Thursday, October 28, 2010

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

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

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Superfast broadband in Herefordshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 25, 2010

UK's National Infrastructure Plan - broadband is key

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

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

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

Monday, October 04, 2010

JFDI - Just Farmers Doing It - reaches ever broader audience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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