Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Australia, US move forward with fibre as the UK lags behind

TelecomPaper report that Nextgen Networks are to roll out an additional 2,000km of fibre as part of the Australian Government's Regional Backbone Blackspots Program (RBBP). The $250m RBBP program forms part of the National Broadband Network initiative, to provide superfast broadband to homes and workplaces. Nextgen Networks will roll out approximately 6,000km (presumably now with an additional 2,000km) of backbone infrastructure, to six priority locations:
  • Geraldton, Western Australia;
  • Darwin, Northern Territory
  • Emerald and Longreach, Queensland;
  • Broken Hill, New South Wales;
  • Victor Harbor, South Australia; and
  • South West Gippsland, Victoria.
Nextgen will offer wholesale services using the RBBP network assets on an open and equivalent basis, enforced through contractual terms and the funding of the agreement with the Australian Government. Construction began in February 2010. The additional links reported by TelecomPaper comprise:
  • a link between Tarcoola in South Australia and Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory (which will also pass the communities of Coober Pedy, Marla and Everard in South Australia and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory)
  • a link between Townsville and Marathon in Queensland (passing through the towns of Woodstock, Reid River, Charters Towers, Cape River, Pentland, Hughenden and Prairie)
The links are expected to take approximately 18 months to complete. However, shorter links are expected to enter service earlier. Picking up on the open access aspect, Google has invited cable service providers to run on its proposed fibre network, as reported by Broadband Reports:
"We (sic) definitely inviting the Comcasts, the AT&T service providers to work with us on our network, and to provide their service offering on top of our pipe - we're definitely planning on doing that. Our general attitude has been that there's plenty of room for innovation right now in the broadband space, and it's great what the cable companies are doing, upgrading to DOCSIS 3.0, but no one company has a monopoly on innovation. We're looking for other service providers to be able to come in and offer their service on top of our network so that residents have a choice when they open up their accounts. They get the connection from us, and then they have a choice as to who they subscribe to."
The above remarks were made by Minnie Ingersoll, Google's product manager for alternative access, at FibreFete, an invitation only conference held in Lafayette. Broadband Breakfast report that Ingersoll went on to say that more than 1,100 communities and nearly 200,000 individuals had expressed interest (see this previous post for more on the response). Broadband Reports offer this commentary:
"But will carriers want to be part of Google's experiment?...As it stands now, Google's fiber network is little more than a press release and some meeting minutes, which have resulted in a firestorm of endless news coverage with one common theme: many incumbent carriers aren't delivering the broadband speeds or prices consumers want. Most of the incumbent carriers already dislike Google for their positions on everything from white space broadband to network neutrality, and after a barrage of criticism, carriers may be in even less of a mood to play along with Google."
Their loss I expect though; I'm sure there will be plenty of others who would like to play. Remaining in the US, an interesting article from Internet Evolution highlights the measures being taken to bring broadband to the Navajo Nation, as part of the broadband stimulus initiative.

So, what about the UK? Well, in a blog post for 360°IT, a show due to take place at Earl’s Court in September 2010, futurologist and former head of BT Labs Peter Cochrane claimed that the UK would now fail to make a global top 20 for broadband, and that significant investment is urgently needed if we are to improve our showing:
"Anyone working in the UK understands that basic infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired. It's estimated we need to spend £500 billion to bring everything up to standard...How much would it cost to get optical fibre into every home and office? Somewhere in the region of £5-15 billion, depending on the technology and deployment options. On a national scale this is truly an insignificant amount of money when compared to the £500 billion mentioned above (or indeed the defence, health, education and welfare budgets). Yet the potential for economic rejuvenation is I believe far greater than for any other sector or investment...the clock is ticking. The UK has to grasp the nettle, stop all debate, and get on with the job. In the next phase we are going to see manufacturing industry transformed by 3D replicators and networked operations across the planet. But without the infrastructure we won't be able to play."
Finally, TeleGeography report that international network operators have weathered the recession surprisingly well and that international bandwidth usage continues to increase. More information in an executive summary available here.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bits and pieces

A round-up of some recent developments of note:
  • Fierce Telecom and TeleGeography both report that the National Broadband Network Co., the government-backed service provider charged with building out the Australian government's National Broadband Network (NBN), has announced it will unveil its wholesale service pricing to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in June. This follows an earlier announcement (see this previous post) about the first service providers (Primus, Internode and iiNet) signing up to offer retail services over the network.
  • Also from Fierce Telecom, the FTTH Council has published the results from a survey which reports that "hundreds of small independent telecoms, broadband service providers, municipalities and cable television companies have brought gigabit-enabled, all-fiber service to a total of more than 1.4 million North American homes - about a quarter of all fiber to the home connections on the continent...the report noted that fiber to the home is now being deployed by more than 750 service providers across North America, with most of those being small, independent telephone companies that are replacing their copper lines with end-to-end fiber in order to ensure their future competitiveness as broadband providers." An interesting point is made in the full report: "most providers and vendors interviewed feel that the government economic stimulus programs have actually had the unintended consequence of being negative to growth - to this point - as some projects were put on hold waiting possible public money."
  • Network World report that the US state with the fastest broadband is Delaware, according to Akamai's latest State of the Internet report: "Delaware leads the United States in broadband connection speeds, averaging 7.6Mbps per connection. This average is significantly higher than most other states, as no other state had an average connection speed of more than 5.8Mbps. Additionally, Delaware led the nation in percentage of total connections exceeding an average of 5Mbps, as a whopping 72% of its connections clocked in at 5Mbps or higher." There are eight "top tens" presented in the report, ranking countries in relation to various aspects of broadband, such as average speeds, penetration etc. The UK features in just one, on the number of unique IP addresses per country for Q4 2009, where we are sixth with 20,008,664. Though interestingly, in the table showing the 100 global cites with the highest average measured connection speed in Q4 2009, Oxford is 5th at 14,463Kbps...ahead of all but one South Korean city (Masan) and behind Berkeley, Chapel Hill and Stanford in the US. The only other UK cities to be included are Southampton at 57 (8,371Kbps), Bristol at 58 (8,292Kbps) and Cambridge at 73 (7,840Kbps). Cities had to have at least 50,000 unique IP addresses to qualify for inclusion in the list.
  • TalkTalk are planning to boost their LLU coverage to 90%, according to TeleGeography: "We’ve currently unbundled just over 1,700 phone exchanges around the UK, meaning that our customers near these exchanges are on our own fibre network rather than on BT’s legacy infrastructure ... We’re planning to unbundle a further 300 exchanges, taking us to over 2,000 in total, and pushing us to coverage of nearly 90% of the population. We’re also upgrading the capacity of our network in anticipation of ever-higher internet usage." Interesting that almost 90% of the UK population is served by less than 50% of exchanges.
  • Some further developments at the FCC: Fierce Telecom report that Congress is to examine how the National Broadband Plan addresses the "broadband availability gap", in a hearing to be held today entitled "The National Broadband Plan: deploying quality broadband services to the last mile". The FCC have a related announcement on their website, on their plans for universal service reform. This supporting document looks like it could provide some useful pointers for the UK's universal service objectives, as well as the Next Generation Fund (or whatever ends up replacing it): "The analysis...comprises two main components: The first focuses on Availability, or understanding the state of existing network deployments and services; the second focuses on the Funding Shortfall, the capabilities and economics associated with different broadband networks."
  • Finally, another provider has been accused of unacceptable throttling of content, according to Fierce Cable: "RCN subscribers have been alerted that a 2008 class action suit accusing the company of "delaying or blocking" various activities like BitTorrent will reach final court settlement June 4. The suit had charged that RCN violated the Consumer Fraud and Abuse Act by promising "fast and untapped" broadband Internet when it was actually throttling traffic."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

1Gbps symmetric (yes, really!) broadband, anyone?

TeleGeography report that "Hong Kong Broadband Network (HKBN), a wholly owned subsidiary of City Telecom, has announced the immediate availability of a package offering symmetric 1Gbps direct fibre broadband internet access for HKD199 (approx. £16.50) per month."

The package includes unlimited monthly data usage, and follows the launch on HKBN's symmetric 100Mbps package in November 2009. This costs the equivalent of less than £9 per month (!), and HKBN guarantees that users will receive actual speeds of at least 80% of the advertised download/upload rates.

Europe's take on net neutrality

Speaking at the ARCEP conference in Paris earlier this week, Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda (and Viviane Reding's successor), set out her views on net neutrality.

She began by recognising the complexity of the issue, suggesting "that each party knows that the internet is not an inherently neutral platform; that there are choices to be made", a statement which many US campaigners would do well to acknowledge. She also recognised that the debate in Europe is at an early stage and that in many ways we are in a more fortunate position than other administrations:
"This debate is still at an early stage in Europe. This is probably because our regulatory framework and the competitive investments that it fostered meant that we have not been so immediately confronted with these tough choices as in some other jurisdictions. Of course, we need to anticipate potential problems. However, as we do so, we must also avoid over-hasty regulatory intervention."
Kroes stated her agreement with the FCC's four principles, set out in 2005, and, while welcoming the proposed addition of the principle on transparency, she sounded a note of caution with regard to the proposed principle on non-discrimination:
"While the importance of increased transparency is clear, the real meaning and consequences of the non-discrimination principle should be carefully considered. In fact, some are interpreting the non-discrimination principle as essentially preventing telecom operators from seeking commercial payments or agreements with content providers which deliver their highly capacity-consuming services through broadband networks and require a certain level of service for their transmission to be effective. That prospect raises a number of delicate and complex issues. These issues must be very carefully assessed before the EU gives any possible regulatory response."
She flagged both the EU's new regulatory framework, adopted in 2009, and also the forthcoming NGA Recommendation and Spectrum Policy, "both of which will foster investment in efficient and open networks." She also offered an interesting traffic management analogy:
"Given that so much of this debate is about different forms of traffic management, let me use a road traffic analogy. There are many ways to manage traffic: by improving infrastructure, adding tolls, creating junctions or roundabouts to improve bottlenecks. But creating new rules and crowding the street with signs does not automatically help the traffic to flow. Indeed, putting a police officer at a busy corner can often deliver the slowest traffic of all. So, I will not be someone who comes up with a solution first and then looks for a problem to attach it to. I am not a police officer in search of a busy corner."
She closed by stating her adherence to the following principles:
  • freedom of expression is fundamental
  • transparency is non-negotiable (network management activities and implications must be "crystal clear")
  • we need investment in efficient and open networks (the best way "to avoid bottlenecks and monopolistic gatekeepers" is to throw bandwidth at the problem?)
  • fair competition (with no discrimination against undesired competitors)
  • support for innovation (in terms of new businesses and business models)
In many ways, I think one of her closing remarks (in relation to the final bullet above) demonstrates one of the clearest insights I've yet seen in the whole net neutrality saga:
"...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."
All in all, far more encouraging than concerning, with a clear (and rather refreshing) grasp of the key issues? I'm not sure that the FT (Telecoms groups warned on data charges) quite "got it" though:
"Telecoms companies will not be allowed to charge online content providers to deliver high-bandwidth content to internet users, the European Union telecoms commissioner said yesterday. Neelie Kroes said she would take action if companies such as Telefónica and France Telecom sought payments in exchange for carrying bandwith-guzzling services such as Google's popular YouTube video-sharing website."
Er, I don't think she did, actually? Rather, she said that there are a range of issues to be considered and that we need to avoid "over-hasty regulatory intervention"? TelecomPaper's report is better and offers some interesting coverage of the debate that followed:
"...representatives of companies such as Google, Yahoo! and Skype responded to European operators’ revenue-sharing ambitions by arguing that it was their services that gave value to networks. Dailymotion’s Martin Rogard, for example, said that since operators received all of end-users’ subscription fees it was normal for them to make the investment in their networks. Yves Gassot, the managing director of European market research consultant Idate, said that Google and Yahoo! have already developed very significant infrastructure to control their services’ quality. If operators want them to pay even more, then they may wake up one day and see they are not the only ones with networks, he added. Vodafone’s executive director and head of European operations, Michel Combe, told the newspaper that the operator had no reason to ask Google to pay it for offering the search engine to customers, but revenue sharing is relevant for content such as video. He also referred to Vodafone’s introduction of differentiated tariffs for business mobile internet customers in Spain in February, where some clients pay less for “best effort” service quality while others pay a premium for guaranteed speeds and priority at times of network congestion. To Vodafone, this does not violate the principles of net neutrality, but allows innovation and new economic models to emerge."
The comment about operators discovering they're "not the only ones with networks" seems very prescient, especially in the light of Google's fibre ambitions. And I think Vodafone's differentiated tariffs fit with Neelie Kroes' views, so long as transparency is provided? But does such a tariffing approach constitute a spur to future network investment, or a means of exploiting current network constraints?

New focus on community broadband opportunities?

A BBC article reports on Rutland Telecom's implementation of super-fast broadband in Lyddington (as mentioned in this previous post), offering speeds of up to 40Mbps. The article goes on to mention Alston in Cumbria and also Newton-on-Rawcliffe in North Yorkshire, where "the solution to slow broadband has come via fibre supplied to the local school. The 140 villagers will benefit from the fibre link via a wireless connection. The fibre has been supplied by NYnet, one of Europe's largest public-sector funded broadband infrastructures."

More from the Yorkshire Post:
"It's generally assumed the most modern technology for delivering broadband, fibre optic cable, is only available in urban areas. But step forward a "community interest company" called Nextgenus UK, run for the benefit of local people. It has got Sylvia Szejna and her neighbours around the villages of Newton-on-Rawcliffe and Stape online and up-to-date. Any profit Nextgenus makes has to be ploughed back into the community. Their approach is to piggy-back on the system which delivers the internet into North Yorkshire's schools, libraries and council offices. Technically known as a "Fat-Pipe", this is is the digital equivalent of a large water main. Called NYnet, this is owned by the county council, and cannot sell its services commercially. But NYnet can be made available to a company like Nextgenus who access the "fat pipe" to deliver a link to individual homes and businesses in out-of-the-way places."
And from NYnet:
“NYnet has provided optic fibre-based internet to within striking distance of the village, where it is beamed wirelessly to the rest of the village by community interest company NextGenUs UK CIC and community service provider Beeline Broadband. As a result of this initiative, residents will be able to access a broadband connection of up to 10Mbps.”
The European Commission's state aid decision on NYnet is available here. This approach echoes one of the recommendations set out in the Commission for Rural Communities' Mind the Gap report, published last year:
“The CRC wants to see rural communities have greater access to the broadband opportunities which schools can offer through the extended school services agenda, particularly the broadband infrastructure available to schools.”
The possibility of using existing education infrastructure was also flagged in the summary of responses to the interim Digital Britain report:
“The scope for using existing publicly owned infrastructure including JANET and NHS networks and making these available for commercial broadband operators; some responses also pointed to the ongoing value of using procurement of broadband for public use (including schools) as a way of providing local backhaul. The value of business to business specialist networks as a driver for new infrastructure rollout was also raised.”
This seems entirely sensible to me - it makes much more sense to consolidate and extend existing infrastructure than over-build, especially in the current economic climate. It's also good use of public money, to consolidate an existing public asset. This approach, where schools' and other institutions' last mile connections effectively become the middle mile, is also considered in the US National Broadband Plan (which describes schools as "anchor institutions" for facilitating broadband roll-out) and New Zealand's Rural Broadband Initiative.

So it's great to see things starting to happen in the UK too. Let's hope not only that others follow suit, but also that whatever administration is in place after May 6th recognises the huge potential existing broadband networks offer, in relation to both universal service and next generation access. 

More fibre new builds across the US, especially for telehealth

Fierce Telecom report that a new carrier neutral, open access middle mile network for Maine has been given the green light.

The Maine Fiber Company's Three Ring Binder (named because it features three rings of fibre across western, northern and downeast Maine - network diagram here) will "enhance middle mile fiber access for carriers looking to provide quality broadband services to customers in many areas of Maine, including some of the most rural areas of the State" and will be available to all qualified users on an equal basis. What's particularly noteworthy is the signing of a bill into law (LD 1778) by the Maine government to establish a new public utility category - dark fibre provider - and to create a sustainability fund to build out broadband infrastructure to unserved areas.

Fierce Telecom also report some significant developments in relation to telehealth. AT&T have won a contract worth $27million to provide managed network service to the University of California's California Telehealth Network (CTN). Funded through the FCC's Rural Health Care Pilot Program, this will connect over 300 primarily rural California healthcare facilities to a statewide and nationwide broadband telehealth network. The California Telemedicine and eHealth Centre's website provides a useful overview of the potential of telemedicine:
"There are two basic approaches to providing telemedicine services. The first approach is live interactive where both the patient and provider site are available in real time and can communicate as though in the same room. Live interactive telemedicine is most like a regular on-site patient visit. Live interactive telemedicine is appropriate when the clinician needs to talk with the patient or when the clinician needs to observe motion or other characteristics of the patient. There are many telemedicine applications that can use live interactive telemedicine. In California, live interactive telemedicine has been used for over 50 specialty services. The most commonly provided specialties are dermatology, psychiatry, neurology, ENT, orthopedics, pain management, endocrinology, urology and rheumatology.
The second technology approach, store and forward, is used when a face to face visit is not necessary. Store and forward systems allow a provider or technician at the patient site to capture diagnostic information using clinical instruments and send the digital image of the information to a clinician at a remote site. The remote site clinician retrieves the digital images, reviews them and sends a report back to the patient site. It is commonly used for dermatology, diabetic retinopathy screenings, radiology, and pathology. Store and forward allows specialists to review patient findings at convenient times without depending on the presence of the patient. Since there is no requirement to meet face to face with the patient, store and forward maximizes the time a clinician spends reviewing and reporting on findings."
Telehealth (as opposed to telemedicine) "refers to a broader scope of services that includes telemedicine, but also includes other services that can be provided remotely using communication technologies. The federal Office for the Advancement of Telehealth, describes telehealth as including telemedicine and a variety of other services."

Again from Fierce Telecom, Qwest last August closed a deal to provide the Colorado Hospital Association and the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council with high speed network services, in support of the Colorado Telehealth Network:
"When the new Colorado Telehealth Network is completed 400 hospitals, clinics and other health care and behavioral health providers in Colorado will be able to get access to Qwest's optical and Etherent network capabilities. The network will provide rural area patients long distance medical care with speeds of up to 100 Mbps. In many cases, telemedicine can provide patients access to necessary medical care and consultation directly from their home. What's more, intensive care providers can leverage the network to monitor critically ill patients via video conferencing even if they are hundreds of miles away from a medical site."
...while Optimum Lightpath have won a contract to provide Interactive Patient Care (IPC) to the Children's Hospital at Montefiore (CHAM):
"CHAM will implement Interactive Patient Care in all 130 beds throughout the hospital at no cost to patients. The advanced patient care service, which will be deployed for the first time in the New York Metropolitan area, will empower the renowned children's hospital to improve entertainment, education, patient safety, clinical care outcomes, and bed turnover rates while creating new workflow efficiencies for hospital staff."
Clearly lots going on in this area in the US, with some interesting lessons for the UK, especially in relation to joining up existing infrastructures?

FCC gains backing for future broadband regulation

The FT (Rockefeller backs FCC broadband regulation) reports that Jay Rockefeller, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has urged the FCC to use “all of its existing authority” to regulate broadband internet providers. He also said he was prepared to rewrite legislation to accomplish that goal.

At he same time, he also offered some criticism of the FCC's National Broadband Plan:
“A mere menu of options for the FCC and the Congress with far off timeframes is not good enough...The report has over 200 recommendations. But it takes no action. It is long on vision but short on tactics...I am going to challenge the FCC to make the hard choices that will help bring broadband to every corner of this country. Putting ideas on paper is not enough. Just seeking comment on a slew of issues is not enough. It’s action that counts...In this new century, universal broadband service is the promise of a fair shot at economic opportunity. It is the promise of educational equality and affordable health care. And it opens the door to participate in our democratic dialogue with dignity, no matter who you are or where you live. ”
The remarks were made as part of a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee on 14th April, at which FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski made this statement. He remained bullish about the FCC's capability to implement the plan following the Comcast case:
“...I am confident that the Commission has the authority it needs to implement the broadband plan. Whatever flaws may have existed in the specific actions and reasoning before the court in that case, I believe that the Communications Act – as amended in 1996 – enables the Commission to, for example, reform universal service to connect everyone to broadband communications, including in rural areas and Native American communities; help connect schools and rural health clinics to broadband; take steps to ensure that we lead the world in mobile; promote competition; support robust use of broadband by small businesses to drive productivity, growth, job creation and ongoing innovation; protect and empower all consumers of broadband communications, including thorough transparency and disclosure to help make the market work; safeguard consumer privacy; work to increase broadband adoption in all communities and ensure fair access for people with disabilities; help protect broadband communications networks against cyber attack and other disasters; and ensure that all broadband users can reach 911 in an emergency.”

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Broadband manifesto commitments

From A future fair for all - The Labour Party Manifesto 2010:
“The next stage of national renewal…Build a high-tech economy, supporting business and industry to create one million more skilled jobs and modernising our infrastructure with High Speed Rail, a Green Investment Bank and broadband access for all.”
“Britain must be a world leader in the development of broadband. We are investing in the most ambitious plan of any industrialised country to ensure a digital Britain for all, extending access to every home and business. We will reach the long-term vision of superfast broadband for all through a public-private partnership in three stages: first, giving virtually every household in the country a broadband service of at least two megabits per second by 2012; second, making possible superfast broadband for the vast majority of Britain in partnership with private operators, with Government investing over £1 billion in the next seven years; and lastly reaching the final ten per cent using satellites and mobile broadband. Because we are determined that every family and business, not just some, should benefit, we will raise revenue to pay for this from a modest levy on fixed telephone lines. And we will continue to work with business, the BBC and other broadcasting providers to increase take-up of broadband and to ensure Britain becomes a leading digital economy.”
“Barriers to social mobility will be tackled by giving disadvantaged families free access to broadband to support their child’s learning.”
“The next stage of national renewal...The BBC’s independence upheld; and Britain equipped with a world-leading digital and broadband infrastructure.”
"We are extending broadband access to every business and home, ensuring universal access within a decade to high-speed broadband across the country.”
“Rural businesses and communities must have the broadband connections they need. We are committed to universal broadband access, irrespective of location. The levy on fixed phone lines will pay for expansion of fast broadband connections to rural areas.”
“We want Britain to become a European hub for hi-tech, digital and creative industries – but this can only happen if we have the right infrastructure in place. Establishing a superfast broadband network throughout the UK could generate 600,000 additional jobs and add £18 billion to Britain’s GDP. We will scrap Labour’s phone tax and instead require BT and other infrastructure providers to allow the use of their assets to deliver superfast broadband across the country. If necessary, we will consider using the part of the licence fee that is supporting the digital switchover to fund broadband in areas that the market alone will not reach.”
 And from the Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010:
"enabling enterprise that benefits Britain...Liberal Democrats will...Support public investment in the roll-out of superfast broadband, targeted first at those areas which are least likely to be provided for by the market."
So clear recognition from all three parties of the need for some form of public intervention to support the roll-out of next generation broadband. We've come a long way since the Caio review in 2008:
"The high costs of NGA, and high expectations of what it can deliver, tend to raise expectations in some quarters that the Government should make a major intervention – such as a large subsidy or structural change to regulation – to support the market. However, it is the conclusion of this review that the case for such a major intervention is weak at best."
But have we come far enough? The Caio review also recommended that:
“…the Government and Ofcom, as the two principal entities involved in determining the efficient and effective deployment of NGA, need to play an active leadership role in shaping broadband policies. This does not translate into subsidies or structural changes in regulation, but rather a set of initiatives that could support and inform the activity of regulators and industry players in their journey to NGA. The government should seek to remove obstacles that could potentially delay or compromise the development of the new network.”
Clearly things have moved on, evidenced by this recognition of the need for subsidies and structural change, but does anyone look likely to "play an active leadership role in shaping broadband policies"? The intentions set out above look more reactive than proactive to me; there is still plenty of scope for better leadership in this important area.

Friday, April 09, 2010

FCC/Comcast fallout continues, Digital Britain on hiatus

The ramifications of Tuesday's court ruling (available here) against the FCC and in favour of Comcast continue to be the subject of much speculation. All the coverage I've seen neglects to mention that Comcast's actions were much more significant than simply slowing traffic, as covered in my previous post. More too in this report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), who have also published a more detailed report on detecting packet injection, available here.

An article in the Wall Street Journal includes a useful timeline, while the BBC suggest that the National Broadband Plan is "in flux" as a result of the ruling, citing an FCC blog as listing some of the 200 recommendations made under the plan that are now open to question. These include efforts "aimed at accelerating broadband access and adoption in rural America; connecting low-income Americans, Native American communities, and Americans with disabilities".

This is rather disingenuous, as the same blog posting earlier states that "the Comcast/BitTorrent opinion has no effect at all on most of the Plan"! By way of explanation:
"Many of the recommendations for the FCC itself involve matters over which the Commission has an “express statutory delegation of authority.” These include critical projects such as making spectrum available for broadband uses, improving the efficiency of wireless systems, bolstering the use of broadband in schools, improving coordination with Native American governments to promote broadband, collecting better broadband data, unleashing competition and innovation in smart video devices, and developing common standards for public safety networks."
The post closes by admitting that "the Commission must have a sound legal basis for implementing each of these recommendations. We are assessing the implications of yesterday’s decision for each one, to ensure that the Commission has adequate authority to execute the mission laid out in the Plan." The FT (Comcast faces tough regulation from FCC), in an article focusing on Comcast’s bid to take over NBC Universal, suggests that Tuesday's decision will force the FCC to look more widely at the tools it has at its disposal to drive the plan forward, now that its preferred approach has been discredited in court:
"With its hands tied given the court ruling, people who are closely following the deal say that the FCC will be looking at the Comcast deal as an opportunity to impose conditions on the largest industry presence. They say that the biggest question now is whether the FCC would impose general net neutrality principles that Comcast could easily agree, or whether it would impose more onerous network management conditions that it would be likely to resist."
For Comcast, a case of be careful what you wish for perhaps? Interesting commentary from Internet Evolution, on whether the Internet needs to be regulated or not:
"Up to this point, the 'Net has moved forward quite rapidly and, most would agree, neutrally, without much (if any) regulation by governments. It could be argued that all that is required for net neutrality is an industry standard of openness about services themselves rather than a set of complex regulations."
In response, the FCC has extended the deadline for responses to its notice of proposed rulemaking on preserving an open Internet until 26th April 2010, and is pressing ahead with the Plan, announcing a Broadband Action Agenda for implementing its key recommendations.  The FCC seems undeterred by the Comcast ruling and is keen to put some distance between it and the original dispute:
“The court decision earlier this week does not change our broadband policy goals, or the ultimate authority of the FCC to act to achieve those goals. The court did not question the FCC’s goals; it merely invalidated one technical, legal mechanism for broadband policy chosen by prior Commissions."
The intention to revise the Universal Service Fund (USF), which was brought into question by the ruling, remains at the forefront of this:
"Carry out a once-in-a-generation transformation of the Universal Service Fund over the next ten years to support broadband service. This will be achieved by converting existing subsidy mechanisms over time from "POTS" (plain old telephone service) to broadband, without increasing the size of the fund over the current baseline projection."
A detailed implementation schedule is available here. Returning to the UK, the BBC describe the angry response to the Digital Economy Bill  being rushed through Parliament, and report that "the next Parliament will be able to study the most contentious aspects of the bill before they are enacted and there will be an extended period of public consultation." So still a small window of opportunity to encourage some common sense perhaps? JANET(UK)'s Andrew Cormack also sounds a hopeful note on his blog, citing a statement by Lord Young showing there is an increasing appreciation of the Bill's, sorry, Act's potential impact on “libraries, universities and other educational establishments”.

The FT (Digital Britain plans fall by the wayside) also offers a summary of the 50p Landline Levy's demise, likely replacement and possible resurrection:
"If the Conservatives win the election, they would use a portion of the BBC licence fee to pay for the expansion of superfast broadband infrastructure outside urban areas. If Labour wins, the party would go back to its original plans and introduce the telephone tax."
All in all, a week which reminds me of these wise words:
"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."
...though I would argue there's even more at stake in this context, as broadband has the potential to revolutionise lives and society in a way that potentially eclipses even an achievement as undeniably fantastic as the first moon landing?

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Upsetting applecarts, on both sides of the Atlantic

The BBC report that the court case between the FCC and Comcast has ruled in Comcast's favour:
"The court said the Federal Communications Commission, FCC, had no authority to sanction Comcast for slowing internet traffic to some users."
Media coverage has predictably focused on the impact this ruling will have on the FCC's ability to deliver the National Broadband Plan. For example, FierceCable suggests that this could "spell a long and nasty period of challenges to FCC authority about anything broadband related."

The FCC's memorandum opinion and order from August 2008 explained what Comcast was actually doing when "slowing internet traffic to some users". This reveals that the approach taken by Comcast was more significant and detrimental to users than simply slowing traffic:
“The Associated Press (AP) subsequently conducted several nationwide tests to investigate the allegations that Comcast was interfering with its customers’ use of peer-to-peer applications, including BitTorrent. It concluded that Comcast “actively interferes with attempts by some of its high-speed Internet subscribers to share files online...Comcast’s interference affects all types of content, meaning that, for instance, an independent movie producer who wanted to distribute his work using BitTorrent and his Comcast connection could find that difficult or impossible.” The AP found that Comcast’s conduct had a “drastic effect...on one type of traffic - in some cases blocking it rather than slowing it down.” AP also concluded that “the method used” by Comcast was “difficult to circumvent and involves [Comcast] falsifying network traffic.” Specifically, “when one BitTorrent user attempts to share a complete file with another user” via a TCP connection, Comcast’s servers (through which its users’ packets of data must pass) send to each user’s computer an RST packet (reset packet) “that looks like it comes from the other [user’s] computer” and terminates the connection. One month after the AP’s report, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) published the results of its own testing and similarly concluded that Comcast was selectively targeting customers who uploaded files using BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer protocols. Like AP, EFF also found examples where the Comcast’s “packet forgery prevent[ed] the transfer of data.””
The FCC argued that such an approach did not "constitute reasonable network management". It also argued that Comcast had additionally compounded the issue by not disclosing its practices to its customers, and that there was also a significant anti-competitive aspect to Comcast's actions:
"Peer-to-peer applications, including those relying on BitTorrent, have become a competitive threat to cable operators such as Comcast because Internet users have the opportunity to view high-quality video with BitTorrent that they might otherwise watch (and pay for) on cable television. Such video distribution poses a particular competitive threat to Comcast’s video-on-demand (“VOD”) service...Comcast has recently placed a significant emphasis on expanding its VOD business, and its VOD revenues have experienced robust growth. Moreover, Comcast has “begun incorporating its VOD content online through sites competing directly with BitTorrent protocol sites.”"
It would seem to me that, in the light of the above, the ruling yesterday against the FCC can only be in relation to the its status and its ensuing ability (or, rather lack of it) to enforce its rulings? The evidence clearly demonstrates that Comcast wasn't acting in accordance with the principles laid down by the FCC? So the issue isn't so much that Comcast denied that what they were doing was wrong, or wasn't in the best interests of their customers (basically, they got found out), but rather simply that the FCC didn't have the power to make them do anything about it.

This seems unfortunate, as in many ways, the FCC's argument is much more enlightened that the current debate over the Digital Economy Bill in the UK: the FCC clearly recognises that file sharing applications like BitTorrent have many perfectly legitimate uses, alongside the distribution of copyright infringing materials. But...are the FCC's principles themselves reasonable? Is the FCC's definition of what constitutes "reasonable network management" itself reasonable?

The FCC's Internet Policy Statement from August 2005 is at the heart of this. It sets out four principles that should underpin broadband services, 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.
  • Consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
  • Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.
  • Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.
All four are subject to "reasonable network management". The FCC's notice of proposed rulemaking on preserving the open Internet, published in October 2009, proposed two additional principles:
  • Subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access service must treat lawful content, applications, and services in a nondiscriminatory manner.
  • Subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access service must disclose such information concerning network management and other practices as is reasonably required for users and content, application, and service providers to enjoy the protections specified in this part.
The notice goes on to define "reasonable network management" at paragraph 135:
"Reasonable network management consists of: (a) reasonable practices employed by a provider of broadband Internet access service to (i) reduce or mitigate the effects of congestion on its network or to address quality-of-service concerns; (ii) address traffic that is unwanted by users or harmful; (iii) prevent the transfer of unlawful content; or (iv) prevent the unlawful transfer of content; and (b) other reasonable network management practices."
The definition has been kept intentionally broad, to ensure providers have sufficient opportunity and flexibility to innovate as user needs and traffic patterns change. Which seems reasonable to me?

So what impact does this ruling have on the National Broadband Plan? The FCC's own statement affirms that it isn't its principles which are in question here: "...the Court in no way disagreed with the importance of preserving a free and open Internet; nor did it close the door to other methods for achieving this important end." The FT (Comcast victory thwarts FCC plans) outlines what these other methods could be:
"Analysts said the FCC had several options. It could move to challenge the appeals court ruling at the Supreme Court. More immediately, it could press ahead with attempts to regulate broadband providers under the strict confines laid out by the lower court. But, in what is seen as its most likely option, it could reverse Bush-era policies and redesignate broadband as a “Title 2” service, opening the door to a new era of regulation, including controls on pricing."
More on the reclassifying/redesignating option in this previous post. There seem to be two aspects to such a reclassification: not only would it give the FCC greater regulatory power over broadband providers (and its subsequent ability to deliver the plan), it would also (according to the plan) "provide a sounder legal basis for establishing direct support for rural broadband under the Universal Service Fund’s High Cost program and broadband access under the Lifeline and Link-Up programs." Given Comcast's actions, is it arguable that greater regulatory oversight is needed to prevent such instances in future, as well as to support delivery of the plan?

The applecart that's been upset on this side of the Atlantic is the 50p Landline Duty, as reported by the BBC:
"The broadband tax has been scrapped in the last-minute scramble to rush key legislation through before Parliament is dissolved next week...The Conservatives have always opposed the tax, preferring to allow the market more time to roll out services before government intervention. The levy was among three taxes in the Finance Bill to be dropped...It is likely to be reinstated if Labour is re-elected in the 6 May general election."
The FT (Tories force 'wash-up' taxes reversal) reports that the Conservatives will "instead pay for the policy using part of the BBC licence fee." The wash-up also includes the Digital Economy Bill, which will face further scrutiny even if it's passed later today, according to the BBC.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

"The future used to be something people had time to think about. Now it shows up every time we go online." a nice quote from the ITIF's recent report, The Internet Economy 25 Years After .com: transforming life and commerce, which was issued exactly 25 years after was registered as the first .com in the world (on 15th March 1985).

The report asserts that the Internet has become "a general purpose technology (GPT), one whose significance to society should be viewed as on par with the advent of inexpensive steel, the telephone, the internal combustion engine, or electricity", with its full potential still to be realised:
“General purpose technologies such as the Internet, which historically have appeared at a rate of once every half century, represent fundamentally new technology systems that change virtually everything, including what economies produce; how they produce it; how production is organized and managed; the location of productive activity; the skills required for productive activity; the infrastructure needed to enable and support it; and the laws and regulations needed to maintain, or even to allow, it. GPTs share a variety of similar characteristics. They typically start in relatively crude form for a single or very few purposes; they increase in sophistication as they diffuse throughout the economy; they engender extensive spillovers in the forms of externalities and technological complementarities; and their evolution and diffusion span decades (even centuries). Moreover, GPTs undergo rapid price declines and performance improvements; become pervasive and an integral part of most industries, products, and functions; and enable downstream innovations in products, processes, business models, and business organization. By any of these measures, the dot-com Internet ranks well against the most transformative technological breakthroughs (and subsequent commercializations) in human history.”
Persuasive stuff. The report's conclusion includes the claim (made in this presentation to this conference) that the Internet revolution is still less than 15% complete, in terms of number of users, total bandwidth, total amount of content, number of devices and number of applications. Another nice quote here too: "Gmail - the entry drug for cloud users".

Thursday, April 01, 2010

UK policy developments update

Last week's Budget confirmed that the 50p per month Landline Duty will be implemented on 1 October 2010 and will "raise funds to help the roll-out of Next Generation Access (NGA) super-fast broadband to 90 per cent of the country by 2017."

Concerns continue to be expressed over the Digital Economy Bill as it progresses through the Commons. The FT (Websites face blocks over content) reports that measures to allow ministers to modify copyright law and block websites offering access to copyright-infringing materials have been reintroduced into the bill:
"Under the proposed clauses, the minister would be able to put forward a regulation allowing an injunction to block sites unlawfully offering a “substantial amount” of copyright material without the need for primary legislation. Ministers hope that this would provide sufficient powers to deal with new technologies for sharing music and films online...The proposals would require government to pass a statutory instrument, following a public consultation, before asking ISPs to block infringing sites."
Good coverage from OUT-LAW too. A later FT article (Providers attack net piracy plan) reports continued opposition to these provisons, and the Register makes a good point too:
"Under the new Clause 18, the Minister of the day and Courts would have to satisfy a long list of qualifications. The former would be obliged to consult widely during a 60-day consultation period, and then throw the proposals open to Parliamentary debate and scrutiny, and finally a vote. The injunctions would only apply to sites where most of the material was infringing, and the court would have to consider steps taken to remove infringing material, the impact on "Freedom of expression", and the proportion of the effect of the block on the business or individual. Courts couldn't order costs against the service provider, while copyright holders would also have to demonstrate that they'd provided lawful access to the material that's the subject of their infringement complaint. Hollywood and the record companies are unlikely to be happy with that - since the hottest torrents at any time are frequently pre-release films or albums. And these, by definition, haven't yet been lawfully released."
The FT (Court ruling seen to guard online content) also reports an interesting related case
"In a case brought by a group of film studios including Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal and Warner Bros, Mr Justice Kitchin found that Newzbin, a private online forum, was liable for its members’ copyright infringement when they used the site to download movies and TV shows. Newzbin argued that it was no more responsible for copyright infringement than Google is, but the judge said its knowledge of the downloading meant it shared responsibility."
OUT-LAW suggests that this ruling provides some much-needed clarity to UK copyright law for ISPs and other online service providers:
"The High Court has effectively said that they will only be on the hook for 'authorising' infringement by their users if they fail to put in place some fairly basic safeguards and set their systems up is such a way that they are, to all intents and purposes, apparently sanctioning the infringements...The High Court has told Usenet indexing company Newzbin that it is liable for the copyright infringement of its users, that it did 'authorise' that copying by organising its system to encourage the downloading of films and TV programmes that were protected by copyright...Newzbin had notices telling people not to infringe and a notice and takedown policy, but the Court found that its behaviour didn't match its words. The judge called it "window dressing" and said that the Court would look at the company's behaviour, not its words. Another important factor for the Court was the fact that the enabling copyright infringement seemed to be the company's entire reason for being in business. It claimed to perform other functions, but the Court found that these, too, were flimsy claims not backed up by the actuality of how the service performed."
There's more to this than just the above though. The presiding judge, Mr Justice Kitchin, while granting the film studios' injunction in relation to their own copyright materials (which included the films 27 Dresses, Atonement, 300, Cloverfield, National Treasure: Book of Secrets and Spiderman 3), was not prepared to grant their second injunction, which asked to stop Newzbin from indexing "entries identifying any material posted to or distributed through any Usenet group in infringement of copyright".

An article from ZDnet includes extracts from the judge's ruling (which is available in full here):
"Kitchin turned down this request for a number of reasons. First, the claimants were "seeking an injunction to restrain activities in relation to all binary and all text materials in respect of which they own no rights and about which I have heard little or no evidence," he said. "Second, I do not accept that the defendant has actual knowledge of other persons using its service to infringe all such rights," Kitchin said. "Therefore I am not persuaded I have the jurisdiction to grant such an injunction in any event. Third, the rights of all other rights holders are wholly undefined and consequently the scope of the injunction would be very uncertain." Kitchin concluded by saying injunctions issued under 97a should only stop a defendant from violating copyrights of films owned by claimants and could not extend any further."
It's very interesting that the judge's statement echoes many of the concerns expressed about the Digital Economy Bill - could this set a precedent perhaps, for more measured consideration and implementation of some of the bill's more contentious aspects?

Returning to more broadband-specific developments, the FT (Ofcom adopts benign stance over BT) reports that Ofcom is proposing a benign regulatory regime for BT in relation to its recent announcements about opening up its next generation infrastructure to other operators:
"In a key concession to BT, Ofcom proposed that the company should have the freedom to set the price of its wholesale products...Ofcom is also giving Sky and Talk Talk the chance to build their own super-fast broadband networks by proposing they should be able to insert fibre into BT's ducts. If they were to roll out their own networks, some analysts say BT could struggle to secure a return on its £1.5bn investment. However, Ofcom said BT's rivals were showing greater interest in using its wholesale fibre products than rolling out their own high- speed networks. Robin Bienenstock, analyst at Bernstein, said BT "appears to have fared extremely well" from Ofcom's deliberations and expressed doubts that Talk Talk had the resources to build its own fibre network."
More news from Ofcom this week, in relation to improvements to its broadband speeds code of practice, to address the fact that ISPs are meeting some aspects of the code but are falling short in others. For example, some purchasers are not being informed that their actual speeds are likely to be below their maximum line speeds as part of the sales process. Ofcom's research (which used a mystery shopping approach) also showed that shoppers often received a wide variety of different estimates of the maximum line speed from different ISPs for the same line. The intention is to ensure more consistent and accurate information for purchasers.

Finally, not UK specific but interesting all the same: a media release from Ericsson reports that in December 2009 data traffic exceeded the volume of voice calls across the world's wireless networks for the first time:
"Ericsson's findings show that data traffic globally grew 280% during each of the last two years, and is forecast to double annually over the next five years. The crossover occurred at approximately 140,000 Terabytes per month in both voice and data traffic.  The data traffic increase is contributing to revenue growth for operators when more and more consumers use data traffic generating devices such as Smartphones and PCs. During the same period, Ericsson measurements show that traffic in 3G networks surpassed that of 2G networks."
This was also reported by the FT (Data traffic outstrips mobile voice calls).