Thursday, January 27, 2011

Delivering a Digital Wales

Some interesting extracts from Delivering a Digital Wales, the Welsh Assembly Government's broadband strategy document published last month. The underpinning ambition of the strategy is:
“To deliver all the benefits of digital technology, we expect that all businesses in Wales will have access to superfast broadband by the middle of 2016, and all households by 2020.”
Just as the UK strategy does, the strategy for Wales recognises that the drive to deliver universality should not be separated from the drive to deliver NGA. This is the first time I've seen separate targets for businesses and households in such a strategy. Also noteworthy is that the strategy nails its colours to the mast by defining a bandwidth for its vision of NGA:
“…we will ensure that any next generation broadband infrastructure funded through public sector intervention will be capable of delivering broadband services of at least 30Mbps, and ideally 100Mbps, to avoid the need for repeat investment at a later date.”
So by 2020 all households should be able to access 30Mbps, with 50% of businesses and households able to access 100Mbps, in line with the targets set out in the European Commission's Digital Agenda for Europe. Though the 2016 target for business is significantly more ambitious that the EC's target. The strategy for Wales also includes much more specific recognition of the importance of broadband for education than Britain's Superfast Broadband Future does, and it's also interesting that the potential for consolidating and re-using existing agenda is presented without the caveats that accompanied this idea in the UK strategy:
"Our vision for success is an inclusive, prosperous Digital Wales expressed in 2020 as:…Digital Wales has transformed learning. Education services have used digital technology to create entirely new teaching and learning experiences as well as enhancing existing ones...A coherent pan-Wales approach to public service infrastructure will provide the underpinning services that need to be put in place to collect, store and share information securely and confidentially. One major component is already in place in the Public Sector Broadband Aggregation (PSBA) network. This network is recognised globally as presenting a huge strategic advantage for future collaborative service delivery as well as offering the potential to influence local broadband availability in communities served by the PSBA. We will expect public sector organisations to focus on the strategic benefits of using the PSBA and accelerate its widespread adoption. Teaching and learning will be transformed through digital technology so schools in particular need to invest in higher speed fibre-based facilities unless there is an overwhelming case not to…(The) PSBA (is) One of the first totally integrated Public Sector Networks in the UK, connecting more than 2000 sites across Unitary Authorities, Hospitals, General Practitioners, Universities, Further Education Colleges, Emergency Services, and a growing number of organisations funded by the public sector.”
The importance of the public sector as an intelligent commissioner of broadband infrastructure is also acknowledged, something I concur very strongly with:
“We wish to set a challenging, yet meaningful communications infrastructure ambition for Wales. Achieving this ambition will require a sensible balance between wholly private led infrastructure deployment and private sector deployment that is facilitated by public sector behaviour.”
Don't get me wrong, there's much to praise in both strategies, but the differences between them are as interesting as their similarities.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Net neutrality update: where are we now?

Lots has happened since my last post on net neutrality back at the beginning of December, which related to the then-imminent FCC order on the issue. This was subsequently published just before Christmas, about which more later, but first I need to wind back to an event previous to my December post which I neglected to reference at the time.

This event was a speech by Ed Vaizey MP on 17th November 2011 in which he set out the coalition government's stall on the net neutrality debate. Some key quotes:
"A lightly regulated Internet is good for business, good for the economy, and good for people. But it is also right the Government puts in place the right infrastructure to support it and has a view on how it should be governed...The continued delivery of high quality content will...require massive investment, and it may also mean networks and the traffic that flows over them are increasingly managed as the information super-highway – an old phrase but with compelling resonance in this debate – becomes ever more crowded...At the heart of this the extent to which traffic should be managed on the Internet, and more specifically whether ISPs should ever have the right to favour one content provider over another, particularly for commercial reasons."
He went on to flag the importance of openness (in terms of being able to access any legal content or services), transparency (the need for easy to understand information about traffic management policies and their impacts) and, echoing Neelie Kroes, the importance of supporting investment and innovation. He also acknowledged the fact that virtually all ISPs manage traffic on their networks already, and further illuminated the importance of supporting innovation:
“We have got to continue to encourage the market to innovate and experiment with different business models and ways of providing consumers with what they want. This could include the evolution of a two sided market where consumers and content providers could choose to pay for differing levels of quality of service. The market could develop in many different ways. The important thing is that ISPs and networks remain free to innovate. In doing so they may make mistakes and consumers should have the ability to make them pay for those mistakes. Again, the key is that consumers must be informed and aware of what they are buying and of any limitations attached to it; allowing them to choose a level of connectivity appropriate for their needs.  Transparency is not something that should only be available to consumers. It is a principle that needs to extend throughout the entire value chain. Content and application providers should be able to know exactly what level of service they are getting especially if they are paying for it.”
The coalition government is "no fan of regulation" and there is currently "no need for intervention", a fact reinforced by the responses to Ofcom's consultation last year (to which a formal response is yet to appear from Ofcom I believe, but Ed Richards did cover this in  his speech to the same conference the previous day, as well as in this one yesterday), though the situation does need to be kept under review as the market develops. All of which was, I thought, a pretty reasonable take on what can be at times a rather hysterical and ill-informed debate.

However,the Guardian didn't share this view, accusing Vaizey of suggesting that "ISPs should be free to abandon net neutrality", which I don't think is a fair representation of his speech at all. The BBC's headline ("Minister Ed Vaizey backs 'two-speed' Internet) was better, but the article then spoilt it by going on to suggest that his speech "paves the way for an end to "net neutrality" - with heavy bandwidth users like Google and the BBC likely to face a bill for the pipes they use", when it's wholly questionable whether a truly neutral Internet has ever existed, a fact emphasised by Vaizey's point that most ISPs already manage the traffic on their networks. In an interview with the Telegraph a few days later Vaizey emphasised again that his overriding priorities in this area are an open Internet and the protection of consumers: "Should the internet develop in a way that was detrimental to consumer interests we would seek to intervene." In my view I think the media were a bit premature in hitting the panic button on this one?

Anyway, this furore provided an interesting UK context for the FCC's publication of their order on preserving a free and open Internet, which as I mentioned earlier, was published a few weeks later, just before Christmas (the related FCC press release includes a useful summary - the full document runs to just under 200 pages). Vaizey's speech would seem in keeping with the FCC's approach, this from the FT:
"The "net neutrality" ruling prohibits broadband providers from blocking any lawful content, applications and services, though it would allow "reasonable network management" and permit operators to manage congestion by charging heavy users more."
While the BBC had this to say:
"The new rules prohibit telecommunications companies that provide high-speed internet service from blocking access by customers to any legal content, applications or service. But, for the first time, there is now a policy that will allow for what has been termed "paid-prioritisation", where companies will be able to pay for a faster service."
The rules remain highly contentious though: the FCC voted 3-2 in their favour; the FCC's three Democrats voted to pass the regulations, while the agency's two Republicans opposed them. And the commercial sector has already thrown down the gauntlet: on 20th January 2011, Verizon filed an appeal against the FCC's order  (further commentary here). So far from a done deal.

Returning to the UK, net neutrality was in the news again at the beginning of January 2011 as BT launched its ContentConnect service, "a new content distribution network that addresses the extraordinary growth of video services over the Internet". This led to renewed claims of the dangers of creating a two-tier Internet, as reported by the BBC, but ZDnet's David Meyer (who shares my views on the way Ed Vaizey's speech was misrepresented) offered (in my opinion anyway) a far more measured reaction on his blog:
"Let's have a look at Content Connect. It's a content delivery network (CDN), much like those from providers such as Akamai and Level3. This means a bunch of servers located in areas of high congestion, where extra bandwidth is needed to push through (generally video) content at high quality. CDNs are already widely used by content providers such as the BBC, which relies on CDNs to support iPlayer across the UK, and by ISPs. BT has simply built its own CDN, which — seeing as the company utterly dominates the country's wholesale broadband market — it is in a good position to market as part of an end-to-end, we-can-guarantee-you-X-level-of-service package for other ISPs. This spring, it will start selling Content Connect access to BT Retail, which will use the CDN to deliver iPlayer on its BT Vision IPTV platform. Other ISPs will also be able to use Content Connect to push through heavy content, or they can just use the same rival CDNs they already use. I don't see how this leads to the creation of a two-tier web/net/whatever. My fear regarding net neutrality is that, within the paradigm of one network, one service gets boosted to the detriment of another. If someone wants to build spare capacity for a specific service, which will result in no change to the quality of rival services, I really couldn't care less — that sounds like a sensible business practice to me. "
I entirely agree. This is clearly a complex and challenging area, but surely any arguments should be based on facts first and foremost? It will be important to keep a close eye on this area as the market continues to develop at a dizzying rate, but the principles underlying both Ed Vaizey's recent speech and the FCC's recent order seem to me to be the right ones - transparency in delivery and openness in access.

It will be interesting to see how the market responds, both in the UK/Europe and across the Atlantic. Surely a light-touch is preferable to heavy handed regulation, but a light touch does suppose that parties will "play nicely"...

Monday, January 24, 2011

US schools' broadband provision not sufficient to meet streaming video requirements

 In an interesting counterpoint to my previous post earlier today, the FCC's 2010 E-Rate Program and Broadband Usage Survey has this to say about US schools' experience of streaming video:
"Only 11% say that that their current connection completely meets their streaming video needs and even fewer (10%) report that their connections completely meet their video-conferencing needs. This question only refers to the bandwidth to the premises, not internal wiring or other network factors that may affect the actual experience in the classroom or office. As more applications have a video component, schools and libraries will likely need additional bandwidth to take advantage of the full range of educational options available."
...too true, especially if that video component looks anything like Uni TV (we can but hope). A comparative picture of broadband provision for schools in the UK is available here. The FCC report's summary findings also make for interesting reading:
  • Almost All Have At Least Some Broadband: 95% of all E-rate survey respondents have some form of terrestrial broadband connection to at least one facility, while 2% use satellite and 3% use dial-up.
  • Faster Broadband Speeds Needed: However, nearly 80% of all survey respondents say their broadband connections do not fully meet their current needs.
  • Slow connection speed is the primary reason current Internet connectivity does not meet the needs for 55% of these respondents.
  • Cost is a Big Factor: 39% of E-rate survey respondents cite cost of service as a barrier in meeting their Internet needs, and 27% cite cost of installation as a barrier.
  • E-Book Use to Greatly Increase: 56% of all E-rate survey respondents expect to implement or expand the use of digital textbooks in the next two to three years, and 45% expect to implement or expand the use of handheld devices for educational purposes.
  • Most Have Speeds Greater Than 3 Mbps: 10% of E-rate survey respondents have broadband speeds of 100 Mbps or greater and most (55%) have broadband speeds greater than 3 Mbps.
  • More than half of school districts (60%) subscribe to a fiber optic connection.
  • 66% of respondents provide some wireless connectivity for staff, students or library patrons.
  • E-Mail Essential for Schools: For schools, e-mail is the most-used application (almost all schools, 98%, regularly use or access e-mail), and the most essential (69% consider it the most essential).  
  • Libraries Rely on Online Reference Materials: For libraries, online reference materials are both the most used application (86% of staff and patrons regularly use or access online reference materials) and the most essential (62% consider it the most essential)
The need to support concurrent usage (multiple users accessing multiple, complex, media-rich applications simultaneously) seems to be the underlying driver here, a situation likely to be exacerbated by the fact that almost half of the schools surveyed plan to expand the use of handheld devices for educational purposes.

The future of broadband for education?

Uni TV, developed by the Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES) at the University of Melbourne, is definitely worth a look.

This YouTube video offers a fascinating glimpse of what the future might hold in terms of video applications for education, including VoD, 3D delivery for disciplines including chemistry, medicine, archaeology and engineering, and a clever application of haptic technologies to simulate surgical operations in 3D on a virtual patient. More info in this news release.

Fantastic stuff, and a useful application to have in your pocket if/when you're confronted with anyone who asks "so what do we need all this additional bandwidth for, anyway?"