Tuesday, December 06, 2011

UK broadband update


A flurry of broadband-related announcements and activities over the past couple of weeks. Last week's Autumn Statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer (press release here) set out the Government's plans for further investment in broadband infrastructure, alongside new investments in roads and railways. These include the establishment of a new urban broadband fund:
"The Government will invest £100 million to create up to ten ‘super-connected cities’ across the UK, with 80-100 megabits per second broadband and city-wide high-speed mobile connectivity. There will be a particular focus on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and strategic employment zones to support economic growth. Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff and London will all receive support from this fund, and a UK-wide competition will decide up to six further cities that will also receive funding."
The Autumn Statement also referenced plans to improve mobile coverage across the UK:
"As announced on 3 October 2011, the Government will invest up to £150 million to improve the coverage and quality of mobile network services for the five to ten per cent of consumers in areas of the UK where existing mobile network coverage is poor or non-existent, with the aim of extending coverage to 99 per cent of the UK population. The Government will begin procurement by spring 2012 with businesses and consumers benefiting from improved coverage from early 2013 onwards."
The Government will support rural broadband specifically by:
  • opening the £20 million Rural Community Broadband Fund to help ensure more rural homes and businesses receive superfast broadband. If it is successful the Government will consider extending it;
  • working closely with North Yorkshire County Council, one of the pilot areas for superfast broadband rollout, to ensure businesses and consumers get greatest benefit from the new service and to allow other local areas to learn from this experience; and
  • considering new approaches to make the roadside telecommunications network available to enable points of access for third party services such as broadband for rural businesses.
Commentary from the BBC here. Published to coincide with the Autumn Statement was an updated National Infrastructure Plan 2011, which explains more about the Government's plans on pages 65 – 72 of Chapter 3 ("The UK’s communications systems"), with some further detail in Chapter 2 ("Priority programmes and projects"). According to pages 26-27 of the plan, to enable the delivery of communications infrastructure, the Government:
  • remains firmly committed to ensuring the auction of 4G spectrum commences by the end of 2012, in advance of the spectrum becoming available for new use in 2013. The Government will ensure the spectrum is cleared and interference problems are fully resolved ahead of use. Ofcom will launch, in the coming months, a further consultation on the auction process. Everything Everywhere and BT are already collaborating on a trial of next generation 4G (LTE) mobile broadband services in Cornwall, and O2 have started a 4G (LTE) trial in London;
  • will explore whether there is scope for enhancing mobile coverage along transport corridors, in particular through better co-ordination between the rail sector and mobile operators;
  • has announced superfast broadband funding allocations for over forty local areas across the UK, with Local Broadband Plans already agreed in nine of those local areas. Five local projects are currently in procurement as Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) pilots in Cumbria, North Yorkshire, Highlands & Islands, Herefordshire/Gloucestershire and Rutland. In addition, the Welsh Government is in procurement, involving BDUK funding;
  • is accelerating national roll-out of superfast broadband by deregulating overhead deployment and publishing advice notes on streamlining streetworks and micro-trenching;
  • remains committed to releasing 500MHz of public sector spectrum by 2020. Sharing of some MoD bands has already begun. Much of the spectrum under consideration may be suitable for mobile broadband;
  • has supported significant progress on opening up access to BT’s ducts and poles to support broadband rollout by competitors, and BT’s revised offers include prices that are substantially lower than the initial offer in January (up to 60 per cent in some cases). BT recently announced that their £2.5 billion programme of fibre investment will now complete in 2014, one year earlier than originally planned, while Virgin Media has confirmed plans for its premium 100 megabits per second product to be available across its entire network by mid-2012; and
  • wants to use the European Regional Development Fund to roll out superfast Broadband. It is issuing draft guidance next week, which takes a flexible approach to ensure local areas can benefit. Up to £100 million may be available and the Government will work with local partners to start making this happen.
Further information on the £20m Rural Communities Broadband Fund (RCBF) mentioned in the Autumn Statement is available here, with details of how to apply here. The first application round began on 1st December 2011, prospective applicants must complete and submit an expression of interest and an accompanying data book by 31 January 2012. A second round  is  likely to open between 1 April and 31 May 2012 but this remains to be confirmed.

The fund is to support the provision of superfast services in the final hard to reach 10%, or those areas that won't be reached by existing BDUK funding allocations to local authorities. These existing allocations are intended to support the delivery of superfast broadband (defined as >24Mbps, i.e. above ADSL2+) to at least 90% of premises in each local authority area. The BDUK funding must also support the provision of at least 2Mbps services to 100% of premises. From the fund's FAQs:
"Solutions must be Next Generation Access superfast solutions (ie greater than 24Mbps). This is a requirement of the European funding that makes up part of the RCBF. Projects must demonstrate additionality i.e. – be clear about what extra things will happen as a result of receiving a grant because the main BDUK rollout programme allows for projects between 2Mbps and 24Mbps as part of the standard solution in the final 10% area."
Which rather suggests that to be successful in obtaining funds, community projects in this last 10% will most likely need to focus on FTTC/FTTH solutions, as satellite and wireless solutions (as far as I am aware) can't currently provide this bandwidth in the last mile? Such technologies should be considered instead as part of BDUK rather than RCBF projects, to deliver minimum 2Mbps connectivity everywhere?

Referenced in the Autumn Statement and National Infrastructure Plan was this new advice from DCMS on microtrenching ("an innovative deployment technique that is generally cheaper, less disruptive and quicker than conventional dig techniques") and street works, together with a new consultation on relaxing the restrictions on the deployment of overhead telecommunications lines (which closes on 21st February 2012). Both are intended to help streamline the installation of the new infrastructure necessary to deliver superfast broadband services, in recognition of the fact that reducing the cost of deployment is key to creating the right conditions for investment.

Also published last week by DCMS was a report outlining lessons learned from the four intial BDUK pilot projects (in Cumbria, Herefordshire, the Highlands & Islands and North Yorkshire, more here) announced in October 2010, as part of the Comprensive Spending Review. Lots to digest here, so I'll cover this more fully in a future post. In addition, this week saw the publication by DCMS of the non-confidential responses to Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt's open letter asking a broad range of questions about the communications sector published on 16th May 2011, as a precursor to the forthcoming communications review. A green paper is to be published early in 2012. As part of this process, DCMS commissioned this analysis on the contribution of the communications sector to economic growth and productivity in the UK, the results from which were published in September 2011. Again, this looks like something to cover in more detail in a future post.

Finally (!) last week, both Ofcom Chief Executive Ed Richards and Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, gave speeches at the 2011 European Competitive Telecommunications Association (ECTA) Regulatory Conference in Brussels. Neelie Kroes' speech described the importance of creating an open, competitive telecoms market, while Ed Richards set out Ofcom's views on the need to manage spectrum in a much more dynamic way than has been undertaken in the past:
"Ofcom’s approach to spectrum since our creation has the use of market mechanisms as its central premise. Many other regulators reached the same conclusion in parallel. The EU has made important moves towards liberalisation and promoted the use of market mechanisms."
He went on to criticse the reaction of the UK's mobile operators to Ofcom's proposals for auctioning 800MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum for the delivery of 4G mobile services:
"It has been very disappointing to witness the extent to which the incumbent mobile operators have chosen to entangle this process in litigation or threats of litigation. We recognise, of course, the need for companies to defend their commercial interests and to have recourse to the law in order to do so...But when litigation becomes essentially strategic rather than based on objective grounds, and when it has the effect of holding back innovation and hampering growth, it is legitimate to ask whether the overall legislative framework fully supports the public interest in this increasingly vital area...I think some major companies will have to reflect upon whether they have inadvertently jeopardised the benefits of objective, independent regulation in this area by virtue of their willingness to game the system. I am sure legislators would be all too willing to accept an argument which returns power in such matters to politicians, in light of the apparent inability of the current model to make timely decisions where the national interest is at stake."
He concluded that "straightforward long range planning will be replaced by adjustment and adaptation to the dynamism of technology and markets, combined with clear strategic coordination and pragmatism in delivery...these will be the defining characteristics of successful spectrum management." Further commentary from the Guardian, while this BBC article reports on some of the frustrations over the delays to the auction process and concerns over coverage.

A busy couple of weeks, all in all. Broadband policy announcements are a bit like buses it seems: loads come along all at once...

Monday, November 28, 2011

NextGen11 conference report day 2: securing the right investment


Day 2 of NextGen11 (my report of day 1 here) began with a presentation from Rob Hamlin of Arqiva on the potential of wireless technologies to deliver broadband to rural and remote areas. Arqiva's LTE trials in Preseli (more here) demonstrate "the economic and technical viability of a neutral-host wireless network as a route to extending broadband Internet services to areas with no broadband coverage (‘notspots’) and those with speeds lower than 2Mbps throughout the UK, estimated at 10% of UK households." The Preseli trial was the first live LTE trial in the UK to use the 800MHz spectrum freed up by digital TV switchover and can deliver speeds of over 50Mbps. Arqiva's solution would offer wholesale access to all service providers and new entrants to maintain competition; the company previously offered this submission to the Welsh Assembly on the opportunities wireless technologies offer in Wales.

Next, Trent T.Holmes gave an overview of Thales' experiences of building and operating the Digital Region network in South Yorkshire. The first phase of the network build is on track to be completed in December 2011. This will include 545km of new fibre optic duct, 36 exchanges, and 1,359 street cabinets. When completed, the network will cover a population of over 1.3 million citizens, 546,000 homes and 40,000 businesses. All four local authorities in South Yorkshire are already accessing Public Services Network (PSN) services across the network. News coverage earlier this year focused on the problems the project was experiencing in securing takeup, with some speculation that the project could be sold, but a more recently it was reported that a new ISP had signed up to deliver services via the network - hopefully a sign that things are looking up?

A further three parallel workshops followed, I attended the one on finance and procurement. James Saunby of GreySky Consulting offered advice on getting the best deal  for superfast broadband deployments, for councils, communities, and suppliers. In particular, James highlighted the importance of gaining public sector commitment, as a major user of communications services. Delivering the requirements of the public sector over commercial superfast broadband infrastructure (rather than over separate dedicated networks) can provide additional guaranteed revenues throughout a region, making more areas commercially viable by helping to close the investment gap (an approach taken by Sunderland City Council, working with BT). While connecting the last 10% is challenging, James is confident it can be done, noting that securing revenues  may not be as difficult as might first appear: if there is no other form of broadband available, take-up can be rapid, reaching 70% or even higher very quickly. "Self-dig" also has an important role to play in reducing costs, as being demonstrated in Cumbria, with scale being important too: combining community projects can make a collective exercise far more commercially viable than multiple disparate approaches, underlining the importance of planning and a strong business case.

Michael Armitage of Broadway Partners spoke next, offering some reflections on state aid issues and concerns, as well as investment opportunities. Michael suggested that the demand case is sufficiently strong to encourage investment, and that mechanisms are in place in the form of "long term, patient money" but these are not currently being utilised. He flagged the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) as an example of such a vehicle, in that it is is designed to help smaller higher-risk companies to raise finance by offering a range of tax reliefs to investors who purchase new shares in those companies. The right investors in this space are ones that are able and prepared to wait for a guaranteed return, as opposed to investors requiring a return in a much shorter period. Returns are sufficiently attractive if the interests of investors, beneficiaries, suppliers and intermediaries are properly aligned. A new perspective is required: one example of a "different take" on the current situation is to view business rates on fibre as an opportunity rather than a problem: they can provide a means for a local authority to service a municipal bond, issued to fund investment in NGA infrastructure, by providing a guaranteed income stream to service the debt? Lastly in this session, Clive Downing of NYnet covered alternative models for broadband delivery, including gap funding, design build operate (DBO), digital community hubs and public sector networks, covering the pros and cons of each.

We then reconvened for a session on policy and regulation, with presentations from David Clarkson of Ofcom and Kate McGavin of DCMS. David outlined Ofcom's regulatory strategy and approach in relation to NGA, focusing on sub-loop unbundling (SLU) and physical infrastructure access (PIA) as mechanisms to promote investment, particularly in rural areas, and local loop unbundling (LLU) and Virtual Unbundled Local Access (VULA) as mechanisms to promote competition. In Ofcom's view, current generation broadband will continue to have a significant role over the next few years, something echoed by the current takeup rates of superfast services, with the regulatory framework therefore having to continue to support current generation access during the transition to NGA. People's propensity to pay for NGA services (or the lack thereof) remains a key challenge, underlining the importance of demand stimulation in driving investment.

Kate focused on market activity and the "arms race for speed" (something I've also covered here), broadband’s place at the heart of government policy and policy developments to enable roll-out. Whilst I commend the way many Government departments have joined up in recognising the importance of broadband, the Department for Education currently seems absent from this discussion. While the Government-commissioned report of the James Review of Education Capital published in April 2011 contained a number of specific recommendations on the provision of broadband for schools, including the recognition of the need to "leverage the value of existing public sector broadband networks, aligned with the roll out of superfast broadband and working with commercial providers, local authorities, and regional broadband consortia to establish a minimum bandwidth standard of 10Mbps for primary schools and 100Mbps for secondary schools", the subsequent DFE consultation document on the implementation of the James Review's recommendations contained no reference to broadband at all. Given the extensive reach of existing schools' broadband networks into rural areas, and the continuing importance of meeting schools' increasing broadband requirements, this would seem an opportunity to join up with wider broadband policy missed. However, it is very encouraging to see this recent acknowledgement by DFE of technology's potential for education. More to come in the new year, according to the speech.

I missed the next set of parallel workshops; following these, Crister Mattson of Acreo presented findings from a study into the socio-economic impact of fibre to the home provision in Sweden. 44% of all households and businesses in Sweden now have access to at least 100 Mbps broadband. The study found benefits in terms of increased economic activity (with increased GDP due to increased employment), savings in municipal and regional public sector costs for data and telecommunications and added value for end users, for example in terms of the increased value of residential premises resulting from the provision of enhanced broadband connectivity. Following a panel session on NGA leadership challenges, Mark Kellet of Magnet Networks gave an overview of the lessons learned from previous fibre deployments, in terms of provisioning and adoption; a key risk here is overestimating demand in the short term while underestimating demand in the long term. However, consumers' speed requirements are only moving in one direction...upwards.

The conference closed with a panel discussion on lessons learned and the way forward. For me, the key messages from this year's conference were the importance of planning, the need for sound business models and securing the "right" kind of investment, with technical issues and concerns being almost a secondary consideration once these foundations are in place. While concerns and frustrations remain over the speed and nature of NGA deployments in the UK, the overall mood seemed (to me at least) generally positive, acknowledging that we have come a very long way over the last few years, particularly in the recognition of broadband in both national and regional/local policy, to support economic growth and deliver a range of benefits for society.

However, we still have a long way to go. I think developments over the next 12 months will be crucial, meaning that NextGen12 is highly unlikely to be any less engaging than previous NextGen events.

Monday, November 21, 2011

NextGen11 conference report day 1: progress?


The NextGen11 conference took place last week (on 15-16 November) in Bristol (presentations here). Here's my report, to follow on from my accounts of the 2009 and 2010 NextGen conferences.

The conference opened with a video address from Neelie Kroes,  Vice President of the European Commission and European Digital Agenda Commissioner, who made her position on the importance of superfast broadband very clear:
"...the Internet is an economic essential for everyone. From businesses small and large, to academia, to the creative industries, fast broadband is the digital oxygen allowing this ecosystem to thrive and boosting growth. It is hard to imagine a confident and prosperous Europe in 2020 without it."
She went on to mention the two current EU consultations (on cost methodologies for wholesale access and non-discrimination obligations), in the context of establishing the right regulatory environment to drive increased  investment in superfast broadband, together with the funds being made available for broadband through the Connecting Europe Facility.

Neelie Kroes' address was followed by Chris Holden, President of the Fibre to the Home Council Europe. Europe is currently a long way behind other parts of the world in terms of FTTH penetration, with 4.6m FTTH subscribers: China has 46m. The UK, as of June 2011, has 4,500 FTTH subscribers and 567,300 homes passed out of 25m households. On the basis of current takeup, the UK will reach "fibre maturity" (10% takeup) after 2020. In Europe, unlike most other regions, incumbents are not currently the major providers of FTTH, and this will remain the case. Meeting the EU target of 50% subscribers with >100Mbps service requires maybe 80% availability, which seems very challenging, underlining the importance of "good old-fashioned marketing" to increase takeup and demonstrate the case for further investment. It will be interesting to see the outcome of the current EU consultations in this regard.

Suvi Linden, former Minister of Communications, Finland, and Commissioner, United Nations Broadband Commission for Digital Development, spoke next. The Commission provides an advocacy role for broadband, in the belief that "broadband connections are an essential element in modern society, like roads or electricity." The evidence Suvi presented of the impact of broadband on economic growth (from the Commission's report Broadband: A Platform for Progress) was particularly striking: each 10% increase in broadband penetration generates a 1.38% increase in GDP in low/middle income economies, and a 1.21% increase in high income economies. Suvi also described the targets set out in the Commission's Broadband Challenge, published in October 2011: that broadband should be universally available and affordable, with high takeup and usage as a result. She went on to describe policy developments in Finland, in particular, the Government's recognition that "broadband has become a basic service" and the consequential importance of ensuring universal availability. By the end of 2015, all permanent residences in Finland should be within two kilometres reach of a high-speed connection permitting at least a 100Mbps service; this will require partly subsidised high-speed connections for around 130,000 households in rural areas.

Next up was Bill Murphy, Managing Director NGA, BT. Bill described developments in Cornwall, where BT is rolling out a variety of next generation broadband services. 71 cabinets are now live with 2000+ customer connections, provided by 12 communications providers. Bill stressed that affordable, effective next generation broadband services can and are being delivered over copper via FTTC, that BT was also looking at FTTH and that there was no reason why the approach taken in Cornwall couldn't work elsewhere. He also flagged developments in Northern Ireland, where NGA is available today to 85% of businesses and 75% of lines are connected to a fibre-enabled cabinet (reaching 89% by March 2012), connecting 44,000 customers, with 1,200 more being added every week. More widely, BT plans to deliver ADSL2+ services to 90% of the UK, possibly more (including this exchange I hope?) and currently has more than 300,000 subscribers to its Infinity service, with c.50 external service providers using BT's fibre services. Alternative technologies under consideration to reach the last 10% include white space technologies (as being trialled on the Isle of Bute in Scotland, satellite (BT is working with Avanti in Cornwall) and 4G mobile services (also being trialled in Cornwall with Everything Everywhere, in St Newlyn East and the surrounding area of South Newquay, with around 200 participants). In reference to the current debate about BT's physical infrastructure access (PIA) offerings, Bill pointed out that PIA represents a small part of the cost of deploying fibre; we should "move on" and simply "get on and do something".

In answer to Bill's challenge, Keith Vinning of Fujitsu was next, providing an update on Fujitsu's plans to provide a wholesale broadband infrastructure in rural areas, as announced earlier in 2011. Fujitsu is not seeking to provide retail broadband services and is looking to deliver via the funding being made available by BDUK, subject to its inclusion on BDUK's procurement framework (more here) and winning business from local authorities purchasing via the framework once it's in place. On the subject of funding, Keith suggested that the £17bn committed to the High-Speed Rail project would be better spent on broadband (a view echoed here) and also explained that, like BT, Fujitsu is looking at a range of access technologies as it is simply not economic to deploy fibre everywhere. Successful PIA trials have been undertaken in Greasby in the Wirral, with services being provided to customers by TalkTalk and VirginMedia over BT's ducts and poles from the  serving exchange to customers' premises. Overall, Fujitsu's experience of working with Openreach had been "positive"; while there remains work to do to "industrialise" processes to enable roll-outs at scale, the company is "optimistic" about the future. However, the limitations on what PIA can be used for remain a concern, particularly the fact that PIA can't be used to provide backhaul for wireless services in rural areas. Keith closed by stressing the importance of driving demand for superfast broadband, reiterating the importance of matching aspirations with the amount of funding available.

Keeping us from our lunch was futurist Rohit Talwar, but fortunately Rohit spoke eloquently and passionately about the potential of superfast broadband. He began by considering how to get politicians and society at large excited about superfast broadband, citing the approaches taken to infrastructure development by China and India. China has adopted the "build it and they will come" approach, whereas India waited for demand to emerge. China's economy is now three times the size of India's. Rohit argued that broadband is fundamental both to growth and the future well-being of society, given current economic turbulence, the "power shift eastwards", ageing populations and environmental issues and concerns. But we must always remember that what technology makes possible is what will drive demand, not the technology itself.

After lunch, Edgar Aker of the Prysmian Group flagged the importance of national policies and plans and the right regulatory environment in driving investment and competition in NGA. He commented that eastern Europe is leapfrogging straight to fibre provisioning for broadband, bypassing current generation services. This business case for rural broadband is key, with the FTTH Council Europe's FTTH Business Guide a key resource to support planning and development. This was followed by a panel discussion about the future Internet, with Dave Carter of the Manchester Digital Development Agency memorably demanding to know when we'd all have the flying cars he'd been promised in visions of the future in his youth...!

Day one closed with a series of three parallel workshops; I attended the one on technology choices for NGA. Simon Barrett of Avanti covered satellite possibilities and opportunities. James Enck of CityFibre Holdings outlined the company's plans to become "a new force in UK fibre infrastructure", following the acquisition of the assets of the troubled Fibrecity project (more on this here and here). Dinesh Patil of Telefonica O2 explained the huge impact smartphones continue to have on mobile networks and the steps being taken to accommodate ever increasing demand. For example, major sports events now create huge localised demand, as stadium crowds access live coverage and commentaries on their mobile devices. Next year's London Olympics are likely to be particularly challenging in this regard. Finally, Paul Sexton-Chadwick of The Cloud/BSkyB described how wifi is addressing the shortcomings of 3G mobile connectivity, particularly in the light of Ofcom's revised timetable for the UK's 4G spectrum auctions.

That wrapped up day one, my report of day two to follow shortly.

Monday, November 14, 2011

UK broadband update


Speaking at last week's Westminster eForum: Delivering the UK's Broadband Future, Simon Towler of the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) gave a thorough overview of recent broadband developments in the UK:
  • Ofcom's first infrastructure report (which the regulator is required to submit to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport every three years), published on 1st November 2011, shows that 58% of UK premises now have access to superfast broadband.
  • On 31st October, BT announced it was accelerating its fibre rollout, delivering fibre broadband to two thirds of UK premises by the end of 2014, one year ahead of its original target of 2015.
  • A few days earlier on 27th October, Virgin Media, as part of its third quarter 2011 results, reported that it was "on track for rolling out 100Mbps, the country’s fastest widely available broadband service, right across our network by mid 2012 with over eight million homes already able to access this superfast speed."
  • Coverage in the Guardian described a "broadband speed arms race", following an announcement by Openreach (the division of BT responsible for its access network) on 3rd October of the "early market deployment launch" of its fibre to the premises products in six areas; these will offer download speeds of 110Mbps, and upload speeds of 30Mbps, "with even quicker speeds expected in 2012 and technology capability of up to 1Gbps in the future".
  • Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt previously identified a "need for speed" in his May 2011 speech to Race Online 2012's National Digital Conference, something echoed by a recent survey by  the Communications Management Association (CMA) which reported that businesses constrained by current broadband are demanding higher speeds.
  • In a similar vein, a recent study conducted jointly by Ericsson, Arthur D. Little and Chalmers University of Technology in 33 OECD countries quantifies the isolated impact of broadband speed, showing that doubling the broadband speed for an economy increases GDP by 0.3%.
  • This speech was where the Government first set out its targets that all homes and businesses in the UK should have access to at least 2Mbps and that superfast broadband (>24Mbps) should be available to 90 per cent of people in each local authority area by 2015. These will provide an important step towards the EU broadband targets, as set out in the Digital Agenda for Europe, that by 2020, fast broadband coverage at 30Mbps should be available to all EU citizens, with at least half of European households subscribing to broadband access at 100Mbps.
  • The definition of superfast broadband as >24Mbps derives from Ofcom's context and summary for its 2010 consultations on the wholesale local access and wholesale broadband access markets: "Super-fast broadband (i.e. broadband with speeds greater than 24Mbps) will provide consumers and businesses with higher speed and more capable services, which are likely to enable the use of a wide range of new and innovative applications.  These could, for example, include super high definition and 3D video services, more effective teleworking and telemedicine. "
  • Allocations to local authorities were announced by Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) in August, with the first three successful areas (Devon & Somerset, Norfolk, Wiltshire) being announced in May and two further areas (Rutland, Suffolk) getting the go-ahead in September
  • Jeremy Hunt's May 2011 speech also contained the phrase "must be mobile" - something borne out by the findings of Ofcom's 2011 Communications Market Report, which described the UK as a "nation addicted to smartphones", with over a quarter of adults and nearly half of all teens now owning a smartphone and 37% of adults and 60% of teens "highly addicted" to them.
  • Mobile data rates continue to surge, as recently described by the likes of Cisco (also see here) and Ericsson.
  • In the UK it is the Government's intention that the private sector should lead the way, supported by intervention in areas the market alone will not reach. In addition to BT and Virgin Media's plans, earlier in the year Fujitisu announced its intention to work in collaboration with Virgin Media, TalkTalk and Cisco to deliver next generation internet services to 5 million homes in rural Britain (and is currently running an FTTH trial in Greasby in the Wirral, more here).
  • More recently on 3rd November, City Fibre Holdings announced its plans to invest up to £500 million to build further metro networks and pure Fibre-to-the-Premises networks in a unique citywide deployment, providing gigabit services in towns and cities across the UK, to connect 1m homes and 50,000 businesses, with rollout commencing in early 2012.
  • Openreach at the beginning of October made its second reference offer on physical infrastructure access (PIA, or duct and pole sharing), setting out lower pricing. PIA complements another regulatory element, virtual unbundled local access (VULA) which I've covered previously on this blog here and here. VULA allows competitors to deliver services over BT's new NGA network, with a degree of control that is similar to that achieved when taking over the physical line to the customer (as happens in the case of local loop unbundling, LLU). The Openreach products delivering the 110Mbps/30Mbps FTTH services mentioned earlier in this post are examples of VULA in action.
  • A consultation on new deployment of overhead lines for fibre delivery is "imminent", with new guidance on microtrenching and streetworks to be published by the end of the year. Wayleaves are also being investigated to help further facilitate and streamline broadband investment and deployment. A report on the lessons learned from the four superfast broadband pilots first announced in 2010 (Cumbria, Hereforshire, the Highlands & Islands and North Yorkshire) is also to be published before the end of the year.
  • Returning to mobile, a number of new technology trials are underway, including BT and Everything Everywhere's trialling of 4G/LTE mobile services in Cornwall, Vodafone's femtocell trials in the West Berkshire village of East Garston, for which it is now seeking 12 locations to take part in rural mobile coverage trials and the BBC, Microsoft and others' trialling of white space technologies in Cambridge.
  • Wireless and satellite technologies continue to be the most likely cost effective solution for the most remote areas; to this end on 3rd October the Chancellor announced an investment of up to £150 million to improve mobile coverage in the UK, to improve the coverage and quality of mobile services for the 5 to 10 per cent of consumers and businesses that live and work in areas of the UK where existing mobile coverage is poor or non-existent. The Government will aim to extend mobile service coverage to 99 per cent of the UK population, with the necessary procurement beginning in 2012.
This week sees the NextGen11 conference in Bristol which likely to reveal further announcements of interest. Watch this space...

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

US Ignite - building gigabit applications


Further to my last post on gigibit test beds, I came across US Ignite, a project "to spark the development of gigabit applications and services in areas of national priority".

US Ignite will perform three activities:
  1. Stitching together a national at-scale network testbed of cities and campuses with real users, which can be used as a platform to launch novel gigabit applications and services;
  2. Creating novel gigabit applications and services by funding researchers, developers, and entrepreneurs working in areas of national priority; and
  3. Developing a Public Private Partnership that will govern the contributions made by industry to this pre-commercial effort; coordinate developer community efforts; and convene the Partners for strategic planning and sharing of best practices.
This quote sums up nicely the dilemma the project is hoping to address, the "chicken or the egg" broadband question:
"The US Ignite initiative aims to accelerate gigabit application development and use across the country by breaking a fundamental deadlock: there is insufficient investment in gigabit applications that can take advantage of advanced network infrastructure because such infrastructure is rare and dispersed. And conversely, there is little new investment in advanced broadband infrastructure because there are few advanced applications to justify it. US Ignite will break this deadlock by providing incentives for imagining, prototyping, and developing gigabit applications and by building out a pre-commercial high-bandwidth infrastructure on which people and organizations on campuses and in cities can innovate."
The project is still at an early stage, publishing a request for whitepapers from interested institutions and commercial partners. Further information in this blog post from the US Office of Science and Technology Policy; a project to keep a close eye on to ensure we don't limit our ambitions to the constraints of the present, as I've said previously.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

US broadband test beds: exploring 1Gbps possibilities


As I mentioned in my previous post, here is a quick overview of three projects in the USA trialling 1Gbps broadband connectivity for homes and businesses.

The first example is the high-speed optical fiber network developed by EPB offering services to over 100,000 homes and businesses in the metropolitan Chattanooga and surrounding rural areas. From an EPB press release:
"Powered by Alcatel-Lucent’s gigabit passive optical network (GPON) technology, Chattanooga’s new network will accommodate speeds of up to 1 gigabit-per-second (Gbps), which is more than 200 times faster than the current national download speed average. Every home and business within EPB’s 600 square-mile, nine-county service area will be able to access the network, making it the most comprehensive product of its kind in the United States...EPB, Chattanooga’s municipal electric utility, is using its fiber-to-the-home network as the backbone for its Smart Grid which will provide increased power reliability, greater operational efficiency and more power management tools for the utility’s electric customers. In addition to its Smart Grid functions, the fiber-to-the-home network can also provide communications services to business and residential customers, including very high-speed Internet access, (high-definition) IPTV and phone services."
Important as the "smart grid" functionality described above is, the fibre infrastructure is capable of delivering much more: the 1Gbps broadband service for homes and businesses was launched in September 2010. This from Ars Technica:
“…(EPB) uses the fiber to power its own "smart grid" electrical program, and deploying the program everywhere adds value to the electrical system. But once the fibre's in place, it can be used for TV, Internet, and phone service without digging any new trenches; indeed, even upgrading the entire network to support 1Gbps service was relatively inexpensive, since it only required an electronics upgrade at central locations.”
A refreshing example of joined up thinking. EPB readily admit that takeup of the 1Gbps service is so far limited, it is sanguine about the future potential of the service. From the same Ars Technica Article:
"...(EPB) "hasn't been flooded with calls" for the service, says David Wade, Chief Operating Officer...Indeed, even this may be overstating current demand; only 6 or 7 Chattanooga residents and "several businesses" have ordered the high-end service, which launched with a $350 per month price tag...This doesn't particularly concern Wade. "We knew that the capacity had to be there before people could start creating applications that could utilize the capacity...It's like bringing electricity to the Tennessee Valley" in the early twentieth century, he said. (EPB was founded in 1935.) Before power arrived, there were limited applications for it, but stringing power lines to every home and businesses provided a huge boost to the local economy and spurred all kinds of additional use. Just as with electrification, EPB has decided to run fiber to every home and business, including the third of its customers outside the city, because the benefits of fiber connections don't decline with population density…While few customers buy the 1Gbps tier, many use slower EPB Internet services, but at least the network is ready for the future at relatively minimal cost.”
Customers' use of upload bandwidth is interesting:
"Network speeds are real—if you pay for 30Mbps, you get 30Mbps—and are symmetrical (the same speed in both directions). Chattanooga has also seen surprising use of its upstream connections, even though some question just how much uploading customers want to do. "If you're limiting upstream traffic, you're not going to see upstream traffic," Wade counters.”
In keeping with this spirit of innovation, a competition was recently announced to " to foster the development of gigabit per second Internet applications and business ventures" - more in this EPB press release.

The second example is Google's fibre to the home project in Kansas City, as mentioned on this blog previously here. Following Google's original project announcement in February 2010, it was revealed in March 2011 that Kansas City had been selected as the location for the initiative. The project's homepage is here and there have been some interesting announcements on both the Google Fibre Blog and the Gigabit City website. I was very pleased to see this in one of the sets of FAQs on the Google Fibre Blog:
"Q: What schools will receive free Internet service? Will you include religious and private schools? A: As part of our agreements with Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, Google will connect hundreds of educational and public entities as we build out our network. Each city will determine those locations."
This post suggests things are still at the planning stage, with a view to service launch in early 2012, while this one describes some of the demand stimulation activities being undertaken with local businesses (see here for details of further similar activities). So not much to report as yet, but definitely a project I'll be keeping an eye on.

Finally, the Case Connection Zone, a research project with the goal of bringing 1 Gigabit Internet connectivity to the neighbourhoods surrounding University Circle and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. According to this press release, the project served as a prototype for the Gig.U initiative (another project to watch) described in my previous post. The Case Connection Zone was featured in chapter 7 (research and development) of the US National Broadband Plan, published in March 2010:
"America’s top research universities continue this R&D effort today in their efforts to experiment with very fast 1Gbps networks (gigabit networks). For example, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, with 40 institutional partners, vendors and community organizations, is planning a University Circle Innovation Zone in the economically impoverished area around the university to provide households, schools, libraries and museums with gigabit fiber optic connections. Case Western expects this network to create jobs in the community and spawn software and service development for Smart Grid, health, science and other applications, as well as foster technology, engineering and mathematics education services."
Much more information in this presentation, this blog post and also on YouTube.

These projects offer an interesting insight into the possibilities offered by high speed broadband connections. These words, from the Ars Technica article about EPB's 1Gbps service in Chattanooga, neatly encapsulate the common philosophy and approach that underpins all three of them:
"...build it for the future, not the present, and then encourage people to grow new applications that take advantage of abundance rather than conform to scarcity."
That last bit feels the right way around to me: while we need to be pragmatic about the capabilities of the marketplace and the economic realities of rolling out next generation networks more widely, we also need to create space for innovation, rather than limit our ambitions to the constraints of the present.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A wider role for National Research and Education Networks (NRENs)?


A new working group paper on broadband and science from the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Digital Development sets out the importance of national research and education networks (NRENs), in the wider context of broadband's role in supporting science and education communities.

Recommendations specific to NRENs include:
  • Research and Education Networks (RENs), the bodies set up in most countries – including developing countries – to manage and maintain e-Infrastructures, should be given high political visibility towards governments, regulators and academia given their role in the transformation of developing economies into knowledge societies.
  • National authorities and the relevant international organizations should promote affordable and fair access to broadband e-infrastructures via the establishment and consolidation of national, regional and global RENs, fostering cooperative environments that bridge the Digital Divide (non-connected countries and regions) and the Geographical Divide (disadvantaged non-central areas).
  • RENs should spearhead technological and service innovation in partnership with industry.
  • Broadband e-Infrastructures should be leveraged for public service, fostering the engagement of RENs in other public sectors such as e-Health, e-Government, e-Learning, e-Innovation and "e-Capacity Building".
The report positions NRENs as having a much broader focus than their traditional role of supporting the higher education and research community. In the UK, this is borne out in the way the JANET network has extended its reach significantly in recent years, through, for example, the provision services to schools via local authorities and regional broadband consortia, as well as engagement with the Cabinet Office Public Services Network (PSN) programme. See this presentation from a recent JANET Strategic Briefing Day for more on this.

Examples from the USA also illustrate this transition. The United States Unified Community Anchor Network (USUCAN) project aims to "provide community anchor institutions including public safety organizations, public libraries, K-12 schools, community colleges, research parks, and health care organizations with advanced broadband capabilities and services." The initiative utilises the capabilities and reach of the Internet2 national research and education network:
"The U.S. UCAN project was established under the auspices of a federal  stimulus grant to Internet2 from the National Telecommunications and  Information Administration (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). Using this stimulus funding, Internet2 is acquiring  more than 10,000 miles of fibre optic cable and will build a new nationwide network infrastructure with an unprecedented 8.8 Terabits of capacity using emerging 100 Gigabit per second technology. This new infrastructure will serve as the underlying infrastructure for U.S. UCAN  to offer its services to community anchor institutions nationwide.  The new network which will be built through strong  public-private partnerships, intends to complement  and link together new regional community anchor  networks created through BTOP funding as well as Internet2’s existing regional network members and  network connectors. The goal is to provide the high  performance national networking capable of fully  supporting all 200,000 community anchor institutions across the U.S. - three times as many institutions as the Internet2 Network serves today."
An ambition very much in keeping with the recommendations set out in the Broadband Commission's working paper, extending the reach and benefits of an existing NREN to a much wider community. Another US project of note is the Gig.U initiative, which comprises "a broad-based group of over 30 leading research universities from across the United States...Gig.U seeks to accelerate the deployment of ultra high-speed networks to leading U.S. universities and their surrounding communities." The project issued a request for information (RFI) in September 2011 which set out four goals as the first step towards Gig.U delivering its mission:
  • Promote the deployment of next generation networks across member communities to stimulate economic development;
  • Identify creative approaches to design, operate and finance self-sustaining next generation networks for member communities while evaluating the trade-offs between these different approaches;
  • Gain an understanding of how differences between member communities influence the level of private sector interest in working with any individual community; and
  • Consider ways in which multiple Project communities can work together beyond the RFI process to improve the private sector business case for next generation networks.
Again, lots in common with the Broadband Commission's recommendations in the above. An FAQ response sets out how the project relates to existing US research and education networks:
"The Project is focused on providing broader community connectivity to the member universities and communities. The existing R&E networks provide significant institutional connectivity to all of the member universities. This effort will neither duplicate nor compete with those networks. Rather, the Project will work with the R&E community and others with network facilities in the university communities, to develop new approaches to extending and upgrading existing network assets with a focus on higher speed retail offerings to places on campus that are not served by the existing R&E networks and to the areas surrounding the campuses. This will enable those who work with ultra-high speed networks on campus to be able to continue their work while home and create laboratories of greater connectivity throughout the university and surrounding community."
A slightly different kind of cross-fertilisation than that being undertaken by USUCAN perhaps, but very interesting nevertheless.

Of related interest are gigabit projects like Gig.U participant Case Western Reserve University's Case Connection Zone initiative, Chattanooga's city-wide municipally-owned fiber-to-the-premises network delivering 1Gbps services as well as Google's fibre initiative in Kansas City (some interesting ideas already here), all of which are test-beds and trail-blazers for exploring the capabilities and possibilities of high bandwidth services. More on these in my next post.

Friday, October 28, 2011

European broadband policy update


Three recent developments to report from Europe: further funding for broadband, two consultations on access to telecoms infrastructure and forthcoming guidance on broadband investment models.

First, funding: €9.2bn will be made available from 2014 to 2020 to "support investment in fast and very fast broadband networks and pan-European digital services", as part of a package of measures to "improve Europe's transport, energy and digital networks", through a new fund called the "Connecting Europe Facility". This announcement implements the commitments made by the European Commission in the Multi-Annual Financial Framework proposals announced on 29 June 2011. More in this press release; an extract:
"The funding, part of the proposed Connecting Europe Facility, would take the form of both equity and debt instruments and grants. It would complement private investment and public money at local, regional and national level and EU structural or cohesion funds. At least €7 billion would be available for investment in high-speed broadband infrastructure. The Commission considers that this money could leverage a total of between €50 and 100 billion of public and private investment – i.e. a substantial proportion of the estimated €270 billion of broadband investment needed to meet Digital Agenda targets on broadband. The remaining CEF funding for digital infrastructure would support public interest digital service infrastructure such as electronic health records, electronic identification and electronic procurement."
Some commentary from Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, further illustrating the additional investment it's envisaged these funds will leverage:
"The Facility would stimulate innovation by using innovation, with funding for broadband infrastructure largely in the form of equity, debt, or guarantees. We would competitively engage new players — like non-telecoms utility companies, or construction firms. Where projects were profitable, public funds could be recuperated and reinvested. And, by giving projects credibility and lowering risk profiles, we could leverage other private and public money. Indeed each euro invested in broadband by such innovative financing could leverage gross private investment of between 6 and 15 euros. In concrete terms, this means that the Facility could leverage a total of between 50 and 100 billion euros. Under the Digital Agenda, our target by 2020 is to get coverage for every European to fast broadband of over 30 megabits per second; and to get 50% of households subscribing to ultra-fast speeds over 100 megabits per second. This proposal constitutes a substantial proportion of the investment needed to hit those targets."
But funding can't be deployed to its best advantage if the regulatory environment isn't right. Which provides a  nice segue into the second part of this update: earlier this month the Commission issued two consultations on access for alternative operators to the fixed telephone and broadband networks of established operators. The first concerns non-discriminatory access for alternative operators to the infrastructure and services of dominant telecom operators. The second concerns the way national regulators calculate prices that operators have to pay for this wholesale access (cost-orientation remedies). Both form part of the Commission's aim to create a single market for telecommunications services in Europe, which requires a consistent approach to regulation and regulated pricing.

The consultation on non-discrimination explores what needs to be in place to ensure that operators with significant market power (SMP) don't abuse their dominant position, to create an open and competitive marketplace as far as possible. It makes for interesting reading, setting out the various ways operators can exhibit "discriminatory behaviour" above and beyond the prices they charge for their products and services. For example:
"…vertically integrated SMP operators may be incentivised to design their wholesale products in a way that favours their own downstream retail arms, i.e. by using particular technical standards or other product characteristics which their own retail arm can use as a wholesale input without further costly adjustments, whereas the downstream competitors may incur additional costs in order to be able to make use of such an input. It may, therefore, be argued that it would be important, under non-discrimination aspects, to ensure that alternative operators are appropriately involved in the design process of future wholesale products and have a sufficient ability to influence the decisions regarding particular product characteristics. In this respect, the question arises whether either the national regulatory authority or an independent industry body should be involved in order to steer and mediate this process.”
Clearly a complex, challenging set of issues, particularly as new NGA services are developed. The pricing consultation is intended to stimulate debate on how wholesale pricing should be set to ensure a level playing field across Europe to encourage investment and competition, particularly in the context of the current transition from copper to fibre. We are a long way from such consistency it seems:
"National Regulatory Authorities (NRAs) are still applying divergent approaches when remedying market failures; in particular, when setting cost oriented wholesale access prices. Even where NRAs apply the same cost model for the same access products, there are divergences in terms of implementation. This leads to a variety of access prices across Europe. The price for the local loop, for example, ranges from 5.21 €/month in Lithuania to 12.41 €/month in Ireland. Consequently there is a lack of predictability and legal certainty for (cross-border) investors, alternative operators and potential market entrants. This constitutes barriers within the internal market. The resulting lack of competition also harms European consumers who are not able to benefit from the choice of services and affordable prices which could otherwise exist.”
Some interesting commentary from Neelie Kroes in her speech accompanying the publication of the two consultations:
"...we need next generation networks to deliver the bandwidth-hungry services and applications that will drive future growth. No-one disputes that need. But there is no agreement on how to foster the deployment of such networks. Unfortunately, we see that, for the time being, telecom companies are hesitant to commit significant funds to fibre roll-out. Most stakeholders consider that this is largely due to the existence of a competing legacy copper network; and that copper pricing plays a key role for fibre investment decisions. However, telecom operators are divided on the question of how copper access prices affect the incentives for fibre investment. Alternative operators consider that copper access prices are too high given that the assets are largely depreciated. And they argue that, as a result, incumbents prefer to make good, easy profits on legacy infrastructure rather than invest significant amounts in new fibre networks. Therefore, they believe that lower copper prices would create the incentive for incumbents to go ahead with fibre investment. On the other hand, incumbents argue that much lower copper access prices would erode broadband retail prices. And, as a result, make it difficult to charge the higher prices for competing fibre products which would be needed to cover the investment costs and risks. In other words, they consider it would be unattractive to invest in a parallel fibre infrastructure directly competing with a cheap copper network, at a time when many consumers do not yet appreciate the major difference, in capacity and service quality, between the two technologies. I think that there is some truth on both sides. And I also have the impression that, as it stands, it would indeed be difficult to build new fibre networks competing with cheap parallel copper networks."
She went on to outline two approaches to address this apparent impasse:
"First, a general approach that would, in principle and after a certain time, gradually lower the access prices for largely depreciated copper networks. Second, the possibility of derogating from or adapting this general approach where the incumbents credibly commit to invest in fibre networks in a relevant time frame, while at the same time promoting the switch-off of the old copper networks once the next generation infrastructure is in place. Indeed, I have seen evidence that the gradual switch-off of copper could reduce the cost to such a degree that new fibre investments break even in under 10 years. And thus align the interests of investors and long-term financing providers. The approach I have just described would lower copper prices in areas where incumbents' legacy copper networks persist for some time without significant fibre investment. But at the same time, it would create an incentive for incumbents to replace old copper networks with new fibre infrastructure. Clients could then be migrated to fibre, and benefit from better services and applications for which higher wholesale and retail prices could justifiably be charged. Such a mechanism should also reassure markets that investment in fibre is safe and profitable."
A "fibre switchover/copper switch-off" is an interesting idea, especially in the light of the new funding to be available from 2014, as mentioned earlier in this post. The wholesale pricing consultation also makes reference to the Commission Recommendation of 20 September 2010 on regulated access to Next Generation Access Networks (NGA), which contains the following acknowledgement of the challenges in driving NGA demand at paragraph 23:
"The deployment of FTTH will normally entail considerable risks, given its high deployment costs per household and the currently still limited number of retail services requiring enhanced characteristics (such as higher throughput) which can only be delivered via fibre. Investments into fibre depend for their amortisation on the take-up of new services provided over NGA networks in the short and medium terms. The costs of capital of the SMP operator for the purpose of setting access prices should reflect the higher risk of investment relative to investment into current networks based on copper."
Recent results from Virgin Media indicate that take-up of higher bandwidth services is increasing, but it seems there is much that needs to happen to drive investment, from a regulatory as well as demand perspective. The need to drive the marketplace to deliver something it wouldn't necessarily deliver by itself, ahead of current customer demand, or perhaps to deliver it much earlier than it would otherwise, seems to be the Commission's bold goal here.

I don't disagree with the ambition, or the importance of fibre in the longer term, but I do wonder how realistic this is in the light of current funding, roll-out plans and customer demand? This roadmap from BT provides an interesting counterpoint, demonstrating what FTTC services may be capable of in future.

Finally (!), a new guide on broadband investment models, commissioned from Analysys Mason, will be available shortly. Discussed at the first Digital Agenda Assembly in June (see this presentation) and also at the DG Regio European Open Days (see this presentation), the guidance will provide advice on planning broadband investments, identifying five investment models:
  • Bottom-up: group of end users oversee the contract to build and operate their own local network
  • Private design build and operate: managing authority provides a grant to private sector to assist in deployment of new network
  • Public outsourcing: single contract for construction and operation of network, but public sector retains ownership and some control
  • Joint venture: ownership of the network is split between the public and private sector
  • Public design build and operate: public sector owns and operates a network without any private sector assistance
The guide will be illustrated from findings from operational projects across Europe matching these models. It's due to be available by the end of this month.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

More from Australia: the Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society's Annual Report and Symposium


For more on the potential of broadband in general and the National Broadband Network in particular, the Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society's Annual Report and Symposium presentation is well worth a look.

Three slides from the presentation caught my eye. They capture the importance of concurrency (multiple simultaneous accesses to multiple applications, something I've discussed in this previous post) very well, and also nicely illustrate the wide range of applications that next generation access can support:

"The killer application is...all the applications" - a great quote. The next slide shows the 2007 vision of the connected home, together with its cumulative bandwidth requirements:


...while the next predicts what the same home's requirements will be in 2015:


Interesting to see both increasing requirements of 2007 applications (for example, video streaming requirements are predicted to increase from 400kbps in 2007 to 12Mbps in 2015) as well as new applications and technologies like e-education and femto-cells driving up bandwidth requirements too. This advice from the Info-communications Development Authority of Singapore shows what'a already possible today where higher bandwidths have been deployed.

Some of the new applications next generation access will support we know or can guess about, others we don't know about yet. Social networking is an example of an application which few foresaw, made possible not only by increased bandwidth but also the "always on" nature of broadband connections, as opposed to the days of pay per minute dial up connectivity. Some current applications provide a good signpost for what increased bandwidths will deliver, in terms of making possible ever richer layers of data and interactivity; Google Earth is one such example. However, I'm sure there are plenty of interesting surprises in store for us ahead.

Australian report captures schools' broadband possibilities


A recent report from the Australian Government on the role and potential of its National Broadband Network provides an excellent summary on the potential broadband offers for education and the particular requirements of the sector.

Chapter 4 of the report is devoted to education and echoes the reports Delivering Personalised Learning and Building a Broadband Entitlement prepared by the UK National Education Network. A few quotes:
"...ubiquitous, high-speed broadband has the capacity to significantly extend the reach, availability and quality of educational services, particularly in regional areas and enable more intensive and immersive online interactions, resulting in higher quality outcomes for students."
"...educational institutions have ‘enterprise’ rather than ‘consumer’ requirements, meaning they need very high quality and scalable connections in order to maximise the potential of broadband for students and teachers...In general terms educational institutions are not like surrounding residential users. One educational enterprise connection may support 1000 or more users (students, teachers and administrative staff) capable of generating as much traffic as 1000 homes. Educational institutions also have different needs to residential consumers—educational institutions require high symmetry and high bandwidth, they have low latency and peaks in demand. Connectivity between institutions is important, in addition to connectivity to external sources such as the Internet. Educational needs require access to capacity at a reasonable price to enable permanent networks to be created and to cater for the potential increase in demand which is likely to result as innovations are more widely adopted."
The part about having enterprise rather than consumer requirements is spot on. The report groups the benefits the NBN can bring to education under the following headings:
  • Enhanced classroom-based education
  • More educational institutions connected
  • Richer online resources available
  • Remote linkage to experts and institution
  • Sharing and interacting with other schools and campuses
  • Access to more curriculum options
  • Increasing student and teacher retention in rural areas
  • Enhanced education outside the classroom
  • After hours home education 
  • Involvement of parents in children’s education
  • Participation by students who can’t make it to class 
  • Education in the workplace & the community
  • A more efficient education system
A pretty definitive list painting a very compelling picture. The report also identifies a number of issues in relation to broadband provision for education, particularly availability and affordability:
“...the main barriers to  bandwidth usage are restrictive pricing structures and contractual  arrangements in which schools, particularly in rural areas, are required to pay high rates for the volume of data that they use. While the  Government’s commitment to uniform national wholesale pricing for the NBN is likely to remove the disadvantage that rural schools face in this area, the nature of educational institutions is that they need to provide connectivity to many users simultaneously. Educational institutions therefore need access to high bandwidth connections within a pricing structure that allows for large volumes of data. Close attention will be required from the Federal Government and NBN Co during the NBN’s design and implementation to ensure educational institutions are able to access high capacity and highly scalable connections that meet their enterprise needs at affordable, predictable prices.”
Schools in rural areas of the UK face similar challenges. The report is well worth a read if you want to understand more about broadband's huge potential to transform teaching and learning.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Key facts from Ofcom's 2011 Communications Market Report


Some interesting nuggets from Ofcom's 2011 Communications Market Report, published earlier this month.

On Internet access and broadband take-up:
  • For the first time household internet take-up (78%) has exceeded PC ownership (77%) as a small proportion of households went online using mobile phones only.
  • Take-up of broadband has continued to increase and in Q1 2011 stood at 74%. Virtually all homes with a computer are now connected to the internet.
  • Take-up of mobile broadband continues to rise and now stands at 17%.
  • While the majority of mobile broadband connections are purchased in addition to a fixed broadband connection at home, 7% rely solely on a mobile broadband service.
  • Dial-up internet connections, along with four/ five channel analogue terrestrial TV services, are now almost extinct.
  • Among those aged 65-74, five years ago only four in ten had internet access at home (42%), but by 2011, this had risen to over half of this age group (55%). However, still only a small minority (26%) of those aged 75+ have the internet at home in Q1 2011 (up from 15% in 2006).
An interesting contrast between broadband take-up in urban and rural areas:
  • Broadly speaking, higher levels of take-up in rural locations tend to run alongside higher levels in urban areas. Fixed-line services are the only deviation from this pattern, where take-up is higher – sometimes substantially – in rural locations. That said, there are some variations in take-up by location: broadband take-up among homes in rural areas is higher than in urban areas in England and Scotland, which is likely to relate to higher-income households in rural areas. In Q1 2011, rural areas in England had the highest level of broadband take-up, at 84%.
On the increasing importance of TVs and mobile phones in providing internet access:
  • At the device level, a range of television screens now incorporate an internet connection, and during 2010, 10% (1 million) of television set sales incorporated a connection to the internet. Services available on TVs with an internet connection include applications that access on-demand services such as BBC iPlayer, other ‘over the top’ content services such as LoveFilm and YouTube, and social networking sites including Twitter and Facebook.
  • More than three-quarters of households have home internet access: The ownership of a PC has always been a constraint on the take-up of home internet services, with the cost of the PC preventing some households from getting online and others saying they do not have the knowledge/skills to use a computer...However, the mass-market emergence of internet-enabled phones and internet services designed specifically for mobile phones (such as mobile applications) means that increasingly people are getting online through mobile phones. For the first time in Q1 2011 household internet take-up (78%) exceeded PC ownership (77%) as a small proportion of households went online via mobile phones only.
On increasing mobile broadband usage:
  • In addition to increasing take-up of internet services on mobile phones it appears that the intensity of use has increased significantly...the volume of mobile data transferred over the UK’s mobile networks increased by 67% during 2010, and increased forty-fold between Q4 2007 and Q4 2010. This suggests that the use of 3G/HSPA networks on smartphones is having a similar transformative effect on mobile internet use as that which happened in the early-mid 2000s on fixed-line networks with the migration from dial-up to broadband.
On superfast broadband:
  • Over half of all UK households are passed by super-fast broadband. Virgin Media’s cable service offers speeds of at least ‘up to’ 50Mbit/s to 48% of all households, with around 15% of households able to get an ‘up to’ 100Mbit/s service. BT’s ‘up to’ 40Mbit/s fibre-to-the-cabinet service was available to around 20% of households by July 2011 and Ofcom estimate that 57% of UK homes were able to receive super-fast services in July 2011.
  • Take-up of superfast services is increasing. Ofcom estimate that around 2% of residential and SME UK broadband connections had a headline speed of 30Mbit/s or higher at the end of March 2011, more than five times the figure for a year previously.
  • Ofcom consumer research indicates that take-up of super-fast broadband changes use of the internet. More than half of those taking up super-fast service say they have increased the number of standard-definition or high-definition TV programmes or films they watch over the internet (54% and 63% respectively), while many also claim to have increased the amount of online gaming (37%), video calling (39%) and file sharing (40%).
  • Value for money was the most important consideration when choosing a super-fast service: Even though super-fast broadband services are generally more expensive than slower services...value for money was the most important single reason for consumers choosing their current super-fast broadband service...Nearly half of all respondents said that good simultaneous performance on multiple devices was a reason for taking super-fast broadband, indicative of how households are increasingly using WiFi connectivity to provide internet connections to multiple devices, including desktop, laptop and tablet PCs, mobile phones, games consoles and internet-enabled televisions.
  • There is strong evidence that the take-up of super-fast broadband changes the ways in which consumers use the internet, as users benefit from the improved experience of services which benefit from faster speeds and the higher quality of service typically offered by super-fast services.
  • The largest increases in reported use relate to streaming TV programmes or full-length films; nearly two-thirds of respondents said that they had increased their levels of streaming high-definition content and more than half had increased their streaming of standard-definition content...There were also notable increases in some services which are less mainstream, including file-sharing and online gaming.
  • The lowest increases were for those services where use was already high, and which typically benefit less from having faster speeds: sending and receiving email, purchasing goods/services/tickets and banking.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Driving demand for NGA services


Some really interesting presentations from the workshop on financing and facilitating broadband projects held during the first Digital Agenda Assembly in Brussels on 16-17 June 2011.

The experience of Italian communications provider Fastweb in rolling out 100Mbps services provides particular food for thought in the light of current UK developments. From the report of the workshop:
“The lack of demand for switching to high speed services was identified as one of the most substantial challenges to the deployment of NGA networks by different stakeholders. The level of demand is a crucial factor shaping operators' business case. In particular, Fastweb's experience in FTTH Point-to Point deployment in the co-investment model illustrated the slow take up of the 100 Mbps retail product despite the price being comparable to the traditional offer.”
...which corroborates what I've heard elsewhere; that where next generation services are available in the UK, takeup is as yet very slow. It also underlines the need to communicate the benefits of next generation broadband in terms of the services and applications it makes possible, rather than to simply focus on headline speeds which will only excite a minority of people?