Thursday, August 26, 2010

USA: A further $1.8 billion investment in rural broadband

Last week US Vice President Biden announced grants totaling $1.8 billion for 94 projects in 37 states aimed at both job creation and technology expansion "as part of an effort to bridge the digital divide between urban and rural areas", according to TechDailyDose.

These projects are part of a programme administered by the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to expand broadband access and adoption across the country. Further commentary here and also here.

From the official White House statement:
"Today’s announcement includes 66 grants awarded by the Commerce Department for projects to deploy broadband infrastructure and connect community anchor institutions to broadband, create and upgrade public computer centers, and encourage the sustainable adoption of broadband service. It also includes 28 awards from USDA (US Department of Agriculture) for broadband infrastructure and satellite projects that will provide rural residents in 16 states and Native American tribal areas access to improved service. The Department of Commerce awards also contain grants for public safety broadband networks that will improve response times and communication at the scene of emergencies. These projects constitute a critical set of demonstration projects and a head start on President Obama’s commitment to support the development of a nationwide, interoperable public safety wireless broadband network."
A full list of the projects receiving grants is available here and further information on the public safety broadband grants is available here.

These awards follow the announcement in December 2009 of the first projects to receive funds totalling $183 Million under the $7.2 billion Recovery Act broadband grant and loan programme "to bring high-speed Internet to communities that currently have little or no access to the technology". The $7.2 billion total comprises $4.7 billion available through the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and $2.5 through the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS). This previous announcement comprised four different types of award:
  • Middle Mile Awards – $121.6 million to build and improve connections to communities lacking sufficient broadband access.
  • Last Mile Awards – $51.4 million to connect end users like homes, hospitals and schools to their community’s broadband infrastructure (the middle mile).
  • Public Computing – $7.3 million to expand computer centre capacity for public use in libraries, community colleges and other public venues. 
  • Sustainable Adoption – $2.4 million to fund innovative projects that promote broadband demand with population groups where the technology has traditionally been underutilized.
The initial announcement about the availability of funding from July 2009 is here. Both the December 2009 and August 2010 grant announcements cite a report by the National Economic Council which "found that Recovery Act investments in broadband will create tens of thousands of jobs in the near term and expand opportunities and economic development in communities that would otherwise be left behind in the new knowledge-based economy." Further evidence of broadband's economic impact is listed in this previous post.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Demon & prioritising gaming traffic: not a net neutrality issue

Demon have announced Demon Game Pro, a broadband service designed with online gaming in mind:
"The new, low latency service will prioritise gaming traffic and be ideal for serious gamers who want to achieve a competitive edge over other players. Demon Game Pro will provide a better gaming experience over standard products because of the lower network latency, improved ping times and 24 x 7 UK based support.  Demon Game Pro will offer speeds of up to 20Mb downstream and 1Mb upstream, a free wireless router, traffic prioritisation and free static IP address, crucial to maintaining consistent uptime during gaming as well as providing an option for users to host their own game servers."
Digital Society are quick to dismiss allegations that this is the thin end of the wedge in terms of net neutrality:
"A UK ISP prioritizing gaming traffic might sound like common sense to engineers and gamers, but it’s raising the ire of ignorant Net Neutrality proponents who buy into the myth that the “end-to-end” architecture of the Internet requires that all applications are treated equally."
The same article offers an analysis of the particular requirements of gaming too:
"Too many people wrongly believe that gaming is high bandwidth traffic when in fact it’s very low bandwidth like Voice over IP (VoIP) communications.  Gaming and VoIP take less than 0.1 Mbps so if a network carves out 0.2 Mbps for gaming and VoIP when needed, it frees up the remaining 2.8 or 5.8 Mbps of a typical broadband connection for other things without having to worry about the harmful effects of jitter and latency."
Also some interesting thoughts on who should pay, the end-user customer or the business to consumer (B2C) service provider:
"One of the key issue in the Net Neutrality policy debate is who pays.  The FCC majority in their proposal for Net Neutrality regulation believes that only the end-user should be legally allowed to pay an ISP for higher prioritization or enhanced access to content or applications...When the B2C website pays for the enhancement, it’s economically more efficient because it involves a single bulk transaction between site and ISP rather than millions of small 3 pound/month transactions between the end-user and the ISP.  The cheaper transactional costs ultimately saves the end-user money and this is precisely how Blizzard operates.  Blizzard pays the network operator for an enhanced and prioritized network so that the end user doesn’t have to endure the additional complexity and cost.  The minimal costs of the enhancement are embedded into the normal monthly service for World of Warcraft and the end user wins. Ultimately it doesn’t matter who pays because the end user ultimately bears the cost, but the market should determine or allow both economic models to thrive and the FCC or the government shouldn’t interfere and outlaw the more efficient business models that saves the consumer money and time."
This seems in keeping with the European Commission's thoughts on this issue, and if such a service doesn't compromise the services others can access in any meaningful or noticeable way (just as the new services described in Google & Verizon's proposal wouldn't or shouldn't), then what's the problem?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What now for Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN)?

The inconclusive outcome of Australia's general election means the National Broadband Network has shifted from election issue to bargaining chip, as party leaders negotiate to attempt to form a government.

Inside Story highlights the very different approaches to broadband taken by the two main parties in the run up to the election, with the coalition attacking what they saw as the ruling Labour government's "profligacy, preference for government control and failure to deliver on promises" epitomised by their NBN policy. Given the inconclusive result the independents and Greens (in the from of Adam Bandtnow hold the key:
"The Greens have broadly supported Labor’s broadband policy although they have criticised some of the detail and the process for determining it... For the three country independents in the House of Reps, telecommunications is not merely important, it is one of the touchstone issues that explain why they are independents rather than members of the National Party. Living a long way from major cities, Bob Katter, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott all tell stories in parliament about how much communications means to them and their constituents."
Australia's ITnews confirms their importance, suggesting that "a hung parliament could favour the prioritised rollout of broadband services in regional and rural Australia." Arguments for and against the NBN continued in the run up to the election: an article in The Australian set out seven reasons why the NBN will fail, another offered an analysis of the key differences between the two parties' policies while this article highlights the key issue underpinning the debate - cost:
"Opposition Leader Tony Abbott faces a harder sell with his threadbare broadband policy which although cheaper than Labor's plan, lacks the technological superiority of the NBN."
Further analysis from Reuters, Fox Business and an excellent blog post (NBN – Where to from here?) by Sean Kaye, a senior Australian IT executive, which quotes Julia Gillard's reaction to the election result ("a glitch in the Matrix", in his opinion): "The people have spoken, but its going to take a little while to determine what they said.” Kaye doesn't dispute the importance of broadband to Australia and is of the view that a sensible common ground is achievable if  parties are prepared to compromise.

So, the decision seems to hinge on whether Australia wants the best, most future-proof network it can build,  a scaled back, less expensive network that will still (just about) keep pace with current and future demand, or something in between?

This seems a best value versus lowest cost argument to me, and given how widely the economic benefits of broadband have been reported, I know where my inclinations lie.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Google, Verizon & Net Neutrality: the debate rumbles on

The "deal" between Verizon and Google, as discussed in this post last week, is continuing to generate plenty of media interest and coverage.

Many commentators persist in referring to the two companies' announcement as a deal, despite it not being a deal at all, something which both Google ("this is a policy proposal") and Verizon ("to suggest this is a business arrangement between our companies is entirely incorrect") have been at pains to point out in a blog post and press release respectively.

With one of the worst headlines I've seen for a while ("a midsummer net scheme" indeed!), Daily Finance report on a secret series of discussions hosted by the Information Technology Industry Council ("the premier voice, advocate, and thought leader for the ICT industry"):
"The ITI is hosting an apparently hastily-convened series of discussions led by industry lobbyists on the future of national broadband policy, and specifically the red-hot issue of net neutrality...The meetings, first reported on by The Wall Street Journal, follow a failed attempt by the Federal Communications Commission to achieve a consensus between powerful Web and telecom companies, which foundered after Google and Verizon bailed on the agency's closed-door talks and struck their own appears they're being held at the request of Verizon, AT&T, and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the giant industry trade group...One industry source speculated that AT&T and Verizon, having failed to sell the Google-Verizon deal to the FCC, let alone the public, are using these meetings as "a pep rally" to bolster support among other tech industry giants before pushing for legislation."
Further coverage by the BBC reported that the discussions involved representatives from "Verizon, AT&T, Skype, Microsoft, Cisco and the Communications Workers of America". AT&T had stated a few days previously that unrestricted access rules for wireless networks would hurt users more than help them, as reported by eWeek, a view broadly in keeping with Google's and Verizon's decision to keep wireless outside of their proposal. There is some interesting further analysis of this on PCMag.

Lots of political activity in the wake of the Google-Verizon announcement too: Colorlines report that "four Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to FCC Chair Julius Genachowski on Monday urging the commission to enact stricter net neutrality regulations than those proposed by Google and Verizon". From their letter:
"The recent proposal by Google and Verizon of an industry-centered net neutrality policy framework reinforces the need for resolution of the current open proceedings at the Commission to ensure the maintenance of an open Internet. Rather than expansion upon a proposal by two large communications companies with a vested financial interest in the outcome, formal FCC action is needed. The public interest is served by a free and open Internet that continues to be an indispensable platform for innovation, investment, entrepreneurship, and free speech."
Speaking at the "Future of the Internet" public hearing in Minneapolis, Democratic FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn were highly critical of Google and Verizon's proposal. From Commissioner Copps' speech:
"We must not ever allow the openness of the Internet to become just another pawn in the hands of powerful corporate interests...These very big, very powerful, very wealthy companies (Google & Verizon) pronounced to Capitol Hill, the FCC and the public that they have now agreed upon a policy framework that will work for the benefit of the American people. Of course it wasn’t developed with input from the American people, but it is, they assure us, for the American people. It’s “trust us,” one more time. Well, you don’t have to read very far in their joint handiwork to discover that, as much as these companies say they support an open Internet, this new framework isn’t what we’ve been waiting for, not by a long shot...The Verizon-Google Gaggle wants to build a world of private Internets that would vastly diminish the centrality of the Internet that you and I know. They want a tiered Internet. “Managed services” is what they call this. “Gated communities for the Affluent” is what I call them. So, for example, a special Verizon-Google or Comcast-NBC service could come to you extra quickly, with special quality of service or priority, and thereby decrease the amount of bandwidth left for the open Internet we know today.”
While Commissioner Copps clearly has consumers' interests at heart, I don't recall seeing anything in the Google-Verizon proposal to suggest that such new services would or should be provided at the expense of the open Internet? Quite the reverse in fact; they're described as "additional" services, and Google said on its Public Policy Blog that as such they should be monitored by the FCC "to make sure they don’t interfere with the continued development of Internet access services". Commissioner Clyburn wasn't quite as forthright in her speech, but she's clearly on the same page:
"...I am a firm believer in an open Internet, and I am also a proponent of the Commission enacting rules to ensure an open Internet. But let me be clear, when I say this, I am not talking about government regulating the content on the Internet. This is about consumers - rather than corporations - maintaining control over their online experience. This is about keeping the Internet open for new entrants, small companies, people of all backgrounds and levels of experience and financial resources, including people of color and women. So while I support the ongoing dialogue and consensus building among interested parties concerning the open Internet, I think that it is important for us to listen to all participants, including consumer groups, organizations representing minorities and women, and others whose futures are dependent on an open Internet."
Speaking on the same platform as Commissioners Copps and Clyburn, Senator Al Franken concurred:
""We can't let companies write the rules that they're supposed to follow, because if that happens those rules are going to be written only to protect corporations."
But I don't think there's anything that Verizon and Google would take issue with in any of the above? From Google's official blog:
"We hope all stakeholders will weigh in and help shape the framework to move us all forward. We’re not so presumptuous to think that any two businesses could – or should – decide the future of this issue. We’re simply trying to offer a proposal to help resolve a debate which has largely stagnated after five years. It’s up to Congress, the FCC, other policymakers – and the American public – to take it from here."
Speaking on BroadbandGenie, Trefor Davies offers an alternative, pragmatic take on net neutrality in the light of the G-V announcement, based on current trends and economics:
"It certainly is not possible to run the internet without some kind of network intervention, at least not in any way that makes economic sense...Most ISPs’ networks hit capacity during the Football World Cup and Wimbledon Tennis. In an unmanaged network, this would have resulted in traffic congestion and a degradation of the customer experience. Fortunately by and large the customer experience was not affected this summer because the vast majority of consumers internet connections were being managed. This means prioritising time sensitive applications such as VoIP, video and gaming ahead of less time critical ones such as the oft vaunted Bit Torrent file sharing. To provide a network that can cope with unlimited traffic would not be something that consumers are unlikely to want to pay for."
Writing for MercuryNews, Larry Downes offers a similarly grounded analysis of the G-V proposal and praises the FCC for its approach:
"Admirably, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski recently told the Mercury News that he rejected "extremism on both sides," and called on all the parties to "put rhetoric and posturing aside and work together." In response, many stakeholders have been collaborating to find common ground and technical's disappointing to hear some reject these developments as nefarious efforts to "dismantle" and "destroy" the Internet. Media reform groups have even accused Google of turning "evil." Yet the rules proposed by Google and Verizon are almost identical to those proposed in October by the FCC itself - a version many of those objecting the loudest today ardently support."
Similarly, in relation to the proposal's approach to wireless, Downes says that network management is not "evil" - he calls it a "technical necessity" and I agree. Transparency is the key here.

This is just what the debate needs I think - more considered analysis and discussion of this kind, based on facts, rather than opinion and received wisdom. While it's not the last word on the subject, the joint Google-Verizon proposal was never intended to be and there's much to praise in the document.

To dismiss such a proposal out of hand is short-sighted and won't build consensus on an important set of issues.

Vaizey verifies VOA's verdict: further fibre taxation vexation

The Valuation Office Agency has chosen not to reform business rates on fibre networks, despite the government making a commitment to review them prior to the election earlier this year. This issue has long been highlighted as a barrier to further investment in broadband infrastructure. The Guardian had this to say:
"According to both Geo and Vtesse, the current ratings system pushes up the total cost of building and running a new high-speed fibre network by at least 10%...The issue centres on the way that the Valuation Office Agency, a branch of HMRC, taxes networks. Under the current system, most operators are charged according to the length of their networks, incurring significant costs every time they "light" a stretch of fibre. BT and Virgin Media, though, who have the largest fibre-optic networks in the UK, are taxed in a different manner, based on their revenues and expenses. Smaller rivals have long complained that this gives the biggest operators an unfair advantage, resulting in a less competitive market that harms customers."
The VOA's statement is here. But here's what Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries Ed Vaizey MP (whose statement on the VOA announcement is here) had to say at last year's Dark Fibre International Convention, as reported by Computer Weekly:
"Ed Vaizey said the business rates regime - which dates from 1601 - was "an active disincentive to competitive, next-generation access roll-out". He said responsibility for the rates had been shared by too many government departments: the Valuation Office Agency (VOA); the Treasury; the department of communities and local government (DCLG) which owned rating policy; and the department of business, innovation and skills, which owned the communications aspects. "No-one's prepared to take responsibility for the whole picture," he said. "We see policy shared between a bewildering array of government bodies and quangos. This is something I intend to fix." Vaizey also referred to VOA proposals to tax wi-fi and Wimax networks. "No matter that the VOA claims that this is just an extension of the existing policy - it's still damaging," he said."
He made similar remarks at the NextGen09 conference in Leeds, see this previous post. There is some intriguing history to all this, which I've reported previously here. Clearly a complex issue in a difficult economic climate, but this does seem rather an about-turn and at odds with the government's intention for the UK to have the best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015 (as I reported here).

What's particularly challenging is that the rating system employed by the VOA for networks includes a distance-dependent element. This means that if you're provisioning a network in a rural area, not only are your installation (capital) costs higher (because you have to dig further), your ongoing revenue costs are higher too, as your longer lines command a higher rate than the shorter lengths required in urban areas.

Lots of commentary on this - see this item in Computing,  no review on fibre tax on Fibrevolution, Pauline Rigby's taxing times for UK broadband (key quote: "...the government will probably earn more from the fibre than the firm that invested to put the fibre in the ground, especially once VAT is added to the equation"), Trefor Davies' blog ("In 2005 if you were running a pair of fibres over 1km you would be stung with a rateable value of £280. In 2010 this has now shot up to £2000.") and Adrian Wooster's blog:
"...the additional rateable value for connecting a corner café in a small town network might be in the order of £330 per year...This would be unavoidable if the network used a P2P Ethernet but if the café happened to share a PON splitter with some domestic customers then the rateable value might be reduced to £20 per year. If I were designing a network today this would certainly influence my choice of technology, and if I were a member of the Metro Ethernet Forum or a manufacturer of fibre I’d be rather concerned that I’d been singled out in this way."
The distinction here is between the two means of calculating rateable values used by the VOA: for domestic users there is flat rate of £20 per home connected, whereas WANs are charged on the basis of distance, amount of fibre in the scheme and the number of fibres lit. As Adrian Wooster says in his post, this seems to add an additional layer of complexity to an already difficult area, especially as many networks are likely to serve a mixture of homes, businesses and other premises too. Adrian also points out that an unintended consequence of this approach could be reduced network openness and infrastructure competition, which is something Ofcom should be animated about perhaps?

An interesting interpretation of the government's intentions from PublicTechnology:
"The Coalition may have found a way to pay forDigital Britain after all – charge households not using BT more money to connect to any future next-generation UK broadband network. That at least is one way to interpret a proposal from The Valuation Office to levy a £20 tax on homes that connect to any such fibre system other than by the former State telecomms company, but just £18 for BT hook-ups."
Similar analysis from Computer Weekly here.

Wouldn't the long term economic gains (and the tax revenues they would generate as a consequence) from the increased availability of broadband infrastructure far outweigh the revenues lost in the short term by reducing the tax bill for new networks? Lots of compelling evidence suggests that this continues to be the case.

Canada: broadband "a basic service"?

Last week Canada's Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) published Is Broadband Basic Service?, which calls for the establishment of broadband as basic service for Canadians, just as the telephone service was established as a need for every citizen in the last century. Some commentary available here.

PIAC is "a non-profit organization that provides legal and research services on behalf of consumer interests, and, in particular, vulnerable consumer interests, concerning the provision of important public services." From the report's executive summary:
"Canada was considered a world leader in broadband availability by the OECD as early as 2003. Today, our ranking amongst OECD members has dropped sharply to the bottom quartile of the list. PIAC is concerned that Canadian consumers are not guaranteed access to broadband services the way consumers in many other countries are today. Access to broadband has important economic, social and cultural ramifications for Canadians and without it, Canadian consumers risk falling behind in today’s increasingly online interconnected world. PIAC believes that broadband should be considered an essential service and be made available to all Canadian consumers, regardless of their place of residence...The chief characteristics of any such plan would be that it would be comprehensive, competitively neutral, flexible enough to accommodate technological developments, and subject to effective market or regulatory discipline with respect to costs."
PIAC's report follows the February 2010 publication of Navigating Convergence by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). This addressed broadband universal service as an appendix, identifying the following as the benefits of universal provision:
  • improved education and new opportunities for post-secondary education; students and teachers have access to more education materials; students living in rural and remote areas have increased distance-learning choices;
  • improved health care via e-health applications, enabling better collaboration and sharing of patient files; this is of particular benefit to patients in rural and remote areas, enabling medical professionals in these areas to have access to diagnostic services and consultation with colleagues in urban areas;
  • new business and improved business opportunities including telecommuting, e-commerce and online marketing; broadband access is also leading to improved productivity and competitiveness of resource-based, agricultural and manufacturing industries, ultimately boosting GDP;
  • better access to government services (such as e-tax filing), improved access to information about public policy issues and increased opportunities to participate in civic activities;
  • access to news and information. The Internet is becoming a key way to obtain news and information, taking market share away from traditional media and providing access to a wider source of international information;
  • greater diversity of voices and another platform for Canadian content; the broad range of entertainment services and applications enabled by broadband access provides new methods of cultural expression;and
  • the potential to remove location as a restriction for participation in society, which enables better social inclusion for individuals living in remote communities.
Good to see education and healthcare at the top of CRTC's list, and broadband's potential "to remove location as a restriction for participation in society" is a phrase well worth remembering. There can be few places on earth as remote and isolated as parts of Canada.

Friday, August 20, 2010

DIY FTTH in Ashby de la Launde, Lincolnshire

Further to my recent post on possible last mile providers that could utilise the backhaul schools' broadband infrastructure offers, TechEye have an interesting article about Ashby de la Launde, a village in Lincolnshire:
"Residents of the nearly 60 homes and three businesses in Ashby de la Launde in Lincolnshire have begun building the FTTH network which will deliver speeds of up to 100Mb/s in the region. The project is privately funded and will be community owned, with support from a number of companies, including community interest firm NextGenUs UK CIC and AFL Telecommunications, a subsidiary of Japanese firm Fujikura."
The project is well underway and should be complete by the end of September. Further related reports here, here and here, also here and more on FibreStream's blog here.

Postscript: broadband an election issue in Australia

In my ignorance, I wasn't aware of the extent to which broadband and the NBN had become an election issue in Australia until after I'd published yesterday's post. Oops. So here's my attempt to provide the proper context for my previous remarks.

The BBC have a general update on the current situation on the eve of the election, with the two main parties neck and neck. The governing Labor Party is led by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who is facing a fight to the finish against conservative coalition leader Tony Abbott.

ITWire report on Julia Gillard's determination to continue development of the NBN:
"the Prime Minister said the economy "can't afford to risk" not building a high-speed broadband infrastructure for the future...the NBN would support jobs, improve education and deliver better services..."
The same article reports Tony Abbott's rather different view:
"Mr Abbott has been less keen to talk about his alternative broadband policy than to highlight the cost of government’s broadband. He has continued in radio interviews and election doorstops to highlight the lower-cost Coalition broadband plan as capable of delivering the same kinds of services..."
An excellent and much more detailed analysis of the NBN in the context of the election is available here. It's rather critical of the government's proposed costings:
"You can go on and on but it all amounts to the same thing: It costs a lot of money to build (the NBN) and the Government's projections for project length and penetration are very optimistic."
But the same article goes on to acknowledge that the opposition's criticisms of the plan have been based on costs alone. Their arguments don't consider sufficiently the potential value of the network to Australia and their proposed alternative isn't viable, in the opinion of the article's author:
"First up, you don't spend $43 billion creating an asset for it to be worthless. The Government has said it will sell the NBN after five years of it being constructed. By that time the report says it will be worth $46 billion in total, but with $16 billion of debt being attached to the project. This makes it a net asset worth $30.5 billion. Whichever way you nudge the report's figures to promote your own agenda a reciprocal asset value will be there. The upshot here is that the $43 billion figure might look high, but if you cite $43 billion as being the cost, then you must also believe that $30.5 billion will be recouped down the line. This brings the real projected cost of the NBN infrastructure to under $13 billion spent over 13 years. For a world-leading, nationwide infrastructure, that's got to be good value. 
If you double or even triple that figure and spread it over a delayed 20 years, it breaks down as some $2 billion a year infrastructure investment. And that's assuming a catastrophic fire sale scenario and a seven-year build overrun. Also, remember that this asset should last some 30 to 50 years without wholesale maintenance. Now remember that of that $43 billion, only $27 billion is public money. So you can reduce those costs by over a third if you're concerned by public money outlay. I don't know what the digital economy is worth to Australia, but I'm certain that even a $1 billion or $2 billion a year stimulus for a future-proof, world-leading Australian internet represents extraordinary value.
Opponents counter this by saying that few people will use it for anything and no companies will want to buy into it because of this. That's something of a 'glass half empty' attitude. Then there's the alternative. Opponents slam the Government's proposal for being drawn up on the back of a napkin. Well if the $25 million implementation study represents a napkin it's tricky to say what the $6 billion alternative scheme was drawn up on. Pouring $6 billion into a rotting copper network and virtually-unfeasible wireless network to achieve peak speeds that the Japanese were rolling out nine years ago is a rather depressing vision of Australia's technological future. As a value proposition, you be the judge."
If I were an Australian, I know which way I'd vote on this issue. And if I needed any further persuasion, this announcement from iiNet today would seal the deal. Some further views are expressed in a very entertaining fashion here, I especially liked the description of the NBN as "a communications network we wouldn't have to apologise for".

If only the UK could say the same.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Australia: the importance of broadband infrastructure (and making sure it happens)

With regard to the questions I posed at the end of my previous post, one country which appears determined to provide a broadband architecture designed to keep ahead of demand and international competitors is Australia.

The National Broadband Network Company Limited (NBN Co) was established to On 7 April 2009 by the Australian Government to design, build and operate the wholesale-only National Broadband Network (NBN). NBN Co’s role is to realise the Australian Government’s vision for the development of a next generation NBN, which "will be the single largest nation building infrastructure project in Australian history". I've posted about the NBN before on this blog, see this example from last month.

In a speech earlier this week, NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley set out his views on why a next generation broadband infrastructure is so important to Australia's future, and why the National Broadband Network is the right vehicle. Quigley commenced by highlighting the historical context of public investment in broadband:
"I believe this is the right way to deliver a national broadband network for Australia...I would like to return to decisions made 140 years ago to build the Overland Telegraph...(this) cost £480,000, equivalent to just under a $1 billion in today’s terms. The total cost was met entirely by the tax-payers of South Australia and was equivalent to 60% of the state’s annual budget. This was the first of the three major investments that have been made in Australia’s fixed line telecommunications infrastructure. The second was made just after the end of WW2, when the PMG committed £42 million to rollout today’s copper Customer Access Network. In today’s dollars this was a commitment of around AU$10 billion. Even more extraordinary is the fact that in 1950 Australian Government public debt was at about 80% of GDP, more than 10 times the level of today’s public debt. The Overland Telegraph and the copper CAN, built using public funds, were great public investments that have paid for themselves many times over in social, economic and productivity benefits."
But the third major investment went rather differently:
"The third major fixed line investment was attempted by the private sector. I am referring of course to the investment in HFC technology by two private companies. We all know that the infrastructure was duplicated as the two companies chased each other up and down streets until they both called a halt to their rollouts. In terms of the utilisation of scarce capital, this multi-billion dollar duplication of access assets was not an ideal outcome...So, of the three fixed line infrastructure builds in Australia - two were great successes and were built by the public sector. This is why when it comes to telecoms infrastructure investment we should not accept the simplistic mantra of “private markets good, public investments bad”."
Quigley believes a combination of public and private investment is the way to go:
"I am a great believer in markets and the ability of competition to drive innovation. But that does not mean that I believe there is no place for public sector investment in telecommunications infrastructure. In some cases it is the only way to make the big investments that are critical to our future prosperity. No commercial entity will provide good telecommunications services to everyone across this vast nation of ours without Government intervention of one sort or another. No purely commercial company can take the long term view that is required to build the next fixed line platform that Australia now needs."
The reason? The true benefits of broadband infrastructure are realised in a much longer time frame than that required by investors and shareholders:
"The fibre infrastructure on which the NBN is based, and which the Australian public is now in a position to build, will last for the next 50 years. If you are an executive that has to face the pressures of quarterly earnings calls, it is simply not possible to put the long-term public good as your number one priority. You are paid to represent the shareholders interests. But a publicly funded Telco such as NBN Co can take a very different view. Our very “raison d’etre”, in NBN Co, is to execute the Government’s policy for broadbanding Australia in the most cost effective way possible – taking a long term view of the national interest."
And on why the access infrastructure should be maintained by a single, publicly-owned provider:
"The wholesale network should be a monopoly, because to build duplicate access networks makes little sense. To build a collection of disparate access networks would be almost as bad. So who should own the wholesale network? If it is in private hands, you would expect the management of the wholesale company to strive to maximise shareholders returns. We should not expect national interests, including the guarantee of good service to rural and remote communities, to be top of the priority list. My view after spending 36 years in the telecoms industry, and having observed at close quarters access models all around the world, is that an efficiently run, publicly owned, wholesale Telco whose objectives are to maximise the public interest, is a good solution. It is much easier to deliver nation-wide eHealth and remote education services on a standardised and ubiquitous network. On the contrary, it’s rather difficult to deliver these services on a patchwork of technologies - it’s been tried in other countries. The NBN will be a wholesale only network which will provide the underlying broadband capability to all players on equivalent terms...the NBN Co business case does not produce the commercial returns that a private investor would demand. That is why it is the Government that is funding this infrastructure build."
Quigley went on to stress the importance of not being "blinded" by the necessity of immediate returns on the public investment in the NBN, and point out that the NBN is "a much better option for the Australian public than giving billions of dollars of taxpayer funding to subsidise commercial companies to marginally improve today’s broadband networks." Doesn't take a lot of effort to guess this refers to FTTC deployments I think?

Some very important lessons for the UK here in my opinion. Recent NBN Co developments include the launch of a consultation on its its fibre, wireless and satellite products, and publication of the related technical specifications for its wholesale fibre access network. In addition, a paper by Dr Karl-Heinz Neumann on structural models for NBN deployment was presented at the recent Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) Regulatory Conference. Neumann agreed with Quigley in that the network would not be rolled out to the same extent under private equity arrangements and that it could significantly improve Australia's international competitiveness, but also suggested that a more future-proof and open access friendly point-to-point fibre deployment would cost only 10% more than the passive optical network (PON) technology currently being used to roll out the NBN. Commentary from Computerworld Australia:
"A point-to-point network, as often deployed to business and key buildings, sees multiple fibres split from a backhaul trunk, with each premise receiving its own dedicated fibre. In contrast, PON networks use point-to-multipoint technology to connect to premises by delivering data over multiple wavelengths of light through a single optical fibre. NBN wholesaler, NBN Co, has signed contracts with Alcatel-Lucent to rollout the company’s GPON technology, which would see a single optical fibre serve 32 premises through multiple light waves. A spokesperson for the company told Computerworld Australia that the GPON technology would initially use a single colour of light to deliver 2.4 gigabits per second (Gbps) of bandwidth during the NBN rollout, but that it could foreseeably add different waves of light to meet additional capacity in the future."
An important consideration, but the NBN nevertheless seems light years ahead of the UK's aspirations, positive though recent developments have been. I'll keep watching developments down under with envious eyes.

Profiling broadband usage: FCC Broadband Performance Report 2010

As mentioned in my previous post, the FCC recently published their 2010 Broadband Performance Report. This categories US broadband users as fitting into one of four types:
  • Advanced: These consumers use large amounts of data and tend to use the highest quality voice, video, and other cutting-edge applications.
  • Full media: These consumers are moderately heavy users of broadband and mobile applications, seeking to access high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video communications but, typically not in the most cutting-edge forms.
  • Emerging multimedia: These consumers utilize some video and graphical content but still see the Internet primarily as a way to communicate and access news and entertainment in a richer format than found in offline content.
  • Utility: These consumers are largely content to access the Internet for basic news, communication, and basic entertainment.
I think these categories provide a very useful framework for considering current and likely future bandwidth usage and demand. The report recognises not only that each category will primarily use a particular "basket" of services, but that this basket will change over time as new services emerge and users' familiarity and confidence in accessing broadband services increase.

These categories also echo the National Education Network's technical strategy paper Building a Broadband Entitlement, which categorised schools' broadband users similarly:
“Schools that fall into the Web Browsing category would be visiting sites that have fairly static text and images.They could be visiting their Learning Platform, but won’t regularly be using embedded videos or streaming media.The school will also be sending emails that do not regularly have attachments.The school will rarely be uploading information or participating in wikis, blogs and forums.
Schools that fall into the Mixed Media category are doing everything that those in theWeb Browsing group are doing but are also embracing the use of streaming media and may have video conferencing facilities.They may be using a digital learning resource such as Learning City or Espresso within scheduled lessons, rather than pupils using it within all areas of the curriculum on a daily basis.The school will also have the ability to video conference, but will not be doing it on a daily or weekly basis.The school may also be uploading content to sites beyond the school and pupils may be exploring more collaborative tools such as wikis, blogs and forums.
Schools that fall into the Multi Media category have embedded a Learning Platform or digital learning resource into their teaching and learning practices. On a daily basis pupils will access rich multimedia content online.This will involve streaming of videos and/or music and the use of video conferencing on a regular basis, maybe on a whole class event or potentially more than one conference at a time. Pupils in this environment are not only consumers of digital content, they will regularly be creating multimedia content and uploading and sharing it.The use of collaborative tools such as wikis, blogs and forums are a regular part of the school day.”
The NEN paper defines broadband entitlement as comprising a core service set (connectivity, applications and safeguards) which should be delivered in accordance with a set of delivery principles (such as transparency, scalability and value for money). It's well worth a look. To return to the FCC report, this provides three very helpful illustrations to help qualify its broadband consumer profiles. The first illustrates actual download speed demands (Mbps) by different content and application types:

The second shows the performance demands (throughput, availability, quality of service) for different types of applications:

And finally the third shows the actual download speeds necessary to run concurrent applications (Mbps):

In many ways this last one is the most important, in that it shows very clearly how current high-end applications that currently have only limited takeup might migrate to the left, as it were, as use of such services increasingly becomes the norm.

Which brings us to the heart of the broadband policy issue: how confident can we be that bandwidth availability will scale to keep pace with increasing customer demands and expectations? Especially the increasing demand from customers that have been left high and dry by market developments to date?

UK Broadband facts & figures: Ofcom's 2010 Communications Market Report

Some jaw-dropping figures from Ofcom's 2010 Communications Market Report published today (coverage from the BBC here):
  • UK data volumes grew by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of around 70% annually between 2005 and 2009, while revenues from internet access grew by less than 1% annually over same period;
  • total data volumes over the UK’s internet infrastructure increased by 68% during 2009, while data volumes over mobile networks increased by 240%;
  • Internet take-up has now reached 73%;
  • Facebook accounts for 45% of total time spent using the mobile internet.
Further analysis of UK traffic volumes from page 284:
"Cisco estimates that the total volume of internet traffic in the UK was around 600 petabytes a month by the end of 2009 (a petabyte is approximately one million gigabytes)...the majority of traffic (79%) was generated by fixed-broadband internet access while managed IP networks, such as VoIP and IPTV, accounted for 20%, and traffic carried over mobile networks represented about 1% of total monthly internet traffic. Consumer IP traffic represented 78% of the UK’s traffic, with business use accounting for the remainder. Only around 15% of this internet traffic was web data. File sharing (i.e. peer-to-peer sharing where internet users connect with each other and directly share files stored on their hard drives) accounted for around 30% of traffic and video (including cable and IPTV video on demand, but not including video exchanged through P2P file sharing) accounting for another 30%. In Section 4.3.2 of this report we detail the increasing use of video services on the internet, with 31% of adults in the UK watching catch-up TV on the internet in Q1 2010, while in April 2010 17.4 million people in the UK watched videos on YouTube."
And this extract from page 289 illustrates that while superfast broadband is increasingly available, takeup to date has been slow:
"There was little availability of super-fast services other than Virgin Media’s ‘up to 50Mbit/s’ at the end of 2009. However, in 2010 BT’s roll-out of its ‘up to 40Mbit/s’ Infinity service has accelerated; BT has announced that its fibre roll-out had reached over 1.5 million households by July 2010 and was passing 100,000 additional premises each week. BT’s super-fast services are set to be available to 40% of the UK population by the end of 2012 and to 66% of the UK population by 2015, although, despite growth in the availability of its super-fast services in 2010, Point Topic estimates that there were around 12,000 live BT fibre connections at the end of June 2010."
Price is suggested as the main factor influencing takeup - almost half of UK homes are now able to get super-fast broadband via cable, with Virgin's up to 50Mbps service costing almost twice as much as its up to 10Mbps offering, though the difference is less between BT's up to 20Mbps DSL service and its up to 40Mbps FTTC product. But Ofcom suggest another reason too:
"A second reason may be the perception that current speeds are sufficient for most internet applications; for example, the BBC recommends a minimum speed of just 500kbit/s to use its iPlayer and 3.2Mbit/s for the high-definition service. However, it may still be video streaming that provides the tipping point from current generation to super-fast broadband services. In 2010 the first generation of internet-ready televisions have been launched. Since the launch of flat-panel models the rate of television set sales has grown significantly, as prices have fallen and larger screen sizes have become available (according to GfK, annual UK TV set sales grew by 68% in the five years to 2009). Within a few years, as main sets are replaced and are moved around the home, we may find there is the need for several HD web content feeds per household, and therefore a requirement for the higher bandwidths that only super-fast broadband connections can provide."
Agreed. Concurrency will be the key driver I think, with TV being a major but not the only driver. The FCC's  recently published 2010 Broadband Performance Report illustrates this very nicely, particularly the importance of symmetric connections as well as how demand is likely to change over time:
“Taking different user needs as well as speed and performance demands together, there emerge distinct profiles of what different consumers demand from their network connection. Each use profile has a “basket of applications” that reflect typical uses of the Internet for that set of users. These follow the four primary user types...: basic utility, emerging multimedia, full media, and advanced. The basic utility user would require actual download speeds of approximately 500 kbps, while emerging multimedia and full media users would require actual download speeds of 1–4 Mbps, depending on the quality demands of particular applications they might use...80% of broadband users fall into these first three use cases. Advanced users accessing applications such as enhanced two-way videoconferencing and HD video streaming could require actual symmetric (i.e., upload and download) speeds of 5 Mbps or more and significant QOS (e.g., low latency) from the network...Users’ speed and performance demands may change over time as applications become more data-intensive and the “common basket” of applications in each use profile evolves...Analysts project sizeable additional growth of online video watching by consumers, which may considerably increase demands on broadband networks.”
Constant change is the only certainty it seems, making the need for a broadband infrastructure capable of scaling appropriately to keep pace with ever-rising demand increasingly apparent.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Who provides the last mile, if schools' broadband provides the backhaul?

Both Becta and the National Education Network responded earlier this year to BIS's consultation on proposals for a Next Generation Fund, to flag the opportunity that school broadband infrastructure offers: specifically, the potential to provide backhaul and middle-mile connectivity for areas currently under- or un-served by current consumer broadband providers. Both responses are available on Becta's website here, and were tabled at the Education Network Governing Council meeting on 17th June 2010.

This isn't a silver bullet fix for broadband notspots, but there are a number of instances where rural schools' broadband connectivity could potentially be utilised by neighbouring premises that can't access consumer DSL or mobile broadband services. A school may be the only premise in a rural village with broadband, the local authority and Regional Broadband Consortium having funded the provision of a connection, sometimes via fibre. The potential for re-use of this public sector infrastructure has been recognised by Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) and the concept received a number of mentions during their recent industry day.

So, if school broadband infrastructure can provide the middle mile and backhaul, who might provide the last mile (or, if you prefer, the first mile) to connect neighbouring premises? I think there are two broad categories of third party that could do this: commercial providers that might be interested in providing a service in a range of different locations, and local "ground-up" community projects. My guess (which may be incorrect) is that local community projects, while innovative and exciting, may not have the capacity to deliver services outside of their respective patches, but such projects nevertheless have much expertise and experience to share for the benefit of others.

Some examples of commercial providers I've come across so far:
  • Exstream Networks - see this YouTube video for Exstream's approach to broadband provision for the Duddon Valley in Cumbria;
  • 802 Global – involved in the much-publicised Alston Cybermoor project, about which more here;
  • CI-Net – broadband for Solihull community housing (not rural, but the technology used is interesting);
  • County Broadband - "Now delivering high speed broadband to the forgotten places".
And some community projects:
  • NextGenUs - a Community Interest Company, providing services in Newton Upon Rawcliffe and Stape in North Yorkshire. An extract from their blog: "The NextGenUs network takes a symmetric fibre-optic direct internet access feed from a school and takes that connection on a twenty plus kilometer journey to reach into the local community, from where service is locally distributed using advanced wireless technology capable of supporting true world-class performance. This particular methodology we call FiWi (Fibre and Wireless), a technique that offers a rapid route and least cost means to provide service where it is required now." The school connection is provided by NYnet - more on this in this previous post (also see Beeline Broadband);
  • Great Asby Broaband, Cumbria, another Community Interest Company like NextGenus;
  • Wray Community Communications, which has been supported by the University of Lancaster;
  • South Witham Broadband, Lincolnshire (also see here for more on their story);
  • Micklefield Community Broadband Network, east of Leeds, also see here and here for details of related (I think?) projects;
  • Angus Broadband Co-operative Ltd, Scotland - a bit of a "watch this space", this one;
  • Martley Web Mesh, Worcestershire, more here;
  • Reeth Rural Radio Net, North Yorkshire.
I'm sure there are many more, the Communications Consumer Panel updated their listing of community broadband projects in October 2009 and it now includes details of more than 40 initiatives. I'd be only too pleased to receive additions to the above, a forum for a "show and tell" between the community broadband and schools' broadband communities might be a good way to take this forward perhaps?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Google & Verizon: media misses the point again?

The media got itself into quite a state a couple of weeks ago, reporting on an imminent "deal" between Google and Verizon. This would "put some restrictions on the US carrier’s ability to block or degrade specific internet services, but still leave it free to charge more to give some services priority on its network", according to the FT (Google and Verizon eye web access deal). A subsequent article in the following day's FT (Net neutrality battle moves to endgame) suggested that the deal signalled "that the fight over net neutrality is about to move into its endgame in alignment of commercial interest between some of the biggest internet services, telecommunications and cable companies would lead to de facto standards on how the web is run".

At the same time the BBC reported that the FCC had halted its series of closed-door industry meetings on net neutrality, and the Independent also weighed in with the hyperbole, suggesting that the Internet had just "sold its soul", despite both Google's and Verizon's claims of a continued commitment to an open Internet:
"In what one internet freedom campaigner called a "doomsday scenario" that will change the Internet forever, the search engine pioneer is close to agreeing terms with the largest telecoms company in the US that would open the door to special "fast lanes" for favoured Internet traffic."
A commentary later in the same day's edition did at least acknowledge the complexity of the debate:
"...the principle of net neutrality prevents internet service providers charging the people using those networks to distribute their content. So the BBC's iPlayer service, fantastic though it is, eats network capacity in this country, yet the corporation makes no contribution to the cost of upgrading the network to cope. When BT tried to suggest it should do so last year, it was told where to go in pretty short order. These are difficult questions. Net neutrality is democratic and promotes competition, but it may compromise the development of the Internet in the years to come. At the very least, it may mean consumers pay more – if Internet service providers are prevented from making the distributors of content pay, you can expect them to turn to the receivers. Google, for its part, says it remains committed to an "open Internet". There is no reason to doubt that commitment, but one might argue that unless mechanisms are found to meet the costs of maintaining and improving online infrastructure, consumers may eventually find the internet closed for technical reasons."
Interestingly, the Independent later published a correction to the strapline on its front page, which had incorrectly asserted that Google was about to close a deal to buy preferential web access for its services. Google had made it clear that it had not had talks with Verizon about paying for carriage of Google traffic, a point which the Independent article itself actually went on to make! Perhaps the Independent published the correction at the request of Google's legal team?

Anyway, a posting a few days later on Google's Public Policy Blog clarified the nature of the discussions between the two companies. This (in my opinion anyway) refutes the more lurid claims made by the media, and suggests that they had, once again, put two and two together to make five:
"It is imperative that we find ways to protect the future openness of the Internet and encourage the rapid deployment of broadband. Verizon and Google are pleased to discuss the principled compromise our companies have developed over the last year concerning the thorny issue of “network neutrality"...Today our CEOs will announce a proposal that we hope will make a constructive contribution to the dialogue. Our joint proposal takes the form of a suggested legislative framework for consideration by lawmakers...We believe this policy framework properly empowers consumers and gives the FCC a role carefully tailored for the new world of broadband, while also allowing broadband providers the flexibility to manage their networks and provide new types of online services. Ultimately, we think this proposal provides the certainty that allows both web startups to bring their novel ideas to users, and broadband providers to invest in their networks."
Also encouraging that the proposal includes education as a potential beneficiary of this opportunity to innovate:
"...we want the broadband infrastructure to be a platform for innovation. Therefore, our proposal would allow broadband providers to offer additional, differentiated online services, in addition to the Internet access and video services (such as Verizon's FIOS TV) offered today. This means that broadband providers can work with other players to develop new services. It is too soon to predict how these new services will develop, but examples might include health care monitoring, the smart grid, advanced educational services, or new entertainment and gaming options."
Google and Verizon's two-page proposal is available here; these extracts on non-discrimination and network management address the various "end of the Internet/sky is falling" accusations particularly:
"In providing broadband Internet access service, a provider would be prohibited from engaging in undue discrimination against any lawful Internet content, application, or service in a manner that causes meaningful harm to competition or to users...Broadband Internet access service providers are permitted to engage in reasonable network management. Reasonable network management includes any technically sound practice: to reduce or mitigate the effects of congestion on its network; to ensure network security or integrity; to address traffic that is unwanted by or harmful to users, the provider’s network, or the Internet; to ensure service quality to a subscriber; to provide services or capabilities consistent with a consumer’s choices; that is consistent with the technical requirements, standards, or best practices adopted by an independent, widely-recognized Internet community governance initiative or standard-setting organization; to prioritize general classes or types of Internet traffic, based on latency; or otherwise to manage the daily operation of its network."
The proposal also suggests that providers should also be able to offer differentiated services, which "would have to be distinguishable in scope and purpose from broadband Internet access service, but could make use of or access Internet content, applications or services and could include traffic prioritization". The FCC would play a key regulatory role to ensure such new services did not threaten or evade the consumer protections set out earlier in the proposal. Consumer transparency is central to the proposal, echoing the thinking of the FCC, Ofcom and the European Commission.

Further coverage from the FT (Google deal splits industry over net neutrality) and the BBC focussed on opposition to the proposal from net neutrality campaigners and Facebook, Ebay, Skype and Amazon, while the BBC also reported on a demonstration against the proposal outside Google's California offices. A posting on Google's Official Blog a few days later attempts to address the inaccuracies and misconceptions in much of the media coverage to "separate fact from fiction". For me, this is the key extract:
"This is a policy proposal – not a business deal...Our two companies are proposing a legislative framework to the Congress for its consideration. We hope all stakeholders will weigh in and help shape the framework to move us all forward. We’re not so presumptuous to think that any two businesses could – or should – decide the future of this issue. We’re simply trying to offer a proposal to help resolve a debate which has largely stagnated after five years. It’s up to Congress, the FCC, other policymakers – and the American public – to take it from here." intention that seems to have eluded many commentators. But if you acknowledge this intent, I guess you lose your angle?