Monday, November 23, 2009

Digital Economy Bill


Lots of disappointment in relation to the Digital Economy Bill. From the Guardian:
"The digital economy bill is misnamed. A more honest title for the legislation, recently introduced in the Lords, would be the copyright protection and punishment bill. It is less about creating the digital businesses of the 21st century than protecting the particular 20th century business models used in music and film."
Similar reaction in the Telegraph:
"The bill, which aims to realise most of the commitments set out in the Digital Britain White Paper published in June, has laid out its plans to curb online piracy. The first step towards reducing online piracy by 70 per cent will be ensuring Internet Service Providers (ISPs), such as Sky or Virgin, send out warning letters to those caught file-sharing on their networks."
Interesting that a Bill originally envisaged to support new ways of doing business online seems primarily focussed on preserving old ways of doing things? Which isn't to ignore that piracy is an issue, rather that there seems from a first look to be little that's truly innovative in this regard in the Bill?

Friday, November 20, 2009

NextGen 09 conference report


I attended the NextGen09 conference earlier this week, organised by the Community Broadband Network (CBN). Stephen Timms delivered the keynote.

Nothing new in his speech, unfortunately. However his response to a question from the floor (from Stephen Dodson of DC10plus) was of interest. In recognition of the fact that there is little "new money" (whether public or private) around to support investment in Next Generation Access, Stephen D asked whether the role of large government departments (DWP, DCSF) as potential "big spenders" on NGA was being explored. Stephen T replied that this was something he would be talking to the various Secretaries of State about.

Which is potentially good news for education, on two counts? Programmes like Becta's Home Access initiative and Next Generation Learning campaign demonstrate that access to education services is a key driver for consumer takeup of NGA. Secondly, now is the time to review and refresh schools' broadband services to deliver NGA-equivalent or better services across the country? We need to ensure that schools can keep ahead users' broadband expectations, of both pupils and staff.

Ed Vaizey (Shadow Minister for Culture) spoke the previous day, re-stating Conservative opposition to the 50p landline levy ("an analogue solution to a digital issue"). He went down very well, but it's easy to play to the crowd in this context, as he himself admitted. He also flagged the importance of restructuring the regulatory environment to spur investment, the role of dark fibre provision, sub-loop unbundling and the need to reform business rates on fibre. This echoed a recent speech he made to the International Dark Fibre Convention.

The conference presentations are now available online. These selections are worth a look:

Digital Britain – 5 months on – what does it all mean?
Kip Meek, Chair, Broadband Stakeholder Group

I thought the “unfortunate point in electoral cycle” comment was odd, to start a presentation about broadband opportunities with an excuse. The subsequent comment that the Digital Economy Bill was smaller as a consequence seemed another way of saying “the dog ate my homework” to me. I also disagreed with the comment that “the importance of universality of broadband and its relationship with speed is not understood; take-up a bigger immediate issue”. In our context this relationship is well understood, as schools start to reach the limits of their existing provision. A more general point was made: there are lots of "knowns" about the value of NGA, but current policy isn't bringing them together very well.

Digital Britain - are we on the right track?
Alan Srbljanin, East Midlands Development Agency

Alan's view: no, we are on the slow track, not the right track. A more strategic approach than a "patchwork quilt" is needed. Digital Britain is already here; we need a manifesto, not pilots.

The Technology Strategy Board Digital Testbed Programme
Maurizio Pilu, TSB

"An environment to stimulate new business models" - I did think there was a risk this programme might end up testing proven hypotheses, theorising about already established use cases, applications and business models. However, still very interesting as a potential mechanism to explore schools's use of NGA services, particularly in relation to supporting concurrent usage.

Sub-loop unbundling: opportunites & challenges
Mark Melluish, Rutland Telecom

Very interesting - a local operator providing high speed VDSL services by unbundling the sub-loop between the street cabinet and the customer premise to provide NGA services. More information on their website. Backhaul and excess construction costs (distance dependent) are the two largest cost barriers to overcome. But in a small authority like Rutland I guess core network and backhaul can be procured at realistic costs?

Digital Region
David Holt, CEO Digital Region

The first major, open access regional superfast broadband (based on FTTC) network in the UK - covering Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield. But see also G-ti in Gateshead, who also presented. However, these seem to be networks in search of applications - a direct question to Digital Region about which service providers were involved provoked only a "commercial in confidence discussions are continuing" response. Also no indication of if/how schools (for which broadband networks are already in place) will be served by the network.

Just plain bandwidth: complexity may be big, but it's not clever
Andrew Haynes, Level 3

An interesting analysis of the cost complexities facing ISPs and the importance of "running to stand still" to keep pace with consumer demand: "if the problem is cost, complexity isn't likely to be the solution".

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Digital Britain taxation vexation


The 50p/month landline tax continues to be controversial. Charles Dunstone, CEO of TalkTalk, set out his opposition to the proposed tax in an address to a BIS Committee. He argued that the tax will result in at least 100,000 low income homes being forced to give up their broadband lines. The footnote to TalkTalk's press release provides this by way of explanation:
"...50p price rise on voice/broadband package costing ~£15 per month represents a 3% price rise. Assuming a -0.2 elasticity (which is at the low end of estimates) this will result in a 0.6% fall in demand which is 120,000 broadband homes (20m voice/broadband customers)..."
Dunstone also argued that "the scheme is likely to delay next generation broadband roll-out in rural areas rather than hasten it as private investors will wait for public funds to be made available. This will mean that much of the tax will be wasted investing in networks that the private sector would have built themselves anyway."

The Guardian and Computer Weekly both recently reported that Stephen Timms is pressing ahead with plans to introduce the tax, despite Conservative opposition, which will be contained in this year's finance bill. This would appear to be a break with protocol, as Parliamentary convention dictates that this close to a general election (which must be called by next summer) the finance bill should be short and uncontroversial.

The 50p levy isn't the only taxation issue. A far more complex matter lurks beneath the surface, which was recognised by the previous Caio Review: the issue of business rates on fibre networks and, potentially, wireless broadband options too.

Computer Weekly has been campaigning actively on this issue, beginning in July with this account of Vtesse Networks' long-running dispute with the Valuation Office Agency (VOA). Vtesse argue that "the valuation system provides deep discounts to large fixed network operators. This raises the relative cost for smaller operators and creates a barrier to market entry for new investors." This in turn "stifles" investment in next generation access infrastructure.

In October CW reported that the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) was seeking clarification from the VOA of the business rate tax rules the VOA would impose on next-generation networks. This will allow potential investors to work out their risk and return on investment more accurately. The issue was described as "the biggest stumbling block to the roll-out of competitive, high-speed networks under the government's Digital Britain policy."

Also in October CW revealed that the VOA was planning to tax both wireless and optical fibre networks, though the detail was not yet clear:
"The proposed £7.50 "fibre rate" is the same rate that the government levies on Virgin Media for the 12.5 million homes that could get its cable TV service, if they wanted...It is still not clear what kind of wireless access point the VOA would consider taxable. Companies that have replaced their wire-based telephone and data networks with in-building wireless networks, such as those provided with femto or pico cells, may find themselves liable for the tax. Owners of community wireless networks, many of which run on a not-for-profit basis, may also be caught. Companies that offer wireless access include Hilton, Thistle and Ramada Jarvis hotel chains, Caffe Nero and Starbucks coffee stores, as well as BA, Flybe and Skyteam airport lounges. Users with home wi-fi networks might fall foul of the VOA if they allow others to use their connection."
An additional article suggest that the wireless tax could be backdated to 2005:
"The VOA...is considering whether wi-fi and Wimax equipment should form part of the heriditament on which the tax is based. If it turns out that they do, the tax could be backdated to the last time a rating was done, which was April 2005. The VOA has published a new general valuation for 2010 in draft form for comment and appeal. Computer Weekly has learned that the VOA has suggested that wi-fi hotspots and Wimax networks be rated at £100 per access point. BT alone has 600,000 potential access points because BT Home wireless routers can be set to provide public access. This could rake in £29m a year for the government, and possibly a further £145m in back taxes."
While another article alleged that these issues were killing Digital Britain, particularly the aspirations to address poor provision in rural areas:
"The taxes and possible new levies on homes and small businesses connected to fibre and wireless networks make access to broadband more expensive than it need be, especially in rural areas. The UK and Ireland are the only European Union members to tax telecommunications networks. Part of the formula for calculating the rateable value of a broadband link depends on distance. Rural users pay more for connections because network service providers pass on the cost of the tax. This makes broadband connections unaffordable for many in rural areas."
Then in November a further article, revisiting Vtesse Networks' case, made a very interesting allegation:
"BT's fibre network stretches more than 17 million kilometres - 9,867,205km in the core or backbone network, and 7,685,103km in the access or "last mile" network. The VOA also operates a steep discount policy on lit fibres per route. The more fibres that are lit on any one route, the less the fibre owner pays per lit fibre. In addition, owners of networks whose total length is less than 3,000km pay 11% more to light the first fibre on a route. Together, these make it harder for smaller network owners to compete with BT. Instead of paying a per kilometre rate for its fibre network, BT pays tax on what the VOA assesses as the hypothetical rental value of BT's entire network. This peaked at £533m in 2006. The VOA has since cut BT's rateable value each year. According to its central rating list for England, BT's rateable value dropped from £415m on 1 April 2008 to £386m on 1 October 2008. The proposed valuation for 2010 is £255m. Given the new tax rate of 48.5%, 2p up on last year, BT's business rates bill will therefore be £124m. In a neat symmetry, the amount of tax revenue lost as a result of BT's reduced rateable value, around £190m, would be matched almost exactly by the proposed levy of 50p per month per fixed telephone line. Had the VOA not cut BT's rateable value, there would be no need for the controversial levy. In addition, if BT's fibre network were taxed per kilometre, it would have to pay more than £1bn just for its local access network in England."
There are a number of other very interesting allegations too:
"The VOA also treats BT differently in other ways. Non-BT network operators (except Virgin Media, which is subject to yet another different regime) are liable for business rates as soon as they light their fibres...BT pays on the projected profit or loss on "rent" it could make on both its lit and dark fibre. This is averaged over a five-year rating period and adjusted yearly for material changes in market conditions. It must therefore include this cost in its prices. BT's tax bill is an annual adjusted average. Other fibre network operators must pay as soon as they light their fibres. Non-BT operators say this gives it great flexibility in pricing, especially in specific circumstances such as a competitive tender. BT is therefore in a win-win position in bidding for contracts. If it wins the business, great; if it loses the business, its rateable value drops and it pays less in business rates tax. Non-BT operators say the time difference between when the liability arises and when it is paid means BT can afford to sell at or below its break-even cost. This is because BT collects its money well before it pays the tax, while other operators have to pay whether the customer pays them or not. Also, the amount BT has to pay is subject to adjustment. BT and Virgin Media benefit in another way. BT pays tax on all its fibre, dark or lit, and Virgin Media on the basis of the number of houses that its network "passes" (i.e. could have access if they wanted). They incur no extra tax liability for speeding up their networks, but they would have to pay tax to reach more premises. So it pays them to "sweat their assets". Rationally, they should increase both the speed and the number of people on the existing networks rather than increase their geographic coverage. As Computer Weekly reports in the past year have shown, BT and Virgin Media are both increasing the headline speeds of their existing networks, but have sought public money to extend their reach. Only very recently have they revealed plans to grow their networks into presently unserviced areas."
Are these issues, also reported by ThinkBroadband, the real reasons why the UK is where it is in terms of broadband provision? Finally, the most recent CW article reports that the Conservative Party will "prioritise a review of the business rates tax on fibre networks if it comes to power"...whether "prioritsing a review" equates to "sorting this mess out" we can but wait and see.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

US education broadband policy developments


Support for dedicated broadband infrastructure for education in the US appears to be growing.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently filed a broadband cost model with the Federal Communications Commission. The model estimates the total cost of providing fibre optic connectivity to "anchor institutions, such as public schools and libraries, community colleges, and hospitals." The FCC is currently seeking comments on the model, due shortly.

Commentary from internetnews.com:
"The cost model breaks areas down according to population density -- dense urban, urban, suburban, and rural. Overall, the model is meant to help estimate the costs for deploying fiber optic connections to anchor institutions that don't already have broadband hook ups -- some 80 percent of an estimated 123,000 institutions across the U.S.

The ultimate price tag, according to the foundation's cost model, ranges between roughly $5 billion and $10 billion. Estimated costs per site vary. For instance, a low-end cost projection in a dense urban environment could cost as little as $15,000 per site.

Meanwhile, a high-end installation in a suburban area could go as high as $205,000 per site. The estimates include costs to install the fiber optic cable, the cost of the cable, and termination equipment."
This submission, in some ways an education specific US equivalent of the UK fibre deployment costs study prepared by Analysys Mason for the Broadband Stakholder Group in September 2008, relates to both the Foundation's and Microsoft's membership of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition. This was formed earlier this year and is being coordinated by by John Windhausen, Jr., President of Telepoly Consulting and also author of the excellent EDUCAUSE report "A Blueprint for Big Broadband".

From the SHLB Coalition mission statement:
"The mission of the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition is to improve the broadband capabilities of schools, libraries and health care providers so that they can enhance the quality and availability of the essential services they provide to the public and serve underserved and unserved populations more effectively. The Internet has become a fundamental cornerstone of modern education, learning, health care delivery, economic growth, social interaction, job training, government services, and the dissemination of information and free speech. High-capacity broadband is the key infrastructure that K-12 schools, universities and colleges, libraries, hospitals, clinics and other health care providers need to provide 21st century education, information and health services. The Coalition is dedicated to ensuring that each and every library, health care provider and school (including K-12 schools, colleges and universities) has robust, affordable, high-capacity, broadband connections."
The statement goes on to recognise community access opportunities that networks serving such anchor insitutions offer:
"Broadband networks deployed to serve these community anchor institutions should be open to interconnection by other broadband networks serving the community as a way to spur additional broadband investment. Ultimately, all homes and businesses should have access to affordable, high-capacity broadband. Allowing interconnection to networks serving community anchor institutions will provide jumping off points for distributing additional broadband services into surrounding neighborhoods, including residences and other community anchor institutions."
It also echoes the important differences between consumer and institutional connections:
"...these community anchor institutions have unique needs for very high-capacity bandwidth that are different from those of residential consumers. The eligibility of community anchor institutions to apply for funding should not be dictated by geographic boundaries or definitions that are more appropriate for households."
Several other US organisations are getting on board with this agenda too. The State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) in June 2008 published "High-Speed Broadband Access for All Kids: Breaking through the Barriers". On the importance of ensuring sufficient bandwidth to support effective concurrent access:
“Based upon our observations, most schools in the country are at T1 (1.54 Mbps) connection speeds between the school buildings with some having additional capacity. With these bandwidth speeds, schools are trying to accommodate the technology needs of many concurrent users. Compared to the average household with broadband access of at least 5 Mbps, with just a few users, bandwidth in many schools is significantly lower with many more concurrent users. Broadband connection speeds in schools are already behind average households, and in the next few years as bandwidth needs expand, schools will need to significantly upgrade their high-speed broadband capabilities to try to keep pace with what children are accustomed to at home. Even in schools that are sufficiently connected with broadband, bandwidth demand is quickly exceeding capacity as they utilize advanced technology tools. Simply having connectivity is not enough: without measurable upgrades in bandwidths to allow for greater speeds – or even to maintain current speeds as demand grows, teachers and students will be severely limited in the technology applications they can utilize.”
The report's key recommendations on access bandwidths make interesting reading too:
"In a technology-rich learning environment for the next 2-3 years, SETDA recommends:
  • An external Internet connection to the Internet Service Provider of at least 10 Mbps per 1,000 students/staff
  • Internal wide area network connections from the district to each school and between schools of at least 100 Mbps per 1,000 students/staff
In a technology-rich learning environment for the next 5-7 years, SETDA recommends:
  • An external Internet connection to the Internet Service Provider of at least 100 Mbps per 1,000 students/staff
  • Internal wide area network connections from the district to each school and between schools of at least 1 Gbps per 1,000 students/staff"
The report underlines the importance of an aggregated, community-led approach to broadband provision via a series of case studies of successful implementations at district, community and state levels.

The report also cites the School 2.0 eToolkit, developed by the The Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International with support from the U.S. Department of Education. This is designed "to help schools, districts and communities develop a common education vision and explore how that vision can be supported by technology." The toolkit includes a bandwidth planner which is intended to "to help school principals and district CFOs plan their bandwidth needs, demystify bandwidth for nontechnical educators, and bridge the knowledge gap between educators and technologists to improve strategic technology planning." The toolkit's Learning Ecosystem Map is also well worth a look.

Finally, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) have developed a Broadband Knowledge Centre to "highlight the issues of broadband needs and high bandwidth capability in schools." One of the reports cited, America's Digital Schools 2006, describes a "coming bandwidth crisis", which is now surely upon us:
"Districts report that the current bandwidth per student is 2.90 kilobits per second per student of external bandwidth to the Internet. Districts project that they will have 9.57 kilobits per second per student by 2011—a three-fold increase. To properly support a ubiquitous computing environment, the ADS 2006 team projects that an estimated 40 kilobits per second per student will be required. This is 14 times today’s bandwidth and four times where schools plan to be in 2011. If any other line item in a school district budget were to grow by 14 times over five years, and if the future costs were unknown and in most cases unfunded, it would be viewed as a crisis. Hence, we project that there will be a bandwidth crisis. The ADS 2006 team believes that the critical measurement is bandwidth per student, which directly correlates with the student’s browsing experience."
Three examples are presented: a typical elementary school, a typical high school implementing 1-1 computing in 2011 and a progressive high school doing the same. The schools require one T-1 line (1.54Mbps), one T-3 line (45Mbps) and three T-3 lines (135Mbps) respectively.

All of which analysis and insight rather puts the lip service the Digital Britain report paid to education, coupled with the lack of policy progress and development since, to shame?

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Digital Britain update


Speculation on the future of Digital Britain continues. The Guardian reported that Peter Mandelson would meet with mobile industry representatives on 1st September to address the requirements for better mobile broadband set out in the final report. This is seen as crucial to ensuring universal service:
"...getting universal broadband relies upon the five networks reaching a deal over the use of 900MHz wireless spectrum that was granted to the two original networks – Vodafone and O2 – when they started operating in the 1980s. This spectrum is perfect for rural broadband as it allows signals to be carried over long distances. None of the other networks have it. A deal over re-apportioning this slice of the airwaves also needs to be reached before the government can sell off the 800MHz spectrum it will get back when the analogue TV signal is switched off in 2012, which is also perfect for widespread rural mobile coverage. Mandelson's meeting with the chief executives of the five UK networks – O2, Orange, T-Mobile, Vodafone and 3 – is designed to "bang some heads together", according to an insider. In return the mobile phone companies will have their licences to operate 3G services extended indefinitely – potentially saving them billions of pounds, which their fixed-line rivals argue is money that could be used to pay for next-generation broadband networks."

However, BT's corporate strategy director, Dr Tim Whitley, offers a note of caution on the potential of wireless in an interview with eWeek Europe:
"Although wireless has been suggested as a means to reach communities that cannot get broadband over their phone lines, it may be not be able to deliver the right sort of performance...Wireless might hit a good score in a speedtest, but could be unable to provide continuous service, or enough bandwidth to share amongst a community...Before relying on it, the government will have to decide what kind of services it expects people to be running over their 2Mbps links - and make more detailed specifications of the performance of those lines."
The full interview with Dr Whitley is available here (part 1) and here (part 2). Some interesting insights on ways to improve the reach and performance of current fixed line services:
"BT's OpenReach is working on inline repeaters, to improve broadband signals over long copper wires, and there are variations on the use of fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC), normally a technology to deliver "super-fast" broadband to a street. "Not-enough-spots" could be served by a big cabinet to save the expense of a new exchange."For the hardest cases, the really long lines and disparate areas, it will be a matter of getting the maps and duct plans out, to optimise against particular houses," he says. Wireless will have a role, and for the last one percent, "the country will have rely on things like satellites as a catch-all." But those two options technology options are where the government will have to be specific about what sort of 2Mbps service it wants people to have, and for what applications. "The Digital Britain report says there will be a role for wireless, but the degree of that role is critically linked to what the services are," he says. Some technologies might give 2Mbps in a speed test, but not be able to sustain it, or suffer from latency."
And also on how superfast broadband performance will be guaranteed for businesses, with Openreach apparently now ready to offer servcies to downstream providers:
"Superfast broadband will differ from today's broadband in its underlying features, he points out. Most importantly, it will free business broadband from the problem of misleading "headline rates" where speeds are "up to" 10Mbps or whatever. When users get a next-generation 20Mbps or a 40Mbps service, it will be backed by guarantees, says Dr whitley. "If you have a headline rate of 30Mbps downstream, you will have an assured minimum of 15Mbps," he says. "that is a guaranteed minimum, and it is monitored, so it will trigger trouble report to [BT's infrastructure arm] OpenReach if it's not delivered." This is a new model for British broadband, he says, and unusual in the world, as it's being deployed, unbundled, from day one: "OpenReach is deploying a wholesale product, unlike anywhere else on the planet. It's competition-ready." A range of service providers will be able to take and resell generic Ethernet services from OpenReach - and, according to Whitley, they will have a say in which exchanges have super-fast services."
Returning to Digital Britain, the Guardian also reported that the proposed Digital Economy Bill (which will push through legislation to implement the Digital Britain report's recommendations, and intended to be officially unveiled during the Queen's Speech in mid-November) is unlikely to get through parliament before the next general election, expected in June, due to the complexity of the multiple issues involved. This fits with Stephen Timms' previous remarks that suggested the 50p/month landline tax's future is in doubt, though this has been refuted in a post on the official Digital Britain Forum:
"There has been a bit of speculation about whether all this will happen in a general election year, although arguably that could be said about any of the governing party’s intentions for the coming year. The DBR said the fund would be established in 2010 and that remains the plan. The business of government is never quick enough for some, but always too rushed and hasty for others. To get a new fund up and running just takes time and there are various administrative hoops to get through. That is what we are working on now."
There have been some additional recent developments of interest too. Orange's latest Connected Britain report offers an interesting take on the possible consequences of super-fast broadband:
"Universal connectivity is going to transform the population map of the UK according to ’Connected Britain’, a new research report from Orange. The South West of England could see a population increase of more than 150% by 2015 as universal access to reliable and fast internet - as outlined in the Government’s Digital Britain report - allows more people the flexibility to live and work in a place of their choosing. London would retain its place as a top location with a 40% increase predicted, while Scotland could see a population jump of more than 50% as workers head North. Some areas of the country, including the East and West Midlands and parts of the North will become less congested as many workers from those regions opt instead for the coasts or mountains. Major cities such as Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester could see as much as an 80% decrease in residents."
The full report is available here. On a related note, GigaOM analyst Katie Fehrenbacher highlights the potential environmental benefits of super-fast broadband on the earth2tech site:
"...the build-out of high-speed ubiquitous broadband networks becomes a means to fight climate change and an issue at the heart of the cleantech industry. Remember Metcalfe’s law, which says that the value of a network rises in proportion to the number of network users? Well, consider that through a green lens: The dematerialization potential of the Internet grows alongside the amount of connections. The network speed itself is also important. Slow connections, which take ages to download digital media, won’t enable users to weave broadband into their daily lives, and won’t deliver the same kind of dematerialization opportunities. And all of this isn’t even delving into the energy-efficiency opportunities that IT networks can offer for the power grid and other systems."
In this context, dematerialization means the Internet’s ability to replace physical goods with virtual ones: "replacing atoms with digital bits, reducing physical goods created, and cutting carbon emissions." Finally, Cisco offer some interesting predictions on future Internet traffic in their Hyperconnectivity and the Approaching Zettabyte Era and Cisco Visual Networking Index: Forecast and Methodology, 2008-2013 white papers. Some key points:
"P2P as a percentage of consumer Internet traffic will drop to 20 percent of consumer Internet traffic by 2013, down from 50 percent at the end of 2008. The decline in traffic-share is due primarily to the increasing share of video traffic."
"Internet video is now approximately one-third of all consumer Internet traffic, not including the amount of video exchanged through P2P file sharing. In 2010, Internet video will surpass P2P in volume. This will be the first time since 2000 that any application has displaced P2P as the top traffic driver."
Interesting food for thought, especially in relation to Dr Tim Whitley's comments on broadband performance requirements reported earlier in this post.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Everyone else is doing it...so why can't we?


Further interesting developments in Australia; Network World report on WiMAX implementation in Adelaide:
"Metropolitan Adelaide will get a WiMax wireless broadband network to cover the city's blackspot areas that cannot get ADSL2+ in a joint state and federal government project with ISP Adam Internet. The $3 million network will be deployed over 15 months with the first WiMax service area coming online in October this year. Funding will come from South Australia's Broadband Development Fund and contributions from the federal Australian Broadband Guarantee."
The Australian Government's Department of Broadband Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) has today called for proposals to deliver innovative digital services for regional, rural and remote Australia, as part of its Digital Regions initiative:
"The Digital Regions Initiative is a key element of the Australian Government's initial response to the Regional Telecommunications Review in conjunction with the Rural and Regional National Broadband Network Initiative. The four year $60 million Australian Government initiative will co-fund innovative digital enablement projects with state, territory and local governments. It is a collaborative approach to improve the delivery of education, health and/or emergency services in regional, rural and remote communities."
Interesting that education is at the forefront of this initiative, rather than just alluded to in passing, to "extend digital education services to enable more regional, rural and remote communities to access improved educational opportunities".

Related developments too in America: today is the deadline to apply for $4.7 billion in broadband grants. However, some commentators predict many large players will not be applying, despite the deadline having been extended. This from Network World:
"Representatives of AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable all said late this week that their companies will not apply for broadband deployment funding approved in a huge economic stimulus package passed early this year. In addition, representatives of Verizon Communications and Verizon Wireless said it was unlikely that they would apply for stimulus funding. The US$7.2 billion in broadband stimulus funding was pushed by U.S. President Barack Obama and several consumer groups in an effort to provide universal access to broadband across the country. The first round of funding, in which the application deadline has been extended from Friday to Aug. 20, will distribute about $4 billion in deployment grants and loans, with awards scheduled for November."
Further opinion in the Washington Post. A number of reasons are suggested as to why major players aren't getting on board, including:
  • they're sufficiently cash rich to upgrade and expand their broadband networks on their own;
  • being in receipt of government funding could bring unwanted scrutiny of business practices and compensation, as seen elsewhere with car manufacturers and banks that have taken government bailouts;
  • they're likely to partner with or be contracted by organisations winning grants, so will get the money anyway without having to apply;
  • allegations that conditions attached to the funding, specifically net-neutrality provisons, would prevent them from managing traffic on their networks in the way they want.
This last one is particularly interesting: is the issue here an issue over network management itself, or the perceived need to provide greater transparency about network management? These provisions reference the FCC's August 2005 Internet Policy Statement which set out the following four principles:
  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.
  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.
  • To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.
Specific nondiscrimination and interconnection requirements are set out on pages 33110-33111 of the Broadband Initiatives Program & Broadband Technology Opportunities Program official notice. My guess this is the problem one: "applicants must...not favor any any lawful Internet applications and content over others".

Confusingly, the same document immediately goes on to mandate transparency in network management: "applicants must...display any network management policies in a prominent location on the service provider’s web page and provide notice to customers of changes to these policies (awardees must describe any business practices or technical mechanisms they employ, other than standard best efforts Internet delivery, to allocate capacity; differentiate among applications, providers, or sources; limit usage; and manage illegal or harmful content)." But hasn't the same document said applicants can't employ any such techniques?

The same notice goes on to say:
"All these requirements shall be subject to the needs of law enforcement and reasonable network management. Thus, awardees may employ generally accepted technical measures to provide acceptable service levels to all customers, such as caching and application-neutral bandwidth allocation, as well as measures to address spam, denial of service attacks, illegal content, and other harmful activities."
Surely this too is contradictory? Cock up or conspiracy? I know where my money is.

Anyway, back to the UK: DCMS have published an implementation plan for Digital Britain. In comparison to US and Australian developments, this document seems pretty thin, lacking both detail and firm commitment. One area of potential interest is the intention to "ask community broadband groups for evidence of where access to existing infrastructure or shared digs could speed up deployments"

Some scope here to cast the net wider than community broadband groups in terms of existing infrastructure, picking up on previous suggestions about the possibility of consolidating and extending education and other public sector infrastructure to address rural access issues?

Media speculation in the Times and Guardian has focused on whether the 50p landline tax will go ahead or not. Stephen Timms has suggested its future is in doubt, as protocol dictates such legislative change requires opposition support to go before Parliament in the run up to an election, and this has not been forthcoming.

All in all, we seem to be dropping further and further behind in terms of developing coherent public policy on broadand. But at least Openreach have published a useful brochure explaining what next generation access is all about.

So that's all right then.

Monday, August 03, 2009

More broadband policy developments...but not in the UK


Estonia is the latest country to green light national NGA infrastructure, according to TeleGeography:
"The Estonian government has approved plans to construct a nationwide superfast broadband network, according to local news source Postimees Online. Under the proposals the state expects 90% of the country to have access to the 100Mbps network by 2012, with the remainder of the population to be connected by 2015. Juhan Parts, Estonia’s minister of economic affairs and communications, also revealed that the government would create an autonomous foundation comprising all major telecommunication providers in the country to oversee the network’s development. ‘The state plans to provide significant support for developing the infrastructure; as of now, the state’s contribution that is required is approximately EEK1 billion (USD91.45 million)’, the minister noted. It is expected that the government will fund the deployment of infrastructure in those areas, mostly rural and sparsely populated, that are not considered financially feasible by commercial operators."
In the US, the FCC's national broadband plan notice of inquiry (=consultation) has provoked interesting responses from both the ITIF and EDUCAUSE. This from EDUCAUSE:
"...rather than investing in short-term, transitional technologies, emphasis should be on technologies that can spur innovation and be scalable for decades. Within a 5-10 year timeframe, for the general purpose Internet, we suggest an initial goal of 100Mbps to every home and business; for smaller anchor institutions such as schools, community colleges, libraries and health clinics, an initial goal of 100Mbps to 1 Gbps; and for larger anchor institutions such as colleges, universities, and hospitals, and to facilitate the essential research applications in use today and in the near future, networks and equipment must provide multi-Gigabit speeds.”
“…work more closely with state and regional networks to extend their backbone networks deeper into the community to provide middle mile/backhaul capabilities. Over 30 states have some form of a non-profit research and education backbone network that currently carries the telecommunications traffic of state and local governments, schools, libraries, hospitals and other anchor institutions.”
“…many countries that are more rural than the U.S. (Sweden, Canada, Finland, and Norway) have a higher rate of broadband subscribership than the U.S. because their governments have taken the necessary steps to encourage it. These governments have not looked at their rural geography as an excuse for inaction; rather they have looked at it as a challenge that can be overcome with the right policies…”
Attachment B of EDUCAUSE's response argues that US broadband policy should be lead by education, given the historical development of the Internet and world wide web. It also re-states the need to support concurrent access:
“Students’ experiences with high bandwidth connectivity on their campuses are driving their expectations and the domestic demand for new high-bandwidth applications that will advance America and be exportable to the rest of the advanced world.”
And some measured words in response to the FCC from the ITIF:
“So what should the United States do to improve its broadband performance? There are a number of specific policy recommendations that we propose. But perhaps the most important step we can take as a nation is to move beyond the divisive and unproductive debate over broadband policy that we are now caught up in. The current debate over broadband revolves around arguments about whether we are behind or ahead; whether our relative position is due to policy or other factors; whether unbundling is a magic bullet or an investment killer; and of course, whether net neutrality is the solution to the greatest threat to the Internet since its inception or merely an anachronistic concept. Indeed, the U.S. broadband policy environment is characterized on the one hand by market fundamentalists who see little or no role for government, and indeed see government as the problem; and on the other by digital populists who favor a vastly expanded role for government (including government ownership of networks and strict and comprehensive regulation, including mandatory unbundling of incumbent networks and strict net neutrality regulations) and who see big corporations providing broadband as a problem. It’s time to move beyond free market fundamentalism on the right and digital populism on the left and begin to craft pragmatic, realistic policies that focus on the primary goal: getting as many American households using high-speed broadband networks to engage in all sorts of online activities, including education, health care, work, commerce, and interacting with their government.”
And an interesting take on the"broadband as utility" argument:
“Broadband networks have certain characteristics that distinguish them from utility networks for services such as water and sewage: we expect broadband to get faster and cheaper year after year, but we don’t have similar expectations for our water, sewer, and garbage collection systems. We believe it’s reasonable to ask consumers to moderate their use of utilities in light their societal costs by conserving water and electricity and recycling, but we have no such expectation where broadband is concerned. In fact, we have quite the opposite attitude, considering ever-higher consumption of broadband capacity indicative of virtue: people who consume lots of broadband bandwidth are deemed “innovators,” not profligate wasters. This is as it should be, of course, because innovative new network applications often do consume more bandwidth than old, established ones (but not always, Twitter is a narrowband innovative service.) So if broadband networks are utilities, they’re utilities of an entirely different kind than water and sewer systems, ones in which we don’t ask consumers to conserve and which we expect will constantly increase in capacity and decrease in cost to the user. So the “utility” formulation is not helpful and doesn’t serve to drive the debate in a constructive direction, with a few exceptions.”

Monday, June 22, 2009

Painful adventures with next generation networks?


I’ve seen recent developments in Australia cited in several pieces of Digital Britain coverage, usually along the lines of “if they can find the money to invest in broadband infrastructure down under, why can’t we?”
So this excerpt from the Economist Intelligence Unit & the IBM Institute for Business Value’s 2009 E-readiness rankings, as reported by silicon.com, provides an interesting alternative take:
"Boosting investment in telecoms infrastructure should also be a boon for service providers and good for long-term digital development. If not handled well by government, however, such programmes can cause more grief than goodwill. A case in point is Australia, where the government recently set itself in opposition to the country’s main operators and various state governments in a contentious tendering process for a US$5bn fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) national network. While seen as a boon to Australia’s residential—and particularly rural and remote—Internet access markets, the government irked existing industry participants as they spent considerable time and money on tenders, only to find out that the government did not select any of them and opted to build the network itself—at a projected cost of six times the figure in the original tender. This created discord where stimulus and co-operation were sought."
But how much of a problem is "irking" industry participants, in actual fact? Is it arguable that they could do with a good irking, once in a while?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Digital Britain reactions


Much discussion of the proposed £6 per year landline levy, much of it negative, with the only real winner likely to be BT, whose share price rose following the announcement.
This from Computing:
"The government's intention to levy a 50p per month "tax" on most UK phone lines to fund the country's broadband expansion has one big winner in BT. But there are also hundreds of thousands of small losers among telephone subscribers uninterested in using broadband services. Ostensibly, the levy is intended to make sure that everybody in the UK that wants it will have access to next-generation superfast broadband services. But it effectively represents the subsidy long sought but never received by telcos, which will help them roll out a high-speed fibre-optic network more or less directly to UK residents' doors, something BT and others could never previously afford to do...Industry analysts agree that BT, as the incumbent telecommunications operator, has more to gain than any other company. The telco's share price rose by more than three per cent on the news, according to analyst Bernstein Research."
In the FT, BT chief executive Ian Livingstone, unsurprisingly welcomed the announcement:
"BT is the prime candidate to benefit from the proceeds of the "broadband tax". Mr Livingston said in an interview with the Financial Times that the levy meant BT could seriously consider expanding its superfast broadband network to run past 90 per cent of homes by 2017. "What this might well do, and has a good chance of doing, is providing enough support to make the risk and rewards of doing this programme acceptable," he added."
The Telegraph welcomed the principle, but questioned the mechanism:
"A levy that is currently just £6 per year now may increase in price over the coming years, while a recent Ofcom study suggests that of the few million people who currently do not have internet access, most never want it, while relatively few are forced to make do without the web as a result of their location. In effect, this levy means the many are being asked to pay for the few, and a seemingly reluctant view at that."
The Guardian shared this concern, and also highlighted a more fundamental issue with the proposal:
"To be sure, Mr Bradshaw is taking a risk in imposing a £6 annual poll tax on all fixed-line phone users to pay for extending the broadband pipe network - but it is the wrong kind of risk. Some will question the fairness of Aunt Agnes in Liverpool paying higher phone bills to enable her teenage nephew in the Scottish Highlands to download games. But there is a bigger problem with this proposal: the public is subsidising private companies to gain greater market access - with no public returns. When the government pumped money into the banks, it took a big chunk of equity for the taxpayer; here it is pumping money into the broadband network and taking nothing in return. There will be no equity stakes (which would at least have been fair), nor is it easy to regulate what goes down those broadband pipes. This amounts to an unconditional transfer of resources from the very poorest to the big technology firms."
This issue (which reminds me of NESTA's previous proposal for a "spectrum for speed" swap) was summarised by this tweet reported by the Guardian earlier in the week:
"so the govt to add surcharge to a private service to create new fibre nets that then those private services will charge us money to use?"
NESTA have also published an interesting new press release about children wanting more technology in the classroom:
"The research, carried out by Ipsos MORI, questioned 2,447 young people aged between 11 and 16 years old and reveals that over half of the students surveyed want teachers to use computers and the internet to help advance learning techniques (55% and 51% respectively). Two in five (40%) students also believe that an increase in the use of DVD players and iPods or mp3 players would help learning, while similar proportions would be interested in greater use of smart boards, games consoles and mobile phones."
Anyway, back to the report...speaking in the Commons on Tuesday, Shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt shared concerns about the levy, and also questioned its likely efficacy:
"Today’s solution, according to the Government, is a broadband tax, but rather than taxing, should the Secretary of State not be seeking to stimulate investment through the regulatory structure? The cable revolution happened without a cable tax; the satellite revolution happened without a satellite tax. Everyone recognises that some public investment might be necessary to reach the more remote parts of the country, but simply slapping on an extra tax is an old-economy solution to a new-economy problem. Unfortunately, the numbers do not add up either. The tax will apparently raise about £150 million per annum. Will the Secretary of State confirm that at that rate it will take 20 years to cover the estimated £3 billion cost of the broadband roll-out?"
It would seem the levy came as a surprise to all, which rather suggests, given how few other surprises the report contained, it was a last-minute addition, the implications of which weren't been fully considered? And will schools and other areas of the public sector be able to benefit from the Next Generation Fund created by the levy? Ben Bradshaw stated in the Commons in Tuesday, in response to a question about affordability of NGA, that schools "will of course have to be a priority". A rather ironic reply, given the Digital Britain report's failure to even acknowledge school broadband infrastructure issues and opportunities, let alone consider how they might be addressed.

The Guardian also questioned the report's recommendation that certain public services (including those relating to education) begin to move exclusively online:
"By 2012, according to chapter eight of the paper, some services should be available primarily online although with an offline safety net, through what it calls a Digital Switchover of Public Services...transactions mooted for the digital switchover...include school registration, which should be equally open to everyone: making online the main method seems likely to favour the better-off...It makes sense for the government to try to increase people's use of online transactions – in many cases this will save money. But it should do so by providing good online services that people want to use, rather than pushing them into it. That's the service ethos of a cheap and nasty airline, not of public service."