Friday, March 19, 2010

More on the National Broadband Plan


I’ve only just scratched the surface of the plan so far, but from a quick scan it's clear there are lots of strands (resource discovery, content and data interoperability, infrastructure approach, funding approach, environmental opportunities) paralleling activitites in the UK.

But this paragraph (on page 237 of 376!) in particular leapt out at me, from the section on modernizing educational broadband infrastructure:
"...the Mukilteo School District in the state of Washington reports that it currently uses dark fiber (without support from E-rate) at a cost of $0.0009/student/Mbps/ month, which is 1/300th of the cost charged by a telecommunications carrier for a similar E-rate-approved service (costing $0.27/student/Mbps/month). The district indicates its costs include maintenance and service level agreements providing equivalent service to an E-rate-eligible service. Similarly, the Council of Great City Schools noted the flexibility to lease dark fiber from providers and own the related equipment would permit “the most cost-effective pricing” for schools and libraries. The state of Wisconsin said E-rate should prefer the most cost-effective solution. Other commenters expressed support for giving recipients more flexibility to use dark fiber as part of their broadband solutions. These organizations also said participants need more flexibility to reduce the overall cost of broadband, increase bandwidth and participate in local and regional networks using dark fiber.”
This echoes some of the findings and recommendations from JANET's recent local loop undbundling (LLU) project, the deliverables from which are available here. From the report on Access Locate (an Openreach product which allows communications providers to order space in an exchange in the same way as for LLU purposes but which can be used to terminate fibre products instead) opportunities:
"From the overview and worked examples it is clear that LLU on its own has considerable potential to give us savings connecting sites. Add Access Locate to the mix and the scale of build-out needed to give a quick ROI is reduced significantly. It is also clear that moving to Access Locate adds the potential to tackle aggregation in a systematic way using a single backhaul to good effect. The backhaul can be local to pick up a core site or PoP, or it can be inter exchange to a remote core node. Either way there are costs to be met but greater savings can be achieved over traditional point-to-point circuit topologies. By having both LLU and Access Locate space in an exchange you are able to take advantage of all the various types of Openreach tails, from a simple low cost MPF right up to 10GbE circuits over fibre. In every case the pricing for these is going to be the floor regulated price which is agreed with OFCOM and openly published on the web. This gives clarity of pricing that buying through third parties with all their associated mark ups does not. With a little bit of thought, an element of luck (EBD) and some hard work you can strip costs whilst improving both reliability and scalability of your networks...Getting all the various public sector groups to fund LLU/Access Locate and backhauls jointly could result in very substantial savings: with the PSBR being what it is and everyone needing to make spending cuts, this has to be a way forward."
"MPF" above means metallic path facility, or, more succinctly, copper phone lines, and EBD stands for Ethernet Backhaul Direct, an Openreach service offering permanently connected, point-to-point high speed data circuits that provide a secure and uncontended backhaul service. This is currently only available in around a fifth of BT exchanges, hence the comment above. In summary, the JANET LLU reports show there is huge benefit in "getting into" exchanges, with a mixed economy of copper and fibre provision offering a very cost effective way to provision last mile connections.

The advantages here are clear: 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.

Returning to the National Broadband Plan, I'm not sure whether it's encouraging or depressing. Probably both. What's encouraging is the detailed recognition and engagement with a wide range of educational issues and opportunties, and the consideration of how broadband infrastructure can address these. What's depressing is that there hasn't been similar detailed engagement within UK broadband policy development, other than to continually re-state the "importance of broadband to education".

It's now time to put some substance behind such statements?

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