case that the existing mobile network infrastructure can no longer cope with rising demand.

A recent example: at the recent city hotel conference venue, the performance of mobile broadband services was outstripped by far by the BT Openzone hotspot available throughout the venue.

But if mobile broadband services aren't profitable, where is the incentive to upgrade networks to address these coverage and performance issues? This from Guy Kewney, writing for The Register earlier this year:

"The mobile broadband revolution, in short, could be a bubble. If the carriers could provide ADSL-standard broadband for half the price of ADSL indefinitely, then the market would simply grow and grow. But it can't, and nobody in their right mind imagines they can; at some point, the bandwidth they offer will be swallowed up and they'll have to find more from somewhere. And that will cost real money."

Guy offers more evidence to confirm the rapid growth in mobile broadband traffic, citing the growth in T-Mobile's traffic mentioned above and others too:

"T-Mobile reported in April 2008 that the volume of data traffic on its network in the UK had exceeded that of voice traffic for the first time in the first quarter of 2008. Mobile broadband pioneers, 3 UK and Vodafone, are likely to announce a similar trend this year. 3 UK reported a seven­fold increase in the volume of data traffic on its network in the six months to March 2008."

As stated in the above Ofcom study, the margins on tenner-a-month mobile broadband are very small, and those could quickly turn into losses if punters start using all the bandwidth available to them. And if they're not profitable, how will these services ever improve?

Perhaps we might want to consider the role mobile broadband services might play in home access initiatives in the light of all this; this is certainly far from being a mature market as yet, and on this evidence it could be doubtful it'll ever become one.

Finally, there are some issues to consider about mobile broadband tariffs too. Some services are described as "pay as you go", but unlike a PAYG mobile phone, which stops working once you've used up all your credit, mobile broadband services just keep right on going, allowing user to ramp up some very hefty bills if they're not careful. An example, albeit an extreme one:

Do we really want to be committing disadvantaged groups to a connectivity approach with such potential financial pitfalls for the unwary?

It always seems ironic to me that PAYG services, the most expensive mobile telephony option by far, have the highest takeup amongst disadvantaged groups, as they may the only connectivity option available to users that don't have sufficient credit worthiness for either a contract mobile service or a conventional landline service.

Funny old world.

Consumer broadband performance issues

In keeping with one of the recommendations of the Caio review, that there should be greater transparency about the nature of consumer broadband services, it does seem that awareness of broadband performance (above and beyond headline speed issues) is growing, both amongst consumers and on the supply side too.

Here's what the Caio review recommended in this area:

"Mandate transparency on network capacity management policies. Ofcom have already instigated action to ensure there is greater transparency over actual performance, after criticism of some of the claims made by ISPs regarding their ‘up-to’ speeds, which did not match those experienced by consumers. A published statement of policy by each service provider could have the further effect of turning the general lack of satisfaction over speed into a competitive force.

The objective of this would be twofold:
  • it would create some pressure on ISPs to upgrade their existing capacity even though, as explained in Part 2.3, this is likely to be directed to backhaul in the short term;
  • maybe more importantly, it might help providers and consumers to value (and price) differences in quality of service. Some ISPs might opt to offer lower prices, but with constraints in capacity for certain applications or in ‘peak time’; others might guarantee higher capacity but charge a premium.

A clearer and more transparent communication on effective available speeds should also raise awareness regarding this aspect and favour players who undertake early investment in NGA. As such, it might act as catalyst for further investments.

In the ongoing negotiation of revisions to the EU Regulatory Framework, a power to require transparency of traffic-shaping policies is being proposed. This report recommends that the Government supports its inclusion in the revised Framework, which Ofcom could then implement in due course."

More on EU regulatory developments here:

To quote from the above:

"The EC's Universal Service Obligations (USO) demand that all citizens who want them should be able to get access to basic telephone services.

It covers the production of a telephone directory, availability of payphones, specific measures for people with disabilities or those on low incomes and fixed phone access for local, national and international voice calls.

The obligations also include a clause demanding that the fixed line be of sufficient quality to "permit functional internet access". In the UK this has been interpreted to mean a line that can support a dial-up speed of 28.8 kilobits per second."

Clearly any new USO needs to focus on bandwidths higher than this, but that's an issue for another post. Back to my original point: Virgin Media seems very keen to ensure its 50Mbps service is recognised as a premium service and has criticised some broadband speed tests, saying they are often inaccurate. See:

...though perhaps of more interest is this quote from later in the same article:

"(Virgin Media) recommended tests such as that devised by broadband comparison site SamKnows...The SamKnows kit has been adopted by Ofcom and attracted thousands of triallists keen to test out the system."

The SamKnows tests are very detailed (see link in an earlier post), so not very accessible to a lay audience, but a distillation of some of the main findings would articulate the key differences between service providers' offerings. This could also help to provide the differentiation between standard and premium services from the same provider I mentioned in my previous post?

Though perhaps most helpful for the education broadband community, do these developments have the potential to clarify once and for all the differences between consumer broadband services and connectivity provided through local authorities and RBCs?

Net neutrality, in the light of recent broadband policy developments

It's interesting to revisit the net neutrality debate, in the light of continuing discussions and developments around next generation access (NGA).

The net neutrality issue arose in the US, as a result of telcos feeling rather left out of the party as far as the revenues generated by sites and services such as Google, eBay, iTunes, Amazon etc are concerned.

The telcos' argument is essentially that, as the above services simply couldn't function without the underlying infrastructure they provide, why shouldn't they receive a slice of the revenues they generate?

This would essentially let internet service providers treat some websites differently than others, effectively creating a fast lane on the internet. The telcos argue that in television, radio and press, distributors have always been closely entwined with content creators, so why should the Internet be any different?

Proponents of mantaining net neutrality argue that the Internet is like no other mass medium because it is so chaotic and few companies can exert control over content and the means of accessing it. Net neutrality is at the heart of the internet's diversity.

More on net neutrality here:

...and an interesting take on net neutrality in a mobile context here:

So what's all this got to do with the current debate about NGA in the UK? Well, lots of discussions have focused on the business case for NGA - what services will NGA provide, how much will consumers be prepared to pay for them and, most importantly perhaps, how much and how soon are telcos likely to see a return on the not insignifcant investment necessary to deploy NGA?

As yet, no one seems to really know, and it's very difficult to secure such investment against a "best guess". An interesting point was made at a recent Broadband Stakeholder Group event: that broadband technologies are by their nature disruptive and unpredictable. It's impossible to know what users will do with the extra bandwidth until you give it to them and let them experiment.

The rise of social networking and Web 2.0 technologies was cited as an example - who could've predicted that FaceBook and MySpace would have been so successful and so profitable in such a short space of time?

Going back to the net neutrality debate, and thinking about my own situation, if someone offered me a 50 or 100Mbps service for, say, £50 a month, I just wouldn't be interested. My usage at home simply doesn't justify such an upgrade and I can't see that changing any time soon. I don't think I'm a luddite by any means, but I don't use file sharing services, I don't use the iPlayer or any other video on demand services and I'm not interested in online gaming.

I would imagine many others would class themselves similarly, but at the same time I'm sure there are people who would have their ISP's arm off for the bandwidths I've mentioned above. Though I do wonder how many of them there are out there. Probably more than you'd imagine, if people's monthly expenditure on contract and pay as you go mobile telephony is any yardstick.

My point is that the two-tier Internet, much feared by the proponents of net neutrality, could actually come about as a result of consumer demand, rather than imposed from above. Whether that's any better or worse I'm not sure; this is certainly an area to watch.

I personally think we're likely to see much greater diversity in the range of consumer broadband services available, moving further and further away from the one size fits all approach. There is already a fair amount of differentiation, chiefly based on bandwidth caps and fair use policies in terms of amount of data downloaded, but I think we're likely to see much more diversity in terms of the range of different services (and their related tariffs) that different offerings provide, even to the point that you simply can't do some things on lower bandwidth/cheaper services that you can on premium services.

Watch this space I reckon...

More musings on the Caio review

This is an interesting follow-on from recent broadband announcements:

BT picks fast fibre pilot sites

The above news item reports on proposals for two operational pilots (one in Whitchurch in South Wales and one in Muswell Hill in London) to run fibre-optic cables to the street cabinets that connect homes and businesses to telephone exchanges. Users should benefit from connection speeds of up to 40Mbps. Also interesting: BT will also conduct a small technical trial in the Foxhall exchange area of Kesgrave, Suffolk in early 2009. More at:,39024661,39313850,00.htm

...all of which seems to bear out the findings of the Caio review: that companies should just get on with deploying NGA as they see fit and should not expect any support from Government to do so. BT are clearly quite happy to get on with this.

But I wonder how much future public sector demand considerations (education and health) featured in recent reviews of broadband provision undertaken by the Broadband Stakeholder Group and Francesco Caio? In fact, the Caio review simply states that schools' broadband is already "job done":
"Key public sector establishments are connected - Although the focus of this review is on the development of broadband for homes and businesses, it is worth remembering that key public sector establishments in the form of schools, hospitals or GP surgeries are already virtually all provided with an adequate level of connectivity including, in some cases, through fibre or other forms of NGA."
The report goes on to quote Becta figures from the data collection tool at I'm sure many schools would question whether they yet have an adequate level of connectivity in place, given the ever increasing demands being placed on their services? Certainly fibre connections for schools are far from ubiquitous.

Ironically, the report does in fact acknowledge the importance of broadband to education:
"In the mid- to long term, Broadband/NGA will become a critical digital utility, essential to the competitiveness of any country and to the quality of life of its citizens. The UK will be no exception and, if anything, it will be even more dependent on this infrastructure than other economies. Here, high-quality broadband will be essential for the continued development of sectors that in recent years have elevated the UK to a position of global leadership, such as the creative industries, financial services, software and gaming. Equally importantly, broadband will be central to critical processes of information and innovation in education and health services."
Absolutely, no arguments there. However, the overarching conclusion reached by the Caio review would seem to be that we're already sorted in terms of public sector provision, something I and many others would strongly disagree with.

I agree that the need for Government to bankroll NGA for consumers is questionable, but the collective failure of the recent reviews to acknowledge the demanding requirements of the public sector and the many opportunities NGA offers to health and education is short-sighted in the extreme. All in all, not a very satisfactory outcome for education or health at all.

...and finally it seems that if the UK Government won't fund NGA, innovative projects and suppliers will look elsewhere in Europe to administrations that will:

UK firm leads way on EU broadband
"A UK organisation has been invited to take part in a major European project to bring broadband to rural areas. The European Union is spending 3.5m euros to improve net access across the region. The B3 - Regions for Better Broadband Connection project aims to tackle the 30% of rural homes and businesses without broadband. UK-based NYnet was chosen as one of the partners following its introduction of high speed access in North Yorkshire."
Says it all, really, doesn't it?

The Internet as a troubled teenager

A rather nice description of the Internet's maturity, or, more accurately, its lack of it, from a column in the December 2008 issue of PC Pro Magazine:

"Children can be a crushing disappointment. Back in 1990, when Tim Berners-Lee gave birth to the world wide web, he doubtless hoped his offspring would be highly intelligent, sociable and respectable. Instead, 18 years on, he finds himself with an impressionable teenager who is easily led by any crackpot with a conspiracy theory, and who has the world's biggest porn stash under his bed."

This is in the context of Tim Berners-Lee's recommendation that there must be ways of identifying content on websites to provide some kind of assurance about its veracity. See:

This follows on from the latest conspiracy to do the rounds on the web, that the Large Hadron Collider would suck us all into oblivion through a man-made black hole. Which itself reminded me of (yet) another wonderful Douglas Adams quote:

"There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened."

Anyway, the PC Pro column concludes that Tim B-L's proposal is actually a tacit form of censorship. Which is rather stretching the point; I think the real problem with the idea is simply the huge difficulty of keeping track of information published on the web these days!

Broadband Handbag results: Virgin Media 1 - 1 BT plc

BT initially took the lead back in July, putting the ball squarely in the back of the net with this one:

Virgin rapped on broadband speeds
The ruling from the Advertising Standards Authority is here:
...but Virgin have this week retaliated with a devastating volley from just outside the 18-yard box:

BT rapped over broadband claims
Again, the ASA ruling is here:
Truly broadband is a funny old game, but clearly the name of the game is to get the ball in the back of the net. Wonder which one's sick as a parrot?

Shibboleth demonstration movie

This is particularly helpful as it shows the user logging into a portal (Blackboard in this instance). This ensures the user has to sign in just once to access a range of external resources associated with them. Shibboleth provides attributes to these resources on the user’s behalf (without ever identifying them as individuals) to allow access.

Also, a helpful presentation from Patrick Kirk about the development of a synthetic scope to identify individual schools within the UK Access Management Federation:

The Caio broadband review...

…has been published:

Some interesting commentaries:

No aid for next-gen network firms

Case for public intervention in next generation broadband weak

Report calls for mandatory transparency of traffic management

This last one follows on nicely from the SamKnows broadband ISP performance monitoring report:

Other recent broadband headlines provide a nice counterpoint to the Caio review findings:

Japan tops world broadband study

UK lags in broadband quality

UK could suffer economically and socially with 'poor broadband'