Thursday, December 16, 2010

Britain's superfast broadband disconnect?

While it was encouraging to read the following words about public sector network opportunities in the UK's new broadband strategy, published last week and greeted with an entertaining little slip-up on BBC Radio 4's Today programme (don't worry James; those of us that share the Culture Secretary's surname have heard 'em all before, more times than we care to remember in fact), it seems a few doubts have crept in along the way as well:
"5.19 Public sector networks like those that connect our schools, hospitals and other public building to the Internet are often mooted as the answer to improved connectivity for locations where broadband connections are slow and it is easy to understand the frustration of those that know that a fibre passes within close proximity of their residence. It is correct that considerable public investment has been made in these networks, but it is not unfortunately correct that they provide an instant solution to slow connectivity. 
5.20 Whilst there is definite scope for the re-use of public sector networks, particularly to address the absence of adequate backhaul, those that exist today may require extensive technical alteration to make them fit for purpose, which might render them impractical or too expensive for re-use, or may be subject to commercial contracts or procurement constraints that do not permit their reuse for the household consumer market. 
5.21 Neither of these are absolute barriers, although in practice budget may be the defining factor, but where the re-use of and existing public sector networks provides an efficient means of improving household connectivity it will be part of the solution. Indeed there are some examples where the model has been applied, for example the North Yorkshire network, which was built and specified with the purpose of aiding and improving household connectivity in mind and further examination of the commercial arrangements will be explored during the BDUK superfast broadband pilots. 
5.22 It does need to be highlighted that each service delivery to a school or public building using fibre means that route has been upgraded and has been readied making it easier and cheaper to upgrade. This is a potential contribution to upgrading routes to rural areas, and where suitable, we will look to make this re-use a reality."
As far as I am aware, no-one has ever suggested that such networks would provide an instant solution to slow connectivity, so it's a bit disingenuous to suggest that they have. And it's always been the case that such networks would require development and most likely bandwidth upgrades to provide additional service in this way. But, given that upgrading them to support additional use would also improve services for their original users, particularly rural schools that stand to benefit hugely from improved broadband access, surely it's worth putting the effort in to address these hurdles? Worryingly, the language used above looks (to me anyway) more like an attempt to find reasons not to pursue this opportunity, rather than an encouragement to embrace it.

This undercurrent of doubt also doesn't sit very well with points made earlier in the paper. In particular, the section on the important role of local authorities and regions, in partnership with communities, in stimulating and coordinating broadband developments:
"4.2 What Governments have seldom done – but which we are proposing for the first time – is enable communities to influence or take part in extending access networks...
4.3 We are taking a new approach to delivering connectivity in rural and hard to reach areas that the market will not provide for. Where local authorities have superfast broadband as a development priority, BDUK will work with them to source an upgrade to the data transport infrastructure. This will be the foundation for the Government’s £530m investment commitment over the lifetime of this Parliament.
4.4 BDUK will also explore the viability of a broadband community hub at a local level – which could provide the means of extending networks where the community will either take responsibility for the actual civil engineering of the network or take greater control over managing network elements. Networks can then be extended over time to provide enhanced access to broadband for individual premises in a variety of ways. For example, an operator’s cabinet can be equipped to support the splicing of fibre builds into the access network. Interfaces can be made available such that wireless networks or indeed community managed femtocells can be added to the network."
Given that local authorities and regions have invested heavily in broadband access over the last 10+ years, surely it makes much more sense to utilise this existing infrastructure than to deploy duplicate over-builds? And what better "broadband community hub" could there be than a school? Doesn't the line on "extending access networks" rather contradict the previous extract, which suggests that this might be just too difficult?

My guess is that ever-helpful industry folks have been having a quiet word on the back of re-use proposals, to suggest that "you really don't want to be bothering with these fiddling little school networks you know". This is principally because industry will want to get its hands on the cash with as few strings attached as possible, to build new private assets it can then sell back to the public sector for the next 20 or 30 years. A market-led approach to broadband, in fact, as is being deployed in Cornwall.

I think consolidating and extending access to existing publicly-managed networks is a far more appropriate use of public monies. This would further develop publicly-owned and managed assets to benefit communities first and companies second. Of course the private sector has a huge role to play, as such networks are commissioned from commercial providers, but, most importantly, the critical mass of management and development resides in the public rather than the private sector under such an approach.

Here's the bottom line: you're much more likely to get an infrastructure that meets both your current and future requirements if your relationship with your providers involves "commissioning from" rather than "being sold to". The former benefits end users first and shareholders second, while in the latter, it's the other way around.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Net neutrality, Comcast & the's just like old times

Following a lengthy period of discussion and debate, which brought suggestions from a wide range of parties, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski yesterday announced how he intends to preserve “internet freedom and openness” – or, to put it more succinctly, he unveiled his latest proposals on net neutrality.

He began by revisiting previous misbehaviour:
“...we have seen clear deviations from the Internet’s openness – instances when broadband providers have prevented consumers from using the applications of their choice without disclosing what they were doing.”
Absolutely we have – have a look at this previous post to see what Comcast got up to in this regard. Yesterday’s announcement reiterates consumers’ right to transparency and to access the lawful content of their choice, as well as their right  to a level playing field which precludes “unreasonable discrimination in transmitting lawful network traffic”. These consumer protections are balanced against recognition of ISPs’ needs:
“...broadband providers need meaningful flexibility to manage their networks – for example, to deal with traffic that’s harmful to the network or unwanted by users, and to address the effects of congestion. Reasonable network management is an important part of the proposal, recognizing that what is reasonable will take account of the network technology and architecture involved.”
And in relation to the legal basis for this, given that that the ruling made in April 2010 went in Comcast’s rather than the FCC’s favour, it seems there has been a change of heart:
“Informed by the staff’s additional legal analysis and the extensive comments on this issue over the past year, the proposal is grounded in a variety of provisions of the communications laws, but would not reclassify broadband as a Title II telecommunications service. I am satisfied that we have a sound legal basis for this approach.”
So this spells the end of the third way proposed in May 2010, where broadband services would be reclassified as Title II services, albeit with only a handful of Title II provisions applying to broadband: only the transmission component of a broadband access service would be recognised as a telecommunications service, so providers wouldn’t be regulated in relation to, for example, web-based services and applications, e-commerce sites and online content. More on this from the BBC. The FCC's board of commissioners will vote on the proposals at a meeting on December 21 2010.

It’s interesting (deliberate?) that the FCC’s announcement coincides with Comcast making further headlines in relation to net neutrality, but for a different reason this time. From the FT (Comcast at the centre of ‘net neutrality’ row):
“The US cable giant was accused late on Monday of demanding fees for the first time in return for carrying internet movies and other traffic for Level 3, an internet backbone network operator. Level 3 accused Comcast of “effectively putting up a toll booth” on its broadband networks so that it could unilaterally set the price for online content that competes with its own services The Colorado-based company recently won a contract to carry video on behalf of Netflix, whose inroads into streaming movies pose a long-term challenge to Comcast’s own cable television business...Comcast said that there had been a doubling in the amount of traffic it was being asked to handle on behalf of Level 3, with the Netflix deal believed to account for the jump. It added that it was being asked to carry five times as much traffic for Level 3 as it sent in the other direction, which it said justified the imposition of fees.”
A Comcast blog post claimed that that it already charged other internet backbone companies the same fees that it was seeking to apply to Level 3. Level 3’s original complaint is here and their response to Comcast’s reply is here. Clearly an additional complication here is that the Netflix service could be argued to be a direct competitor to Comcast’s own services. In a word? Messy.

This is a good example of what Ofcom referred to as a two-sided market in their June 2010 consultation: ISPs serve both content providers (such as the BBC, in relation to iPlayer content – perhaps not the best example, given recent history!) and downstream customers accessing their content (you and me). Philosophical arguments about whether such fees undermine the so-called principles of Internet openness and freedom have to be balanced against the reality that broadband traffic volumes are continuing to increase rapidly whilst ISPs’ revenues remain largely static. Surely this can’t be sustained if we all want to continue to benefit from new, innovative services that can exploit the full potential of next generation networks? This graph from Ofcom’s 2010 Communications Market Report (page 283) shows the proof of this:

I find it frustrating that complex issues like these all get lumped together under the banner of net neutrality when I think there are some important distinctions to be drawn, as I’ve suggested in this previous post. There is one good thing about this continuing debate though –at least it gives people like me plenty to write about!

Friday, November 26, 2010

NextGen10 conference report (day 2) - a curate's egg?

Day 2 kicked off with a keynote from YouView Chairman Kip Meek on how the service formerly known as Project Canvas is developing. He was keen to distance YouView from perceived competitors like Google and Apple TV: "Google is providing the Internet on television, YouView is an enhanced television experience". It's planned to launch in June 2011, later than intended as a result of the level of regulatory interest in the project.

To me, it was the wrong presentation for this audience. We know streaming TV services work, the iPlayer and others have proved this. We also know that people would prefer to watch TV on, well, their TV, rather than their PC - obvious really; lean back vs lean forward content and all that. YouView's "clever bit" is managing to negotiate the commercial and regulatory minefield that is broadcast TV to develop an aggregated catch-up service. Impressive, but hardly a subject of much direct relevance to NextGen10 attendees. The technology in the set-top-box is quite clever, in that it records most popular content from broadcast so it can be served locally rather than delivered via the Internet, to reduce the load on ISPs' networks. But I imagine other providers' boxes will do this as well?

But the claim that the service will help to address the digital divide seemed entirely misplaced, especially as while the set-top-box includes browser functionality, it only allows access to a "controlled environment". Sounds like a missed opportunity. YouView looks to me to be essentially a retail platform to sell Sky+ equivalent devices to people who don't want a Sky subscription. Rather like Freeview, which was often described as offering digital TV to people who didn't want a satellite dish (or, to out it another way, Radio 4 listeners). Nothing wrong with that as a business model of course, and I think they're probably on to something, just don't pretend it's something it's not. Given the BBC's involvement, isn't there something missing here about the provision of Internet access through the device being in the public good, in keeping with the BBC's principles?

This was followed by a choice of three workshops, I attended the one on NGA network roll-out. This involved a presentation by Keymile on the opportunities offered by hybrid copper and fibre roll-outs, to maximise bandwidths and performance at the same time as minimising costs, an important consideration in the current economic climate. The presentation raised the practical question of whether current application usage really requires FTTH bandwidths. I can see the point, but such a view risks a step backwards, given the growing impetus around broadband provision generally (and the commitment in other countries such as Australia to FTTH). An interesting point was made about backhaul costs though: whereas capex costs mainly comprise installation costs, opex costs are dominated by backhaul costs - which is where infrastructure sharing (if you can of course, see my notes from day 1) and re-use of existing networks has such a potentially important role to play. Reducing backhaul costs in this way could make fibre installation more viable?

There followed a panel session with representatives from the four BDUK superfast broadband pilots, as announced in the October 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review: North Yorkshire, the Highlands & Islands, Herefordshire and Cumbria. Still early days, all are at different stages and considering different approaches. The point was made that to the Highlands & Islands, the "big society" is nothing new - they've always had to get on with things themselves. NYnet are leading in North Yorkshire, with the region in a strong position thanks to NYnet's infrastructure already providing backhaul into rural areas (via a school in one instance). Cumbria flagged the importance of aggregation, suggesting their approach would be "PSN Plus", where PSN refers to the Cabinet Office's Public Sector Network programme. Herefordshire seemed to have the most to do, by its own admission beginning with a "blank sheet of paper". This elicited a rather cutting comment from one member of the audience: that securing public funds with such a blank sheet was a very impressive achievement. Ouch!

Three more workshops followed; I chose the one on the regulatory environment and state aid, as these aspects present key challenges to the potential repurposing of existing networks (for example, using schools' broadband connections to provide backhaul for rural broadband projects). Complicated stuff for sure; Paul Brisby of Towerhouse Consulting LLP began by highlighting the importance of regulated products and servces: they account for more than 50% of ISPs' opex, and Openreach generates over 30% of BT group EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization). The key regulatory issues and challenges in 2010 include physical infrastructure access (PIA, or duct and pole sharing), sub-loop unbundling, FTTH regulation (fibre unbundling) and generic ethernet access.

Ginny O'Flinn, Senior Associate in the Olswang EU and Competition Group, provided a very detailed overview of state aid issues for NGA networks, her presentation is well worth a look. She flagged the EU's September 2009 guidelines on state aid in relation to broadband networks, as well as the EU's state aid decisions in relation to NYnet (N746/2006 published in February 2007 and N559/2009 published in June 2010) and Cornwall (N461/2009, also published in June 2010). The EU fully recognises the benefits of broadband and bases decisions on balancing positive and negative effects, as well as proportionality, or the extent to which any aid provides the minimum necessary to achieve the intended objectives. There was some discussion of the practicality of BDUK's intention to obtain a blanket state aid approval for broadband projects (possible and is being explored currently, but individual regional assessments will still be required) and the timescales involved in obtaining decisions. These can be lengthy but not too ridiculous; Cornwall applied in July 2009 and was approved in May 2010. NYnet has been involved with three state aid applications, the two mentioned above took 4 and 12 months respectively, while the application for the South Yorkshire Digital Region Broadband Project (N157/2006) took 14-16 months.

And so we headed into the final straight...Dale Barnes, Acting Director of Advanced Technologies and Innovation at Virgin Media gave an overview of their NGA activities and pilots. Virgin Media downstream traffic has increased by over 215% in three years. 750,000 customers are paying for 20Mbps+ services, and almost 100,000 homes are connected at 50Mbps. Virgin Media are looking to ensure a 10:1 contention ratio across all services in future and have established the Stop the Broadband Con website to encourage greater honesty and transparency in relation to connection speeds...or to throw the bandwidths of competitors' offerings into sharper relief, depending on your point of view. Half of the UK will have access to their 100Mbps service by 2012 which will cost £35/month as part of a bundle or £45/month as a stand-alone service. 10,000 registrations for the 100Mbps service were received on the first day registration opened. Challenges identified by Dale included business rates, wayleaves and the PIA product set as currently proposed by BT (see my notes from day 1 for more on this). There is an opportunity for power companies to play an important role by opening up their infrastructure, and Openreach needs to accept inputs from community networks as well as larger players.

The last keynote of the conference was from Simon Towler, Head of Broadband Policy  Programmes at BIS, who reiterated Ed Vaizey's remark from the previous day that the government's broadband strategy paper would be published soon. This will bring all the current strands of activity together. He also explained that the government's definition of the "best superfast broadband in Europe" would be about more than download speed; this of itself doesn't illustrate the actual user experience and having an effective, competitive marketplace is another important facet in describing "best in Europe". The government doesn't want to constrain technology choices as it sees all having a role to play. The private sector should lead investment while the government's job is to get the regulatory and investment framework right. BT's reference offer for access to its ducts is due in January 2011 with a similar offer for access to poles to follow in May. The audience expressed further concern over the potential disconnects between the procurement exercises for BDUK's pilots, BT's infrastructure sharing offer and the timing/availability of European funding, an issue that will require further deliberation I think.

Of the three remaining workshops, I chose the one exploring different ways of extending fibre to the community, which included delivering town centre and wider NGA via a CCTV fibre optic network, further insight into the PSN and solutions provided by Rutland Telecom, who cited an instance of a village with a population of 104 being quoted an excess construction charge (ECC) of £166K to deliver broadband, which clearly is simply not viable. An option Rutland Telecom can provide is installation of a DSLAM on a telephone pole, to deliver broadband to the premise over the remaining copper loop.

Unfortunately I missed the final panel session and conference close, but I'm not sure I could have taken in much more anyway, as my brain was already full ("every time I learn how to set the video I forget how to drive the car" - a Homer Simpson quote I have much sympathy with). In summary, it's clear that while we're moving forward in many regards, some serious issues remain to be addressed, mainly in relation to funding (the current amounts committed aren't sufficient) and continued obstacles from BT which could severely hamper progress. The next few months are going to be crucial, with BT's reference offers particularly significant, and plenty more fun and games to come I'm sure. Watch this space.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

NextGen10 conference report (day 1) - plus ça change... c'est la même chose? A little unfair perhaps, as there have been many developments since NextGen09, which were reported over the two days of the conference. Also, attendance was at capacity, a clear indication of the ever increasing recognition of the importance of broadband access. But at the same time it seems some very significant obstacles and problems remain to be addressed, which is concerning.

In his keynote address on day 1, BT's Bill Murphy was at pains to point out just how much BT were doing in support of UK NGA: "no other company in the world is investing as much in fibre without public sector support or a regime that allow for greater returns", apparently. An interesting line to take. The second part of his statement is clearly a not very oblique reference to (criticism of?) the UK's regulatory regime. But surely any public sector support (which he would appear to be asking for in the first part of his statement) should be conditional upon appropriate regulation, to ensure taxpayers' interests are addressed first, with shareholders' interests second? BT wants the best of both worlds here it seems, to have its cake and eat it. You can't have it both ways?

Recent developments in Cornwall ("the most ambitious rural broadband project in the world") were also flagged in Bill's presentation, about which more later. A couple of interesting additional facts and figures cropped up too: of the £830m announced for broadband in the Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October 2010, £230m will come from the digital switchover, with the remainder from the BBC licence fee, to be allocated in £150m chunks annually from 2013. This last bit was news to me and two things struck me: a) it's not very much money, given the scale of the task (which we already knew), and b) we've got several years to wait before these funds become available. All of which puts significant additional pressure on the government's already ambitious target to ensure the UK has the best superfast broadband in Europe within the lifetime of this parliament.

Some interesting points were made in the subsequent panel session, the first of the conference, on approaches to NGA. Dave Carter, head of the Manchester Digital Development Agency, pointed out that many families now have no landline, relying totally on mobile telephony (an issue Becta also encountered as part of its Home Access programme). FTTC solutions are thus likely to be of little relevance to them. For more on this, see Ofcom's 2010 Communications Market Report, pages 337-338 - apparently 15% of households did not have a landline in Q1 2010. The point was also made that it's expensive for operators to work with multiple small community projects, and the thorny issue of business rates on fibre was raised for the first time here too. It struck me that in relation to this first point, publicly owned or community interest, not-for-profit vehicles could provide a solution, if they were purposely structured to deal with such small-scale projects, as well as being equipped to procure wholesale services on an open access basis from telcos that can't or won't deal with small concerns. A man in the middle if you like. NYnet is a good, successful example of this kind of procurement vehicle; could local authority/regional public networks be restructured to function similarly?

Next up was Peter Ludin, Vice President EMEA of Draka Telecom Solutions. One of his slides showed a pie chart revealing that approximately 75% of fibre deployment costs relate to expenditure other than equipment - civil works, installation and project management being the main costs here. He also flagged the importance of planning, using geographic data and software tools to develop cost estimates to inform investment. There seemed to be a parallel with the approach JANET(UK)'s LLU reports can facilitate, in terms of planning a local authority or regional WAN based on BT exchanges.

The next panel session, on open access networks and infrastructure sharing, was very revealing. Chris Smedley, Chief Executive of Geo set out the limitations of what's currently proposed in terms of opening up access to BT's ducts and poles, as announced by Ofcom last month. This was news to me, Pauline Rigby has an excellent account of the detail of this on her site here and the issue was also reported by Computer Weekly. This issue (specifically, that bidders don't know what their input costs will be) was a key reason why Geo and others pulled out of the Cornwall NGA project, leaving BT as the only bidder, and places a question mark over the likelihood of effective competition in procurements for the four BDUK pilot projects if it remains unresolved. An additional issue here is that other sources of funding for the pilots (for example, from Europe) are time limited and will be lost if this impasse isn't revolved prior to the commencement of tendering exercises for the pilots.

Chris also set out Geo's definition of open access networks, which seemed right on the money to me, more on this in this excellent Geo white paper. Chris said that a network that's truly open to all players is "the best place for public sector investment" and I entirely agree. Gareth Davies, Ofcom's Competition Policy Director was also on the panel and did his best to explain why the duct and pole sharing proposals are the way they are, but it did seem to me that Ofcom were (as ever?) rather caught up in their own peculiar and impenetrable internal logic on this one. My guess is that this is an inevitable consequence of the complexity of their relationship with BT, but unfortunately it makes the lack of progress very frustrating for all the other parties involved, who simply want to get on with building the NGA networks that they know their customers want.

Next up was Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, reprising his appearance at NextGen09 when he spoke for the opposition. He gave an overview of the government's intentions for this area, flagging that we should expect a strategy document (the coalition's take on the previous administration's Digital Britain report I guess) shortly. Malcolm Corbett, CEO of the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA) launched their Beyond Broadband guide to NGA, which provides an excellent, concise summary of developments to date and future opportunities in this area. Malcolm was followed by Adrian Wooster, founder of the JON Exchange, which was launched earlier this month as "a wholesale marketplace that bridges the gap between service providers and the panoply of European access network owners" - a single source of alternative access networks, providing easy and consistent access to customers and a viable opportunity for network operators to demonstrate their open access credentials. Hopefully it will provide a solution to the question of how to persuade major players like BT, Sky and Virgin Media to allow their content to be delivered over networks they don't own and maintain themselves. I think this has to happen if the open access model is to gain credence and succeed in overcoming the inherent inertia in the current way of doing things?

The last keynote of day 1 was from Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, on the importance of involving our communities in broadband developments, highlighting the important evangelical role of the public sector in championing the benefits of broadband. For a further excellent insight from the RSA, have a look at this brilliant animation on changing education paradigms. Unfortunately I missed the last workshop, so that concludes my account of the first day. My report on day 2 to follow as soon as I've managed to decipher my scribbles. Back soon...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ed Vaizey on an open internet and net neutrality

An interesting speech from Ed Vaizey today (related BIS press release here), setting out the UK government's take on net neutrality. A well-informed speech, making reference to developments elsewhere in the world such as the FCC's four/six principles (as discussed previously here) as well as approaches taken in Canada and by the European Union (see this previous post from April of this year).

The importance of transparency, openness and the need for ISPs to be able to innovate and experiment are common threads across all these developments. It's also good to see the acknowledgement that ISPs already manage traffic and have been doing so for years, a fact which I think comes as news to some campaigners. If the principles above are properly adhered to by all parties, there is little reason to intervene. I agree with this in theory, but I do have some concerns over how such principles might be ignored in practice. But let's hope for the best.

Coverage from the BBC ("ISPs are supposed to treat all web traffic equally - serving only as a one-size-fits-all pipe for whatever data is passing from content providers to end users"...hmmm...are they really?) and the FT (Internet blow for Google and BBC: "Internet service providers should be free to favour traffic from one content provider over another as long as they inform customers"...surely their current network management already favours certain types of traffic?) rather over-simplifies the issue, and  further convinces me that the term net neutrality is actually no longer helpful, given its negative connotations and the increasing complexity of the debate ("two-sided markets" anyone?). Has the internet ever been truly neutral? I don't think so, and neither do the ITIF.

I think Neelie Kroes nailed the heart of the matter best back in April:
"...over time, we should continue to monitor whether traffic management is a spur to future network investment, and not a means of exploiting current network constraints."
A difficult call though. Very close monitoring will be essential if they various parties are to be persuaded from misbehaving; without this, intervention and regulation are inevitable.

Play nicely, children?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Neelie Kroes: "None of (today's) pressing challenges can be solved without a strong ICT component"

Another good speech from Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the European Commission and European Digital Agenda Commissioner:
"As we know, the challenge today is to do more with less. We have more elderly people to care for; we need to reduce our carbon emissions; we have big public deficits and businesses face more intense competition from around the world. Of course we must also find ways to integrate a new generation into our society. None of these pressing challenges can be solved without a strong ICT component."
...which puts the recent in-year cuts to schools' ICT funding into sharp perspective. On broadband specifically, Kroes recognises the extent of the task at hand:
"Many people like to compare themselves to the average. By that mark Europe has pretty good broadband. But the average isn’t going to pay off debt or help you compete against Asian rivals with internet 100 times faster than your own. We have to aim higher: for a first class internet."
Not sure I'm entirely with her in relation to recent announcements about Cornwall though, but good to see both Rutland Telecom and the JFDI video getting positive mentions. And an important closing remark too:
"In conclusion, I want you to know that your digital actions make a difference. Sometimes you might feel like they are only a ‘drop in the ocean’. But without those drops, there is no ocean."
Wise words.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Superfast broadband in Herefordshire

I did some work earlier this year to see if the model set out in JANET(UK)'s local loop unbundling (LLU) reports could be replicated to model connectivity options and costs for other regions and local authorities.

Coincidentally, one of the authorities I selected to try this out was Herefordshire, which has now been selected as one of the four superfast broadband pilots announced as part of last week's comprehensive spending review (alongside North Yorkshire, Cumbria and the Highlands and Islands). A long post this, so you might want to get a cup of coffee before you read any further.

A word of warning: all product and cost information below is based on publicly available Openreach information as of April 2010. I haven't reviewed this data, so the information below should be regarded as indicative rather than definitive.

My first step was to create a list of all schools in Herefordshire from the Department for Education's EduBase database, listing all primary, secondary and special schools, together with their postcodes. The result was a list of 88 primary schools, 20 secondary schools and 4 special schools. The ever helpful folks at SamKnows then very kindly used this data to generate a new list matching school postcodes to their serving exchanges, together with the radial distance in metres between the school and its exchange.

The key JANET LLU report is the Stockport LLU/Access Locate Feasibility Study. This describes an approach for modelling an LLU deployment across the authority, based on provisioning secondary schools with 100Mbps connections and primary/special schools with 10Mbps connections. All costs are based on Openreach's open book pricing.

The Stockport study based its approach on using copper to deliver symmetric 10Mbps connections to schools within 3km of their exchange:
"Given the requirement to provide 10Mbit/s symmetrically to all Primary schools it is proposed to use EFM (Ethernet in the first mile 802.3ah) G991.2 (SHDSL) technology running over copper circuits for those schools within range...Basically G991.2 will deliver 5.6Mbit/s over a single copper pair out to about 1.5km and 2.5Mbit/s out to about 3km. To achieve 10Mbit/s reliably we have adopted a conservative policy of using 4 copper pairs bonded together for all sites out to a calculated distance, as the copper goes, of 3km. For sites beyond the 3km limit BT WES10 local access will be used...For 10Mbit/s schools below 3km this is 4xMPFs indicating the intention to use 4 bonded pairs to deliver the 10Mbit/s. These can be delivered into the LLU space in the serving exchange. For schools over 3km we revert to fibre-based circuits."
MPF stands for metallic path facility, or copper phone line. Note that the 3km figure relates to line length, not radial distance, as the key determining factor is the actual length of the line. The study suggests that multiplying the radial distance by 1.4 gives a reliable estimate of actual line length, so the next step was to apply this to the radial distances for primary and special schools to determine which could be connected via 4 copper pairs and which by WES10-LA connections (where LA means local access). WES100-LA connections would be used to deliver 100Mbps for all secondary schools.

The next step is to examine the exchange loading, i.e. how many schools are served by each exchange, to determine a core network design to interconnect the exchanges appropriately. Basically, this involved totalling the number of 4xMPF, WES10-LA and WES100-LA connections per exchange. It's worth noting that in rural areas like Herefordshire you end up with a "long tail" of exchanges serving a single primary school.

The map below shows the locations of all exchanges connecting two or more sites, created using Google Earth:

Yellow pins indicates exchanges serving four or more sites (the Hereford exchange serves the most, 5 secondaries and 19 primaries), red shows exchanges serving three sites and green two. 5 exchanges serve 4 schools or more, 5 serve 3 schools, 13 serve 2 schools and 22 serve a single primary school (these aren't shown above to keep it simple). The greatest distance between a school and its serving exchange is just over 7km; 64 of the 92 primary/special schools are 3km or less from their exchange and 28 are further away.

The numbers in brackets next to each exchange code indicate either the total bandwidth requirement of the exchange (so 120Mbps means the exchange serves 1 secondary and 2 primary schools) or the number of secondary/primary schools served by the exchange (so 5/19 means 5 secondaries and 19 primaries are served, an aggregated bandwidth requirement of 690Mbps, or 5x100Mbps + 19x10Mbps). The total aggregated traffic amounts to 2920Mbps.

Connecting all this up to ensure uncontended, symmetrical bandwidth (employing BES100 and BES1000 circuits of either 100Mbps or 1Gbps respectively) results in a core network that looks like this:

Red lines are BES1000 and green lines are BES100 links. For resilience, a ring round the perimeter could be provided using additional BES1000 circuits. However, that may well not give resilience, as the routes that BT use to connect the exchanges may well involve coming back to Hereford. So there would be an illusion of resilience, but the reality might well be a single fibre duct break could take out the primary and secondary routes. The remaining 22 exchanges connecting 1 school would be connected to their nearest neighbouring exchange via a 100Mbps connection (BES100), these aren't shown on the above map for clarity.

The pricing of these core links is dependent on distance, so the next step was to measure the length of each link using Google Earth. I then calculated the cost of all the above core network links, which gives an install cost of just over £67K and a recurrent cost of around £192K per annum. Note that these costs don't include the construction charges to lay the necessary fibre, we'll come back to those later.

I then needed to add in the cost of connecting the 22 exchanges serving a single primary school to their nearest exchange (the ones not shown above) via BES100 links (to give headroom for growth in usage and capacity to connect additional sites if necessary). I did this by averaging the cost of all the BES100 links in the core and then multiplying by 22 to give an additional cost of £43K for installation and £119K recurrent per annum, bringing the total cost of the core to around £110K for installation and £311K recurrent per annum.

Then I calculated the cost of the last mile links for schools to connect them to their serving exchange. This was much easier as these costs (for MPFs and local access products) aren't dependent on distance. There are some additional costs to consider too, as set out in the Stockport study, such as ethernet over copper modems for schools connecting via 4xMPFs. This gave a grand total of £768K for installation and £554K recurrent, or a total cost of £1.32million in year one to provide every school with either a 10Mbps or 100Mbps uncontended, symmetrical connection, with sufficient additional capacity to connect additional sites as well. Not bad really, even taking into account that there would be additional costs involved in operating and maintaining a network.

However, this is where the wheels start to come off. None of the above costs include construction charges to lay the necessary fibre. I estimated that the network would require 470km of fibre to be laid, which at a cost of £30 per metre (which is probably too low) gives a total construction cost of just over £14million. A lot of money to be sure, but a one-off cost to develop a future-proofed and fully scalable infrastructure. 

The spreadsheet documenting all of this is available here and I've also created a summary of the process steps involved. For me, there are two important aspects to this: firstly, it enables you to understand what the input costs are in any network approach based on Openreach infrastructure (which, let's face it, may well be the only commercially available infrastructure in many rural areas). But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it gives you the opportunity to grasp the nettle of local provision, creating an infrastructure over which you have full visibility and control - you're commissioning from the private sector, rather than being sold a solution. A very important distinction I think.

The Stockport study (the author of which I owe a huge debt, in more ways than one) should have the last word here I think:
"Finally it should be remembered that whilst we have looked at the education community we have ignored the rest of local government and services such as health and blue light services. It is obvious that all of these could be carried on the same network needing only MPLS clouds to segregate traffic into private VLANs as needed. So, the investment can be spread ever more widely with associated savings."
What better fit with the opportunity to re-use existing public infrastructure could there be?

P2P traffic surpassed by video: "We are using the Internet more often for more things"

Some very interesting developments have been captured by the most recent Cisco Visual Networking Index usage study, as reported by GigaOM:
  • Peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing is now 25 percent of global broadband traffic, down from 38 percent last year.
  • Video - which includes streaming video, Flash, and Internet TV - represents 26 percent, compared to 25 percent for P2P.
  • Over one-third of the top 50 sites by volume are video sites.
  • Contrary to popular belief, none of the top 50 global web sites (by traffic volume) featured explicit adult content.
  • Ten of the top 50 sites were associated with software updates and downloads (security and application enhancements).
  • The top 1 percent of broadband connections is responsible for more than 20 percent of total Internet traffic.
  • The top 10 percent of connections is responsible for over 60 percent of broadband Internet traffic, worldwide.
Further proof - as if it were needed - to counter the accusation that broadband is only good for pornography and illegal music & video. The fact that P2P traffic has been surpassed by streaming video is particularly pertinent here. As the author of the GigaOM article correctly states, "Give us more speed and we will use it all. And then we’ll want more of it."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

UK superfast broadband ambitions - where the money's coming from

The Financial Times reported last week (Osborne confirms £340m cut in BBC spending) on the source of the newly-announced funding for the expansion of superfast broadband across the UK - the BBC:
"...the BBC will spend £530m from the licence fee over six years to support the extension of superfast broadband services to rural areas not likely to be reached by commercial expansion. The government now intends to combine a programme for getting basic broadband to all areas of the UK with a general upgrading of speeds, with the BBC making a major contribution. Of the total, £230m comes from money unspent by the corporation from a “digital switchover” budget of £803m to help the poor and vulnerable upgrade televisions and set top boxes from analogue to digital television by 2012."
A further FT article (BBC to help finance super-fast broadband) suggested that this amount could rise further still:
"The government, after rejecting the former Labour administration’s plans for a telephone tax to fund superfast broadband, has instead chosen to take money from the BBC licence fee...the BBC would contribute £530m from its licence fee to superfast broadband by 2015, but the total could rise to £830m by 2017."
This seems an odd choice to me, just as the previous administration's 50p landline tax seemed an unfair, ill-thought-through strategy, especially as around a third of the population are yet to get on board with broadband.

Don't get me wrong. Clearly any additional funding is to be welcomed, especially in the current climate. But diverting existing money from the BBC, rather than identifying and committing substantial new funding, seems to me out of keeping with the government's lofty ambition of ensuring the UK has the best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015. Particularly when previous studies have suggested that far greater amounts will be needed to deliver what we need.

Unsurprisingly, the FT also reported that Virgin and BT had welcomed the proposal. I'll bet. I wonder if previous complaints from ISPs about the extent to which the continued growth in usage of the BBC's iPlayer requires operators to constantly upgrade their networks without generating a penny of revenue had any bearing on the decision. It will also be interesting to see the extent to which the new network builds supported by this new funding approach are required to embrace open access provision, a principle fundamental to the approach to NGA in the USA, Australia and elsewhere, and an issue I touched on in this previous post.

But to return to the point, if superfast broadband really is as important as the government says it is (and I for one believe that it is, if not even more so), shouldn't we be basing our ambition on a more solid and substantial  foundation than diverting funds from elsewhere? Especially when the evidence suggests we have a long, long way to go if that ambition is to become a reality.

Monday, October 25, 2010

UK's National Infrastructure Plan - broadband is key

The National Infrastructure Plan launched today (“a broad vision of the infrastructure investment required to underpin the UK’s growth”) considers “digital communications” as a key enabler, and re-states the opportunity for re-using existing broadband infrastructure on page 32:
“4.36 Maximise the use of existing public sector assets: 
  • release electromagnetic spectrum from public sector and other uses, which can be acquired by mobile operators for expansion and improved provision of mobile broadband services; and
  • reuse public sector communication assets as part of projects to ensure that the most effective use is made of public funds.”
Lots that's good here. For example, the plan acknowledges the opportunities broadband offers to education and healthcare, as one of the benefits of broadband:
"...enable better and more efficient ways of delivering public services; e.g. through improvement in the quality and delivery of education services to people in more rural and remote areas or improvement in the quality and delivery of healthcare services"
...just a shame that funding for ICT in education (the Harnessing Technology Grant) was cut earlier this year, as described in this previous post, with an interesting analysis of why this is a very short-sighted strategy here. More on the implications of funding cuts on schools' broadband here, and further details of what broadband offers for healthcare are available here.

Today's announcements follow on from these statements in last week’s Spending Review:
“...£530 million will be invested over the Spending Review period to support the UK’s broadband network and to incentivise the roll out of superfast broadband in areas that the private sector would not otherwise reach... The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) settlement includes...investing £530 million over the Spending Review period including £300 million from the TV licence fee, to improve the UK’s broadband network... benefiting around 2 million households, including in some of the most remote areas of the UK. As part of this investment, the Government will also pursue superfast broadband pilot projects in North Yorkshire, Cumbria, Herefordshire, and the Highlands and Islands.”
Good to see the re-use agenda remains to the fore, in keeping with the EU's views, and to see some significant funding committed as well. More on the four pilot areas on BDUK's new site here and on DCMS's site here.

Also from the plan, interesting that "the Government will publish a National Broadband Strategy in December 2010", which "will provide more detail on the full range of policy, legislative and funding initiatives that the Government is undertaking in support of its broadband vision", as trailed by Ed Vaizey at Rory Stewart's recent broadband conference. Watch this space.

Monday, October 04, 2010

JFDI - Just Farmers Doing It - reaches ever broader audience

It's been really exciting to watch as the JFDI video, first seen by those of us lucky enough to attend Rory Stewart's Rural Broadband Conference, has continued to reach an ever wider (and hopefully ever more influential) audience.

The link to the video was widely tweeted in the week following the conference, culminating in Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the European Commission and European Digital Agenda Commissioner, tweeting about how inspirational she had found it, with the video appearing shortly afterwards on her blog. The video also made the cover of last week's issue of Computer Weekly, following coverage earlier in the week by Ian Grant (see here, herehere and here):

Nice headline. The article includes some insight into both the possibilities and problems of re-using existing school broadband infrastructure:
"...cattle farmer and community Wi-Fi network volunteer Christine Conder...put in her own fibre link to two properties for £2,500...Conder says the fibre cost £1 a metre for the 1.2km link, the digger and driver cost £750, and the two end boxes £250 each – total cost around £2,500, or £1,250 per house... Conder uses the Cumberland and Lancaster Education Online (Cleo) network to send her data via an Arqiva radio mast transit to a Telewest backhaul feed...Conder is clearly frustrated by regulations. She cannot go faster than her present 2Mbps, even though the link is symmetrical (as fast upstream as downstream), and an upgrade would be highly affordable and desirable, given that 23 users share her link. A further 180 people are on a similar feed in the village as part of a research project called Living Lab. But the regulations prevent her from upgrading the service to maintain quality of service. According to Conder, the original intention was that Cleo infrastructure could be shared with local network operators, but that was killed as soon as local bureaucrats heard about the regulatory requirements if public money was used to build the network."
Let's hope the interest the conference has generated amongst the powers that be helps to overcome such obstacles and objections. The European Union have recognised the potential for re-using infrastructure in their latest broadband communication, as I mentioned in this previous post. And recent signs (more here, search on the page for broadband) from the Government suggest that they will continue to focus on re-use opportunities of all sorts, as Ed Vaizey mentioned in his keynote at Rory Stewart's conference.

All of which throws last weeks other big broadband announcement, about how Cornwall has secured funding for next generation access (official announcement here) into sharp relief. BT have managed to secure "up to £53.5 million of ERDF Convergence investment from the European Commission" via the South West Regional Development Agency (RDA). BT will contribute an additional £78.5 million to make a total investment of £132 million.

All of which is good news for Cornwall to be sure. But it seems to me that BT has managed to secure public money to help them build a private, commercial asset which will generate significant commercial returns for the company over the next 20-30 years. Wouldn't a better approach be (with BT's assistance of course) to use such funding to consolidate and extend existing public broadband network assets on an open access basis, similar to what Australia are doing with their National Broadband Network (NBN) roll-out?

This would seem a much more appropriate use of public monies to me, to develop publicly-owned assets that benefit communities first and companies second. And there seemed to be plenty of people at Rory Stewart's conference who would agree.

BT's Race to Infinity...your exchange needs you!

BT's Race to Infinity scheme (BBC coverage here) provides an interesting contrast to the DIY approach to next generation broadband that was so much in evidence at Rory Stewart's Rural Broadband Conference last month.

The scheme echoes the demand registration scheme BT established for first-generation broadband, where individuals could register their interest in having their exchange upgraded. If sufficient did so, meeting BT's trigger level, the exchange would be upgraded. This scheme is a bit different, in that BT has committed to enable the five exchanges showing the highest demand with FTTC services, rather than any exchange which meets its trigger level. The competition runs until the end of the year, with winning exchanges being enabled in early 2012, "subject to availability, survey, terms and conditions".

This caveat is also interesting: "Exchanges need 1,000 premises votes to be eligible to be one of the winning exchanges". Which rather excludes rural areas with exchanges serving considerably less than 1,000 premises, such as this one serving 60 residential and 10 non-residential premises. I would imagine that given the closeness of such communities, it would be relatively easy to ensure almost 100% voting (by going and knocking on doors, for example), whereas it's much harder to secure an equivalent level of support larger areas where 1,000 or more votes will be required. But while it's arguable that remote, small rural communities have the most to gain from the technology, my guess is that the chosen technology approach (FTTC) won't help rural areas much anyway, given the likely distances involved.

BT does offer some consolation to such communities. If you enter the postcode (KW11 6UB) of the exchange I mentioned above into BT's site, you get the following message:
"Sorry, but your exchange is not eligible to WIN The Race to Infinity as it has less than 1000 premises. We still want you to get involved so please go to 'VOTE NOW' to express your interest. If 75% of your exchange registers, BT will engage with your community to see what we can do in your area."
So worth voting all the same perhaps? The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones makes a similar observation on his blog, and poses an interesting question about what happens if there is significant interest in the scheme:
"What strikes me is that the very communities which seem most likely to enter this competition - at least from the evidence so far - are those smaller, more remote, places which are not eligible to win it...Maybe BT's exercise will show that it is only a handful of enthusiasts who really care about super-fast broadband in rural communities. If the competition really does catch the imagination of the public, then the pressure will mount on both BT and the government to make sure that nobody is left trailing behind in the race to a faster future."
I did my bit for my community earlier today, in a (not very) remote part of rural North Warwickshire:

Needless to say, as the first of potentially 1,387 votes (or 0.07% of the total possible vote), I'm not holding my breath.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

European Union policy update: universal broadband service requires public investment

Neelie Kroes' speech to the Nordic Broadband Forum on 15th September put an interesting perspective on the UK government's view that the market is best placed to deliver the broadband infrastructure the country needs. Her speech focussed on approaches to funding a universal service obligation for broadband:
"In this debate, considering the large investments involved, it is crucial to determine where an extended universal service obligation should be funded by the telecoms sector or rather a broader base, such as by the State budget. In my view we should keep in mind that universal broadband offers benefits beyond the telecoms sector. The others who benefit range from currently uncovered citizens to companies offering internet services, content and applications. So while it is right to expect telecom companies to invest in new and more efficient networks, and it is right to have a socially inclusive system, it might be unfair to force the telecoms companies to fund the entire exercise. Telecoms companies should be able to realise reasonable profits from their investments at the end of the day. We must also be mindful that cross-subsidisation – very often from smaller challengers to historic incumbents - can lead to higher retail prices and competition distortions. It is best to avoid such outcomes. I therefore think that, in adapting or developing our universal service rules to the broadband environment, we need to be careful to avoid putting the entire burden on the telecom sector."
Seems a pretty clear acknowledgement of the need for European governments to invest in broadband to me? This recognition puts the limited public monies so far committed in the UK to universal service and next generation access into rather sharp relief. I would venture that funding of at least an order of magnitude greater is needed if the UK is to implement what Neelie Kroes envisages in her speech. She set out four possible approaches to universal service:
"First, to move away altogether from sector-specific universal service funding towards a publicly financed system. This would be recognition of the fact that ensuring universal broadband access, also covering remote and scarcely populated areas where the market alone would not deliver, is today a basic need. Under this option, such needs would be guaranteed by the public authorities.
A second option would be to establish a harmonised universal service obligation at a very basic speed level as a minimum EU standard. This could be financed through a sectoral fund, with the speed level being updated from time-to-time in the light of technical and social developments. The telecoms sector contribution would remain proportionate and the EU safety net would remain a real minimum safety net. At the same time, this would leave the way open for Member States to set higher national universal service standards, or promote more ambitious broadband roll-out by using general taxation (without sectoral funding). This would of course need to be in compliance with the innovative State Aid rules we adopted for broadband in 2009;
A third option is setting a cap to the funding contributions of the telecom companies. This would allow a more flexible approach that takes into account the financial strength of the companies in a given Member State while creating funds for broadband roll-out at a proportionate rate, thus avoiding undue distortions of competition. Public budgets could supplement the capped sectoral funds.
Finally, we could simply complement the EU Universal Service Directive with a guidance instrument regarding the telecoms legislation. This would guide Member States to use universal service obligations funded by the sector only where there is a true risk of social exclusion, and no risk of undue competition distortions."
So there is a clear expectation that public funding should play a major role in all four approaches, depending upon the amount (if any) of sector-specific (i.e. money to provided by telcos) funding applied as well. came to a similar conclusion in their coverage. Hot on the heels of the speech came an announcement on 20th September (and welcomed by the FTTH Council Europe) of three measures "to deliver fast and ultra-fast broadband in Europe":
"This package comprises a Commission Recommendation on regulated access to Next Generation Access (NGA) networks that provides regulatory certainty to telecom operators, ensuring an appropriate balance between the need to encourage investment and the need to safeguard competition, a proposal for a Decision to establish a Radio Spectrum Policy Programme to ensure, inter alia, that spectrum is available for wireless broadband and a Broadband Communication outlining how best to encourage public and private investment in high and ultra-high speed networks."
More on this last one here; an interesting and timely extract from the full text, on ways to promote investment and reduce investment costs:
"Local authorities should also consider using fibre core networks that have been or are being constructed to link up public entities (schools, libraries, clinics) in order to bring high-speed connections to unserved communities. Where appropriate, Member States should consider setting up broadband funds at national level on which local authorities can call for the construction of such passive infrastructures."
A nice coincidence with the key message from Rory Stewart's recent broadband conference - re-use existing public sector infrastructure to deliver in rural areas. So at least the UK appears switched on in terms of possible approach, if not finances. So, time for a look down the back of the Treasury's sofa perhaps?

Broadband for telehealth and telemedicine: lessons for education?

While focus of this blog is primarily education, there are a number of ongoing developments in telehealth and telemedicine that underline the importance of broadband generally and next generation access in particular and which are simply too interesting not to cover here.

In August the FCC published an excellent report, Health Care Broadband in America, with a detailed analysis of health care broadband requirements set out on pages 5-7. For example, exhibit A sets out health data file sizes and the bandwidths required to support particular download times:

Click on the image for a larger version. Some rather startling figures here I think. The report goes on to describe a number of scenarios illustrating different health care use profiles and their associated bandwidth requirements:

I strongly believe that this is exactly the kind of detailed analysis that all end-user sectors need to compile, to make the already compelling arguments about broadband's importance even more so. Clear, factual analyses like these change the dialogue about broadband from the theoretical to the specific, which in turn helps to convince those currently sitting on the fence, as well as refute the claims of doubters who suggest that all next generation broadband will be used for is entertainment and downloading illegal content. See this previous post for further thoughts along these lines, together with the beginnings of a similar analysis of educational broadband usage.

To return to telehealth and telemedicine, I've come across a number of very interesting examples and articles about how broadband is currently being or could in future be used in these areas:
  • Google has teamed up with Spectrum Bridge and the Hocking Valley Community Hospital in Logan, Ohio on the deployment of the first TV white spaces broadband trial network for healthcare providers;
  • A thought-provoking article about how people without broadband may be left behind as more and more health care services move online;
  • Details of the funding currently being committed to telehealth in the US (more on this here and here);
  • An article in the Telegraph about UK telehealth trials;
  • An FCC blog post about the role of policy makers in realising opportunities in this area;
  • Broadband for America's assessment of the telehealth opportunity;
  • A report on the launch of the California Telehealth Network;
  • An overview of the FCC's rural telemedicine plan;
  • A recent Radio 4 Case Notes programme focussed on telemedicine;
  • An analysis of the potential of broadband to reduce health care costs significantly;
  • Finally, an excellent telemedicine blog is available here.
I'll keep adding to this list as I come across further examples and articles of interest, have a look here for more of the same.

US National Broadband Plan: E-Rate revisions so schools can use dark fibre

Revisions to the US E-Rate funding mechanism are likely to result in schools being able to access dark fibre, saving money and delivering better broadband services. From the FCC's statement by Chairman Julius Genachowski:
"This Thursday, the Commission will vote on, and I believe adopt, a major modernization of the successful E-Rate program. These changes will help bring fast, affordable Internet access to schools and libraries across the country, and help ensure that America’s students have the high-tech skills they need to compete and succeed in the 21st Century...The program has met its original goals set in a dial-up world, but needs to be taken to the next level. It needs to be updated for a broadband world...The FCC E-Rate Order will also help deliver on the Broadband Plan’s goal of super high speed anchor institutions in every community. We will give libraries as well as schools the ability to use E-Rate funds to connect to broadband in the most cost-effective way possible, giving schools and libraries the choice of contracting to light dark fiber already in the ground, or with existing state, regional, and local networks. With these fiber networks, schools and libraries can provide students and communities with cutting-edge connectivity - and save millions of dollars...the Tri-County Educational Service Center in Wooster, Ohio, which serves more than 30,000 students in 19 school districts, was able to save 50 percent through the use of dark fiber, while increasing network performance by 750 percent...E-rate has been a success, but it’s time to reboot it for the 21st century."
This opportunity was flagged at Rory Stewart's rural broadband conference on 18th September, with further coverage from the BBC here. The proposal underlines the benefits that ensue from grasping the nettle of local connectivity, as I've said before in a previous post:
"...the more you can get your hands dirty in planning and implementing your WAN, the greater the cost savings you can achieve by negating the need for more expensive managed services (which are themselves based on the same underlying products anyway). Folks "on the ground" have a detailed appreciation of local circumstances and opportunities, which can result in innovative bespoke solutions which wouldn't necessarily even have been considered by a telco."
Let's hope the FCC votes in would seem unlikely that it won't in the face of such evidence?

Broadband Commission for Digital Development: September 2010 findings

The International Telecommunications Union's (ITU) Broadband Commission for Digital Development, first covered on this blog here, has now published its findings.

The Commission was established to "define strategies for accelerating broadband rollout worldwide and examine applications that could see broadband networks improve the delivery of a huge range of social services, from healthcare to education, environmental management, safety and much more." From the press release announcing the Commission's findings:
"ITU Secretary-General Dr Hamadoun Touré today challenged global leaders to ensure that more than half of all the world’s people have access to broadband networks by 2015, and make access to high-speed networks a basic civil right...“Broadband is the next tipping point, the next truly transformational technology. It can generate jobs, drive growth and productivity, and underpin long-term economic competitiveness. It is also the most powerful tool we have at our disposal in our race to meet the Millennium Development Goals, which are now just five years away,” said Dr Touré."
A clear fit with the UK government's 2015 intentions for universal broadband service and next generation access. The Commission's findings are in the form of two reports, the first, Broadband: A Leadership Imperative, provides a high level overview while the second, Broadband: A Platform for Progress, examines financing models, return on investment, technology choices, and strategies for deployment across a range of different types of economies. A list of key findings from the reports is available here.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Rory Stewart, Ed Vaizey & pigeons: must be a rural broadband conference then!

Here's my report on Rory Stewart's broadband conference, as mentioned in my previous post. I make no apologies whatsoever for the length of this, so read on at your peril - you have been warned. And what a marvellous venue! I've driven past it loads of times on trips to the wonderful North Lakes, but I've never been inside before.

Anyway, to business: following Rory's welcome, Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, set out the government's broadband policy to put the day into context. His speech echoed the announcements made at the previous BDUK industry day in July, but with some very interesting additions:
  • The government is committed to the rollout of NGA/USC as quickly in rural areas as in towns;
  • The government believes the market remains the best delivery vehicle, but defines "market" in its broadest sense to include communities as well as major players, with the government only intervening where absolutely necessary (for example, where the market won’t ever deliver);
  • With regard to existing networks, the re-use of public sector infrastructure is a key enabler, with the government intending to issue guidance for local authorities in the next few months to set out this opportunity and encourage this approach  further;
  • The government is committed to open access in all senses, for example, through consideration of how to enable access to electricity pylons as well as telcos' ducts for routing fibre, to reduce the cost of new investment;
  • 63 proposals have been received in relation to the three proposed superfast broadband pilots, 11 are being taken forward with the three final projects expected to commence in mid-2011;
  • Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) will become more outward-facing, publishing a paper before the end of the year on where the UK stands in terms of broadband and the government's intentions going forward (re-use of existing public sector infrastructure got another mention here too).
Ed had also made himself useful the previous day as well, switching on a new fibre optic link for Alston's Cybermoor project in Nenthead. He also revealed during his speech that Rory the carrier pigeon (who was in fact a girl!) had won a race against rural broadband by delivering a USB memory stick more quickly than a computer was able to download the same data - more here, with the photographic evidence here.

Next up was Adrian Wooster, JON Exchange Director, to kick off the first panel session on not spots, rural needs and the potential of broadband. Adrian painted a rather bleak picture of what the market is (or rather isn't) likely to deliver of itself: 36% of the Penrith & the Border constituency is likely to receive a broadband service below the 2Mbps USC, considerably worse than the national average. Competition is limited, with BT the only option outside Penrith across the entire constituency. Data from the department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) shows that 75% of the population is deeply unlikely to get NGA under current provision, ranking 609th out of 650 constituencies. Interestingly, other countries' USC plans would also struggle in the region: Finland has committed to providing fibre to within 2km of every community (where community is defined as anywhere with population of more than 70 people per square km), but this would make little difference to Penrith & The Border, as the population is too sparse for even this to have an impact.

Stuart Burgess, the Rural Advocate, then reported that broadband access and mobile coverage are now the second most important issue (after affordable housing), with estate agents revealing that broadband and mobile access are the first things enquirers ask about in relation to rural properties. The 2010 Rural Advocate Report sets out the huge economic benefits broadband can bring to rural areas. Richard Walters, CEO of Commendium, was unequivocal: the emerging demand for NGA is clear and we must invest to solve tomorrow's rather than today's problems. The sign Richard wants on the Cumbria/Lancashire border by 2015 received a very warm response: "Welcome to Cumbria, the 100Mbps county".

William Davies, Vice President of Technology Policy for RIM, said that a combination of technologies are required, as mobile/wireless can’t fix problems by themselves. He attributed the overwhelming of 3G networks being due to incorrect tariffing: all you can eat data tariffs can't and won't drive the necessary investment in upgrading networks to cope with increasing demand; if you use more, you should pay more (see this post for my thoughts on differentiated services and pricing, in the context of the net neutrality debate). The first panel session closed with a presentation from Andrew McClelland, Director of Operations at the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG) on the ever-increasing importance of e-retailing to the economy.

Bill Murphy, Managing Director for NGA, BT, then gave an overview of BT's NGA activities and plans, re-stating BT's commitment to delivering NGA to 66% of the UK by 2015. There was some vigorous disagreement with BT's claim that 99% of the UK has access to broadband, a disagreement borne out by the data presented by Adrian Wooster earlier in the day.

The next panel session focussed on solutions for the backhaul, the most difficult element to provision in rural areas. Barry Forde, Director of the Storey Creative Industries Centre in Lancaster and architect of the CLEO broadband network, set out the very strong case for using existing education networks to provide rural backhaul. For further information about the broadband infrastructure currently serving schools, see the 2009 National Education Network Services Survey, these case studies prepared as part of JANET(UK)'s local loop unbundling project and this previous post. Education broadband infrastructure is facing some threats at the moment though, as I mentioned in this previous post, with further detail in this report I prepared for the Education Network Governing Council earlier this year. A crying shame if these issues were to derail such an important opportunity? Chris Smedley, Chief Executive of GEO, then re-stated the importance of NGA but queried how much it should cost and how it should be paid for. His view was that public money should support investment in fibre builds that can be used and re-used as widely as possible, endorsing Barry's suggestions. Chris also suggested that the last major investment in national infrastructure was the building of motorway networks, which were built despite few people (at the time) having cars...can you see what he did there?

Aidan Paul, Chief Executive of Vtesse Networks, delivered a very interesting overview of their approach to provisioning the final third, citing developments in Hatt and Saltash in Cornwall, Broughton near Huntingdon and Birch Green in Hertfordshire. Aidan stated that the final third exists in areas served by market 2 & 3 exchanges as well as market 1 exchanges (according to Ofcom's classifications, where a market 1 exchange is one where the only broadband services available are based on BT Wholesale's offerings, so an exchange that hasn't been unbundled, whereas market 2 and 3 exchanges offer a choice of 2-3 or 4+ operators respectively). The final third is spread right across the UK, broadband availability being dependent upon distances from exchanges. He also asked why Vtesse pays 20 times more tax than BT on its infrastructure, a problem that is apparently (much to Rory Stewart's delight) all Henry VIII’s fault, in that he established the basis for the current rating system (more on fibre tax issues here). Aidan also asserted that BT supplies dark fibre to itself under terms that it won’t provide to others, and flagged the opportunities for low cost fibre deployment (“slotting”) as an important  part of a shopping list for what needs to be in place to facilitate NGA.

Gareth Davies, Competition Policy Director at Ofcom, wrapped up the morning with an update on Ofcom's wholesale local access and wholesale broadband access market reviews (more on these here). The conclusions from the local access review are due at the end of this month with the wholesale broadband access findings due in November. Encouraging effective competition in all areas is a priority for Ofcom.

After lunch, the focus turned to the US, with updates on broadband policy developments from Susan Walthall, Acting Chief Counsel for Advocacy of the US Small Business Administration, and Erik Garr, now of Diamond Management and Technology Consultants and previously General Manager for the FCC's National Broadband Plan ("365 pages of good, clean telecommunications fun", apparently!). See this post for further details of the economic impact of broadband, and here, here and here for more on the National Broadband Plan, with some important input from EDUCAUSE described here. Erik set out the rationale for the plan, reporting that the the US faces similar rural challenges to the UK in many areas, with similar difficulties in establishing the business case for rural broadband investment. He sees spectrum policy as crucial, in that effectively deployed mobile networks could offer real competition to fixed line (DSL) services, driving further investment and innovation as a result. He also flagged the plan's proposals to make changes to the e-Rate funding mechanism to support schools and districts to build their own networks (more on this here).

The final panel session focussed on community build out, with input from Malcolm Corbett, Chief Executive of the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA), who provided an overview of some of the "JFDI" projects (Digital Region in South Yorkshire, FibreSpeed in Wales) that INCA had been set up to bring together. Lindsey Annision, Marketing and Web Consultant made an impassioned plea for "gigabuckets" to supply all rural communities with broadband in a way that fixes not just today's but tomorrow's problems as well, and rightly asserted that the savings (at all levels) that will accrue from broadband investment will far outweigh the installation costs. Lindsey also later made the important observation that consumers don't just want to "lean back and take Hollywood content" - they want to make and share their own too, underlining the importance of symmetric bandwidth. Next Daniel Heery, as founder and manager, gave an overview of the Cybermoor project, inviting people to visit on the national Social Enterprise Day on 18th November 2010.

Nicholas James, CEO of UK Broadband, then described the opportunities for using wireless in the backhaul. UK Broadband are the largest national holder of spectrum, which can be used for wireless backhaul of up to 1Gbps. To counter claims on the unsuitability of wireless, James commented that 500+ 4G networks are being built around the world at the moment, which will deliver reliable services. UK Broadband are prepared to provide services at or below cost with appropriate revenue sharing agreements in place, and want to work with local projects and communities. His view is that wireless complements fixed line and he also queried how long it will be before all TV is delivered over broadband, rather than broadcast, as is already starting to happen in other parts of the world. He flagged the importance of separating local access from backhaul and ensuring that backhaul is offered on open access basis. Chris Conder, advisor on community broadband, then introduced a video that was in many ways the highlight of the day: JFDI again - just farmers doing it, a DIY fibre installation with the backhaul provided via wireless.

In summing up, Barry Forde re-stated that while backhaul is the key problem facing rural communities, the solution is already in place – re-use the public sector broadband infrastructure currently serving schools, local authorities, healthcare and other services. Rory Stewart then closed the conference by reiterating his intentions: he wants the USC to be in place for everyone in the region and for NGA to be available to the majority by the end of 2012, three years ahead of the government's targets.

Videos from the day are available here, a replay of the day's live blog is here and other reports of the day are available here and here. The twitter hash tag for the event, #rbc10, is still getting plenty of traffic almost 48 hours after the conference closed, and an interesting way of gathering together information from twitter is here. The Country Land and Business Association have issued a statement praising the event:
"The CLA says that the Penrith and the Border Broadband Conference, held on Saturday 18 September, was a major step forward in the battle to bring broadband to rural areas, and particularly welcomed the pledge by Broadband Minister Ed Vaizey that Government would allow rural communities to connect to existing public sector fibre networks."
Coverage from Computer Weekly here, here and here, with much more to follow I'm sure - here's coverage from the local News & Star paper.

Loads and loads to think about, but for me the main take-away was the need to firm up the opportunity of using school broadband infrastructure. The potential is there, and is increasingly being recognised, which is great, but what needs to be in place to make this happen? There are issues to resolve at all levels - from how to square such an approach with state aid requirements at the top, to how to "plug in" to school networks at the bottom, with many additional issues at all points in between. But none of them are or should be show-stoppers, especially if the enthusiasm and can-do approach so much in evidence on Saturday can go on to infect a wider audience.

When and where is the next one going to be then?