Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The increasing importance of online video in education

Further to this previous post on the tremendous potential of next generation access for education, some interesting new research by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the USA reveals the increasing extent to which teachers value video as a teaching resource.

Deepening Connections - Teachers Increasingly Rely on Media and Technology is the title of the eighth annual PBS teacher survey on media and technology use. The survey is based on a representative sample of 1,401 teachers across the USA. From the introduction:
"Teachers value digital media as instructional resources that help them engage student interest, promote creativity and differentiate instruction. Increasingly, teachers are turning to the Internet to access content that traditionally has been distributed via television broadcasts. Educators are not limiting their searches to classroom content. They also are seeking ways to improve and grow professionally. Teachers increasingly are using the Internet to access instructional strategies and opportunities for professional development, collaboration and inspiration."
Streaming and downloading of content by teachers is surging:
“The Internet is giving new life to video content for classroom instruction. Teachers’ streaming and downloading of video content traditionally distributed via television broadcast or DVDs increased  significantly for yet another year in a row, now just  narrowly behind DVD use…All of the momentum is on the side of the Internet. Seventy-eight percent of K–12 teachers report that they access video content on DVDs—a figure that hasn’t budged over the past several years. In contrast, the percentage of teachers reporting that they stream or download video content increased from 55 percent  in 2007 to 76 percent in 2010.”
Teachers are also becoming much more strategic in their use of video, something that streaming lends itself to very effectively:
“Streamed and downloaded content could be easier to integrate and customize for instruction. In fact, teachers’ use of short video segments (from three minutes to less than five minutes in length) increased this year, with 29 percent of teachers reporting this is the average length of video segments they use, up from 22 percent in 2009. Use of longer segments of 10 minutes or more was down significantly this year. Teachers seem to be using video more strategically to introduce, supplement and reinforce content and to engage students in learning.”
However, inevitably, some technical challenges remain:
"There is a downside to the popularity of streaming video content over the Internet. Problems with streaming video include skipping, pausing or constant buffering, indicating that computing devices or technology infrastructure, or both, do not yet have the capacity to handle teachers’ increasingly Internet-dependent instructional activity. Most teachers (78 percent) encounter difficulties at least some of the time, with a quarter experiencing problems often or always..."
...reinforcing the importance of reliable, high quality next generation broadband for education, particularly in relation to supporting concurrent accesses (multiple users accessing multiple applications simultaneously). The value teachers place on access to video is clearly demonstrated:
“Teachers’ increased use of video content is matched by increases in their perceptions of its benefits. The majority of K–12 teachers (82 percent) continue to believe that video content is more effective when it is integrated with other instructional resources or content. All other perceived benefits of video use in the classroom increased significantly this year. A majority of teachers believe that video content stimulates discussions (68 percent), increases student motivation (66 percent), helps teachers be more effective (62 percent), is preferred by students (61 percent) and helps teachers be more creative (55 percent)…Many teachers also believe that video content stimulates student creativity (47 percent), directly increases student achievement (42 percent) and is more effective than other types of instructional resources or content (31 percent).”
Reliable connectivity is required to support management and administrative tasks as well:
“In another sign that instructional activity is migrating to the Web, about 40 percent of K–12 teachers report that they use Web-based content management systems. More than twice as many teachers (84 percent) report that their school or district has some sort of data management system to store and track student assessment data electronically. Most teachers who have data management systems available (83 percent) make at least some instructional decisions based on this data. Teachers report using data management systems to track assessment scores (76 percent), refine the curriculum (71 percent), develop individual education plans (62 percent), or get professional development or feedback (54 percent).”
These findings also reinforce the need to support multiple concurrent accesses, as well as demonstrating the opportunity of providing access to personally-owned (i.e. unmanaged) devices in a way that doesn't compromise network performance or security:
“K–12 teachers believe that laptops hold the greatest education potential among popular portable technologies, with 81 percent of teachers saying laptops would enhance education...But a majority of teachers (53 percent) believe that more recent entries into the consumer market, such as iPads, Kindles, Sony Readers, and other pad-like devices and e-readers could be valuable in education as well. iPod Touches and MP3 players and iPods garnered support from teachers as well. As much as teachers perceive the educational value of digital resources and recognize some potential in smart, mobile devices, students’ ability to use these devices at school is severely limited. Most personal student devices are off limits during school, with teachers reporting that cell phones, game devices, and MP3 players and iPods are largely banned.”
UK evidence corroborating PBS's findings includes the unexpectedly high demand for online delivery of the Teachers digital TV channel, as opposed to the broadcast version: between February and May 2010, Teachers TV videos were streamed over 1.6 million times. Sadly, the contract for Teachers TV has now been terminated, though all of the 4,000 programmes will continue to available online. The PBS research also underlines the huge value and potential of the British Universities Film & Video Council's (BUFVC's) Box of Broadcasts (BoB) service.

BoB is an off-air recording and media archiving service available to staff and students of member institutions of the BUFVC that hold an ERA+ license. This TV scheduling service allows users to record TV and radio programmes that are scheduled to be broadcast over the next seven days, as well as retrieving programmes from the last seven days from a selected list of recorded channels. After a programme is recorded, users watch it in a similar way to the BBC's iPlayer. BoB stores recorded TV and Radio programmes in an archive indefinitely for all users to enjoy – a distinct advantage over other TV catch-up services, the archives of which are time limited. The BoB archive currently offers thousands of TV and radio programmes covering all genres.

The benefit of such a service being readily available to all teaching staff both within the institution and at home is clearly apparent. However, an institution’s broadband connection must be able to support multiple, concurrent use of the service if access is to be reliable and effective. The benefits of ensuring that all teaching staff can use such a service reliably whenever they need to are plain to see, but this requires NGA levels of provision, particularly if multiple simultaneous accesses from many classrooms are to be supported.

But who wouldn't want to support that? The USA clearly has such ambitions in its sights, as evidenced by this speech by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski last year. His recognition of some of the specific advantages and opportunities broadband offers to education is refreshing to see, especially when many broadband strategies recognise education as a sector that stands to benefit from the technology but fail to examine how or to what extent. His honesty in acknowledging that there is still much to do to deliver faster speeds to schools across the USA is also good to see - compare that with the remarks made in the UK's Caio Review in 2008, though to be fair we have come a very, very long way since then, in broadband policy terms.

But all the same, still some useful signposts for UK broadband policy here perhaps?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Conference report: Broadband North Yorkshire, 19th February 2011

Last Saturday I attended the Broadband North Yorkshire conference, organised by Julian Smith, MP for Skipton and Ripon, in the light of North Yorkshire's selection by Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) as one of four pilot areas to trial the deployment of superfast broadband.

Following Julian’s introduction, and a video message from Foreign Secretary William Hague (MP for Richmond, Yorkshire), Richard Flinton, Chief Executive of North Yorkshire County Council, set out the context for the county’s selection as a pilot. 30,000 people only have dial-up access currently, with 120,000 only able to receive a broadband service of less than the USC commitment of 2Mbps. Notspots and slowspots are not confined to the county’s rural areas, some locations in York’s outskirts also receive poor services. Current commercial superfast broadband plans include York, Harrogate and Filey but nowhere else.

Richard described broadband as a key economic enabler for the county and flagged the importance of tourism to North Yorkshire’s economy, reporting that a recent survey revealed that 90% of people now expect broadband to be available at their holiday destination. Lack of broadband access is a contributory factor to young people migrating away from the area; broadband takeup rates where services are available are as high as or higher than anywhere else in the country. Richard set out the NextGen North Yorkshire vision:
“Our vision is to bring the advantages of high-quality broadband to 100% of businesses and citizens in North Yorkshire by 2015. We want to enable all to participate in the digital world so that they can carry out their business when and how they wish.”
North Yorkshire does have a key advantage over other rural areas though – NYnet’s core network, which already connects 90% of public sector institutions across the county. Richard described this network as the platform to take forward North Yorkshire’s broadband ambition, especially as the network has already been used to provision a number of remote communities with broadband – see this previous post, with further details here and here. Richard closed by announcing that the council was making an additional £750,000 available to provide grants for 15 rural broadband projects.

Next up was Robert Ling from Yorkshire Forward, who provided an overview of BDUK’s role and activities to date, flagging Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future as the key text in this regard – though the full strategy document doesn’t appear to be available at the moment. The government’s intention is that by 2015 two thirds of the population should be served directly by the private sector, with the final third the focus of BDUK’s activity and funding. BDUK is providing £530m to 2015, “with a further £300m in 2016 and 2017 if required” and is also looking to leverage other sources of funding such as the European ERDF and RDPE programmes as well as private investment. Just as BDUK Chief Executive Robert Sullivan did at the recent broadband conference in Herefordshire (another BDUK pilot area), Robert flagged the importance of developing a local broadband plan. Local involvement is crucial, according to Robert: “this is your money, this is your broadband”.

The next session was called “Connecting Communities”, and included input from Matt Warman, Consumer Technology Editor for the Daily Telegraph, Natasha Innocent from Race Online 2012, Carl Wolf from Science City York, Penny Slatter from the Post Office, Rachel Fraser, BBC Learning Public Affairs Manager on the First Click media literacy project, Trish Quinn, Head of Strategic Partnerships at Directgov, Dr Richard Pope from the Airedale NHS Foundation Trust and Barry Dodd from the Yorkshire Enterprise Partnership. Some key bullet points from this session:
  • Matt Warman predicted a "revolution in healthcare" brought about by next generation broadband, which will make the digital divide more "painful and palpable" for those lacking access. He also argued that it's more important for rural areas to implement nextgen broadband than cities and urban areas, because the technology will make a much greater difference in such areas than in places like London.
  • Natasha Innocent outlined Race Online 2012's "inspire, encourage and support" strategy to increase the takeup of broadband and online services. She stressed the importance of communicating the benefits of broadband, in stark contrast to the current broadband advertising which generally relates solely to speed and price.
  • Carl Wolf flagged some of the innovations taking place in North Yorkshire, such as a company in Helmsely (this one I think?) which has licensed a technology developed elsewhere in Europe which can strip out the core from a copper cable, replacing it with fibre at significantly reduced installation costs (more details here). Other opportunities are created by the University of York's significant investment in film and TV production, as outlined in a recent speech by the Chancellor of York University and former Director-General of the BBC, Greg Dyke.
  • Penny Slatter described how the Post Office can help to grow the demand for broadband and help communities  by offering "mediated access between customers and Government; converting multi-channel interactions to electronic submissions" and by "supporting universal access to online Government services." The Post Office intends to be the "high street digital channel for customers to interact with Government supporting universal access to services".
  • Dr Richard Pope demonstrated how Airedale NHS Foundation Trust are employing telemedicine to deliver healthcare to prisons in a far less disruptive fashion in a five year project involving 15 prisons, as well as a set-top box based service for use in homes, which has been warmly received by patients.
  • Barry Dodd underlined the importance of nextgen broadband to competitiveness through two examples: companies worldwide collaborating online to design an electric car to be built in the UK, and the fact that broadband access provides a new means to access expensive software (via rental rather than license purchase), making complex and expensive software available to both large and small companies on a usage basis.
Discussion sessions followed, I attended the public sector and education workshop. Whilst an interesting discussion ensued, it struck me that current generation broadband services, which are widely available and used, aren't yet being exploited to their fullest extent in support of the delivery of public services. Whilst we have made some progress we still seem to be a good way behind countries such as the USA in the delivery of services such as telemedicine. Which doesn't help the investment case for nextgen services very much. It's also very significant that around 25% of the UK population can access current generation broadband, but chooses not to do so. My guess is that a significant proportion of this number will be elderly, so a technology which could assist them by helping them maintain their independence and their ability to live in their own homes for longer is to be welcomed? But such individuals are unlikely to be brought on board by any retail offering I think, meaning the public sector will need to think creatively if it's to improve the quality of life for a growing proportion of the population at the same time as reducing the cost of care to the public purse.

Lunch was followed by input from NYnet and industry on the way forward. David Cullen, Chief Executive of NYnet (a company wholly owned by North Yorkshire County Council) underlined the challenge of delivering ambitious broadband targets in the largest rural county (3,000 square miles) with a dispersed population (an average of 7.5 people per square kilometre). NYnet's core network offers a huge opportunity already, the challenge is to make this more available. The deployments in Gillamoor and Newton on Rawcliffe/Stape (community wireless provision utilising schools' fibre connections as backhaul) offer proof that it can be done. NYnet will provide nextgen access to 27 market towns across North Yorkshire, this will in turn support the creation of 250 digital community hubs which share backhaul with public sector requirements, with on average three communities being supported by each digital community hub. In terms of fun ding, initial indications are that around £25-30m funding is available from BDUK and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). The procurement process will begin in April 2011 with a view to signing a contract by 31st March 2012.

Further industry input came from Rob Leenderts of Cable & Wireless, Bill Murphy of BT and Steve Richey of satellite broadband provider Avanti. Some concerns were expressed that NYnet's focus on market towns that already have current generation access when many communities have no or very poor connectivity was unfair, at which point the fact that BDUK funds were to address areas that the market won't reach was reiterated, together with the importance of market towns as an important link in the delivery chain to reach remote communities in a sustainable, effective way. Some frustrations were also expressed over the perception of public money being spent on services that arguably weren't as important as nextgen broadband, a criticism which has also been levelled against the high speed rail project.

These frustrations, similar to those expressed at the Herefordshire event, beg the question whether enough money has really been committed to supporting the roll-out of nextgen broadband. While the funding is to be welcomed, it's significantly lower than the amounts allocated for the same purpose elsewhere in the world. What was very clear from the conference was the opportunity and advantage that NYnet offers to the county, in particular, its model for provisioning rural communities in a sustainable way, based on an existing infrastructure, proving that it can be done. The question for me is the extent to which NYnet's approach can be replicated elsewhere, especially given the tight deployment timescales the government has committed to.

The conference closed with a commitment to meet again the same time next year and slides from the day are available here. And finally, from the photostream of the event on Flickr, watch out for the chap with the rucksack – I wouldn’t listen to anything he has to say.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Conference report: Herefordshire Broadband Summit 2

Last Friday (11th February) I attended Herefordshire’s Broadband Summit 2. Organised by Fast Broadband 4 Herefordshire, the event was convened to explore the county’s options and opportunities in relation to its selection as one of Broadband Delivery UK’s (BDUK’s) four pilot projects (the other three being North Yorkshire, Cumbria and the Highlands and Islands).

Herefordshire County Council set out its broadband strategy the same week as the conference, as discussed in this previous post. The conference was opened by Robert Sullivan, Chief Executive of BDUK, who provided the background and context to the pilots. BDUK is hoping that Herefordshire will provide some lessons on how to ensure the commercial viability of rural broadband roll-outs, and is also interested in both the county’s cross-border (the plan extends into Gloucestershire and Wales too) and cross-sector intentions (in relation to healthcare in particular).

“At least” £5m will be provided for the project, according to Herefordshire’s strategy. £50m will be allocated by BDUK for additional wave 2 pilots. Bidding guidance for these will be available in early March 2011, with bids due in late April and selection by late May. More funding will follow later in 2011. Crucial to securing future BDUK funding is the creation of a local broadband plan, which should set out a strategic approach, address demand stimulation (“demand programmes will be important to deliver sustainable revenue”) and also link to existing initiatives and networks (“investigate the re-use of public sector networks to reduce the cost of rolling out superfast broadband infrastructure in your council area”).

More on BDUK’s future plans is available in two previous presentations by Robert Sullivan from November 2010, one to the Westminster eForum and available here and the other to the NextGen10 conference. Natalia Silver from Herefordshire County Council spoke next, setting out the council’s vision for broadband. Services must be affordable, and the council intends to “work with communities to find local solutions to broadband coverage” – such as farmers digging in fibre across their fields. In terms of the opportunity NGA broadband presents, Natalia pointed out that Herefordshire doesn’t have a university, so broadband presents a possible new way to access higher education services without having to travel outside the county. An interesting consideration in relation to the current debate about rising tuition fees?

The intention is to deliver to 90% of homes and businesses by 2015, providing a network that ISPs can use to reach customers (so open access?) based on fibre and other solutions as appropriate. A commercial partner will be sought shortly via a competitive exercise, and offers of further input to develop the tender documentation were welcomed. Phase 1 will focus on Herefordshire’s borders with Gloucestershire and into Wales, essentially a band to the south of the county. There was some disappointment expressed by a number of audience members who felt that the pilot didn’t go far enough in terms of coverage and was also too slow in terms of roll-out, further evidence (as if it were needed) of the pent up demand for high quality broadband access in rural areas.

The next session covered developments in rural broadband delivery. Nick Peplow described Allpay’s wireless broadband service (also mentioned here), which builds out its service to villages using church towers and spires. Torbj√∂rn Eriksen of the Open Networks Exchange (ONEX, the successor to the JON Exchange?) then explained how ONEX will provide a means to interconnect and deliver services across multiple networks, an important consideration if local, community-built networks are to offer an experience comparable to that provided by large telco’s networks.

All of which reminded me of an enquiry I once received from a school, as part of my previous life. The school in question wanted to subscribe to a package of learning materials and resources provided by a regional broadband consortium (RBC) elsewhere in the country, i.e. other than the one it was a member of. A perfectly reasonable question, given that the interconnection of RBC networks via the SuperJANET backbone makes this theoretically possible, but not currently practical, given the way connectivity and services are currently bundled for schools. There are some lessons for education here perhaps – separating the provision of connectivity (which is best delivered locally) from the provision of services (which could be delivered from anywhere, bandwidth permitting) would provide schools with a greater degree of local choice? The difficult bit would be preventing carefully worked out school broadband costs from unravelling completely of course.

Anyway, back to Herefordshire…Dale Barnes of Virgin Media spoke next, reporting on Virgin Media’s trialling of RFoG (radio frequency over glass) technology. Essentially, this provides a means to deliver a range of services over a single fibre, requiring only different equipment at customers’ premises depending on their choice of service. So Virgin Media can deliver both BT’s and its own NGA consumer services over a single fibre, proved as part of its trials of overhead fibre deployment via Western Power’s electricity pylons in Cwmbran/Crumlin, South Wales. Interestingly, Dale stressed that Virgin Media has no interest in owning or managing the fibre in such instances. For obvious safety reasons the company would much prefer to leave that to the power company or distribution network operator (DNO).

Later sessions covered demand issues and case studies, with much frustration expressed both over the current state of broadband in Herefordshire and the perceived shortcomings of the strategy for the pilot. The potential impact of broadband on Herefordshire’s economy was referenced throughout, with broadband described at one point as “the simple basic bedrock for economic regeneration”. Case studies included BT’s managed healthcare solution in Wakefield (memorably described by one beneficiary as “technology that stops you from being alone”), videoconferencing successes in Herefordshire schools and the constraints that the current lack of NGA creates for a local engineering firm. I thought this last one was particularly striking.

Leading Edge Turbines needs to exchange many large files with its manufacturers as part of the design process (for example, files detailing the stress analysis of a component may exceed 500MB), underlining the importance of symmetric connectivity and not just download speeds for businesses. The firm also provides a remote monitoring and diagnostic service for its products (which are often used in remote locations making engineer visits difficult and expensive), and will need to ensure sufficient bandwidth is available to support this service as the installed base of their products grows.

I thought this was another truly excellent example of how the broadband debate needs to move from the general (“broadband is a good thing”) to the specific – NGA levels of performance, capacity and reliability are needed to run the set of applications and services Leading Edge Turbines needs to be successful, or the company simply won’t be able to compete. See this previous post for more on this, based on examples from the healthcare sector in this instance.

Clear, irrefutable evidence is needed to demonstrate once and for all that NGA is about so much more than the iPlayer in HD, and also to show how NGA can bring about a panoply of long term benefits, cost savings and economic gains which far eclipse its initial installation costs. It would be terrific if BDUK’s pilots revealed loads more examples like this one, especially if the issues companies like Leading Edge Turbines currently face start to be addressed as a result of the pilots. Fingers crossed that they will.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Conclusions from BDUK’s theoretical exercise

Broadband Delivery UK’s (BDUK’s) theoretical exercise report, drawing conclusions from the exercise conducted last summer following the industry day in July, provides an interesting overview of the current array of technologies, challenges and opportunities in the provision of broadband in rural areas. It was published late last year alongside Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future but has slipped under my radar until now. Coffee warning: this is a long post, so you might want to go and get one before reading any further.

The purpose of BDUK’s exercise was “to understand the choice of cost effective solutions available to provide a minimum level of coverage to all premises without access to at least 2Mbps broadband”, based on three locations (one in south Wales, another in the north west of England and one in the north of Scotland). Suppliers were invited “to explain what solutions they would deploy in those areas to provide coverage, how much it would cost and what revenues they would forecast over time, and a calculation of the subsidy needed to make the project viable.”

A key finding was that the USC commitment should not be separated from the drive to deliver NGA, as also acknowledged in Britain's Superfast Broadband Future:
“BDUK’s Universal Service Commitment (USC) objective should not be seen as separate from the superfast broadband objective, but rather an integral part of pushing next generation networks deep into rural Britain.”
The importance of backhaul was also recognised, which in my view further reinforces the case for investigating the potential to consolidate and re-use existing education and other public sector networks that often have significant reach into rural areas already:
“The provision of affordable backhaul in these rural areas as part of the government’s delivery approach would positively impact the business case for private sector investment in fibre, fixed wireless and mobile solutions in those areas, reducing the subsidy needed to provide universal coverage.”
More on re-use later in this post. In total, BDUK received 26 responses, but:
 “BDUK was disappointed that despite some original expressions of interest no mobile operators decided to participate in the process, meaning BDUK saw no practical illustrations from the mobile operators of how their current plans for mobile broadband can contribute to the coverage challenge.”
There were some question marks over how representative the areas BDUK chose for the exercise actually were:
“Several suppliers shared their perception that the areas BDUK chose for the exercise were atypical and particularly hard areas to solve – in the 3% of least populated areas in the UK, as calculated by one supplier – and may not be typical of many of the not-spots and slow-spot locations. These suppliers warned BDUK against directly extrapolating costs from just these example areas for the whole of the UK’s not-spots and slow-spots. BDUK recognises that these areas may not be representative of the nature and cost of the most typical areas to be addressed, but maintains that there are a significant number of similarly difficult and costly areas in the UK, which in aggregate may require a significant proportion of an overall subsidy, if not of overall physical area covered. Nevertheless, the point about extrapolation of costs is noted.”
Many responses took a similar approach to provisioning the exercise locations:
“The majority of submissions received by BDUK proposed fixed wireless technology to solve not-spots and slow-spots in the exercise areas. These suppliers saw fixed wireless having a role in all three exercise areas, although identified limitations of point-to-multipoint solutions below a minimum scale in a particular area. For example in the North of Scotland scenario, several postcodes that weren’t clustered close together couldn’t be served cost-effectively by wireless solutions in most respondents’ solutions since the number of customers in a sector would generate too little revenue to make the service sustainable.”
Responses also highlighted the key gotcha between using licensed and unlicensed spectrum:
“Suppliers presented solutions using either licensed or unlicensed spectrum, but only those using licensed spectrum could assure service availability.” 
And an interesting finding emerged in relation to the potential to re-use of electricity pylons to deliver services:
“Even where high-voltage (HV) electricity pylons are available as options for site locations, the cost of developing new sites is often prohibitively expensive – ironically due to the cost of getting LV power to them, so construction of new masts may be necessary.”
Alanis Morissette should take note here perhaps? To quote Ed Byrne: "The only ironic thing about that song is it's called 'Ironic' and it's written by a woman who doesn't know what irony is. That's quite ironic." On fixed access, some suppliers proposed a solution new to Openreach:
 “At least one supplier proposed cabinet ‘splitting’, i.e. placing an additional cabinet closer to customers, as a way of increasing the reach of VDSL. Suppliers were told by BT Openreach that there is currently no product available from BT Openreach to enable them to ‘cut into’ the network to create / co-locate cabinets further out into the network, so at the moment this is an option that requires BT Openreach’s cooperation to implement. However the existing regulatory environment does allow Communications Providers (CPs) to request the implementation of a new equivalent product from BT Openreach.”
So would this effectively be sub-sub-loop unbundling, or SSLU? Powerline could be a possible future option for fixed access, but this is still some way from becoming an effective solution:
“BDUK received responses proposing the use of the electricity distribution network infrastructure to propagate broadband signals into the premise. Respondents were able to demonstrate the deployment of high-speed access over the power infrastructure into premises in other countries, and had the cooperation of the local electricity distribution network operator (DNO) in developing the solution. However, this solution has been piloted before, but not yet been progressed in the UK, so respondents were unable to demonstrate the commercial sustainability or practical deployment of this technology in these rural areas. The robustness of power infrastructure would suggest that this is worthy of investigation again. The powerline access technology must still connect to an appropriate backhaul route. This is not necessarily straightforward if the power infrastructure does not intercept the telecoms infrastructure locally, unless backhaul is provided via the DNO’s passive infrastructure back to an aggregation point – but these products are not yet available from the DNOs.”
Satellite options were also considered, but latency remains an issue, particularly in relation to certain applications:
“With a ~70,000km round-trip communication path, the inevitable latency of satellite means that it is more suitable for broadcasting and multicasting and less suitable for real-time services (e.g. voice, virtual private networks, two-way video) needed for home-working, relative to ground-based technologies, despite optimising technologies that improve the browsing and downloading experience.”
The importance of affordable backhaul was stressed in relation to all proposed solutions:
“A common supplier conclusion was that the provision of affordable backhaul in these areas would positively impact the economics of supplying wireline, fixed wireless and mobile technologies and so increase the business case for private sector investment.”
Some interesting insights into backhaul too, in terms of how it’s provisioned:
“All networks are shared resources, engineered to accommodate busy-period loads. Operators size networks on the basis of a backhaul allocation per customer, which enables them to offer service levels for anticipated customer experience during the day, e.g. “2Mbps available 90% of the time during peak three hours of the day”. A typical backhaul allowance from suppliers when designing solutions was 30-60Kbps per customer, which is consistent with mass-market products available today.”
The proposed solutions varied quite considerably in this regard:
“However, as the choice of backhaul infrastructure in these solutions was influenced by environmental, customer density and economic constraints, BDUK saw a wide spread in allocations: e.g. from <20Kbps for a wireline connection where backhaul would be very expensive to provision, to >200Kbps for wireless backhaul where the low density of customers on a mast meant that a significant per-customer backhaul allowance was available. These examples would result in a significantly different customer experience in peak hours of the day, but this experience is also dependent on the allowance for data transport between the operator’s point of handover and the internet as well although this is generally a commercial decision for the CP.”
Which is perhaps an important additional consideration in relation to having the “best superfast broadband in Europe” within the lifetime of this parliament, and beyond last mile bandwidth and a competitive marketplace? Responses also provided further commentary on physical infrastructure access (PIA) concerns, as I described in this previous post:
“Several suppliers had indicated that they hoped that Ofcom’s wholesale local access (WLA) consultation might provide new opportunities for backhaul. However, the recent Ofcom decision following the WLA market review accepts that access to BT Openreach’s passive infrastructure (their PIA product) should currently only apply to the access network up to the NGA access node (typically the nearest major town). Connections beyond this are provided via regulated products that sit within the business connectivity market, which are subject to cost orientation and other regulation. Suppliers also noted that while the industry is able to develop fibre access products under Ofcom’s general access obligation on BT Openreach, it is not obliged to provide dark fibre backhaul products in the current regulatory environment. This is in contrast to some other European countries, e.g. in Germany, Deutsche Telekom AG is required to offer dark fibre in certain circumstances. The use of BT passive infrastructure for leased lines and backhaul will be re-examined by Ofcom in the first half of 2011 as part of the business connectivity market assessment.”
There were both positive and negative comments in relation to the potential for re-using existing public sector networks:
"Responses that included Welsh schools or Pathfinder public sector locations highlighted the importance of previous investments in networking public sector locations; however it also became clear that there are still significant issues involved to make them accessible to public use. Specifically, it can be a challenge to transform networks created for a single customer or purpose in order to set up services that can be offered and billed to individual members of the public. This requires a different operating and security model and also upgrades to the active components of the network, which represents significant additional cost. In some instances, existing contractual arrangements may also prohibit the network operator from serving additional customers in their current form, particularly for commercial gain. Alternatively, extension of these contracts may be incompatible with public procurement regulations and also state aid guidelines for broadband.”
It’s good that such existing networks were at least acknowledged, but there is clearly more to do to explore how these challenges (most of which are contractual/commercial, rather than technical) might be addressed, as I've mentioned in this previous post (and also here). Similarly, the challenges of securing providers to offer services over new networks were also recognised  – “developing multiple interfaces into the range of alternative access networks would run into the millions of pounds” –  this is where the JON Exchange (or its successor?) has an important role, primarily in reducing the duplication of effort needed to connect multiple networks, operators and service providers, but the changing nature of the Internet and the consequential changing role played by ISPs may also help here too, as discussed in this previous post.

The section on revenue and project returns provides further insight into the nature of responses received:
“The majority of responses were received by network operators rather than the ISPs packaging their services to provide to the end-customer. Therefore most respondents had modelled wholesale prices / revenues, and only indicated the likely prices / products that would be paid / received by the end-customer.”
Which rather suggests that ISPs regard rural broadband as a problem for network operators to solve? This also has implications on the level of competition likely in rural areas, in terms of service availability and diversity:
“…standardisation has enabled the mainstream retail ISP market to operate on thin margins. If a wholesale operator does not charge the same £7 per month or through a similar business-to-business platform, mainstream ISPs will not be able to make money on these connections unless they segment their product in order to charge more to the user in these areas. The lack of availability of recognised, mainstream ISP brands risks lowering take-up among consumers and therefore an increase in demand risk for an investor. The network operator may instead be able to attract smaller, niche ISPs with a business model and products designed to target these rural coverage areas.  This outcome could be expected to result in less competition and choice for consumers – although perhaps more services tailored closer to their needs – which is less likely to provide the same benefits of innovation and price competition that has been typical in the mainstream ISP market. BDUK needs to ensure that the availability of ISP services that are valued by customers is incorporated into any procurement process or investment in the network.”
This is borne out by community implementations to date, where only a single operator is available, but I’m sure few beneficiaries would disagree that one service provider is a whole lot better than no service providers, especially if that service provider is community-owned and operated. The section on revenues also identified an additional advantage of re-using public sector networks, in relation to the public sector's provision of anchor tenants (schools, GP surgeries, libraries - if there are any left that is) to guarantee a certain level of return:
“The prospect of public sector revenues may be more limited and substantially dependent on the timing and structure of existing contractual arrangements. However, where the public sector can be relied on as an ‘anchor’ customer for a project for a significant duration – e.g. potentially through public sector network procurements – the certainty of these additional revenues makes a substantial improvement to the economics of an area.”
So the question is whether this anchor tenant advantage and the reach of existing public sector networks present enough of an opportunity to offset the commercial/contractual (and to a lesser extent technical) hurdles identified previously. To my mind, the potential benefits make it worthwhile to put some serious effort into exploring how the difficulties might be overcome.

In conclusion, the report highlights the importance of local approaches to broadband strategy, both in terms of addressing particular local requirements and also to leverage local resources and assets as fully as possible. This is something that the four superfast broadband pilot areas are actively pursuing. Balanced against this is the clear importance of scale, to ensure commercially viable and sustainable approaches. As suspected, solutions will involve a range of technologies, depending upon circumstances, and there is much to do to explore the re-use opportunity to provide cost-effective backhaul:
“The re-use of public sector available networks is frequently referenced, but the cost and practicalities of converting the potential of these assets into a service that can be productised and sold commercially has not been adequately dealt with in any of the responses. Each owner of public sector available networks resources should make clear their intentions as to the extent to which they are able to and intend for their asset to be used in offering services direct to end users.”
A fair challenge I think, and one that the public sector should respond to?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Herefordshire County Council sets out plans for BDUK pilot

Herefordshire County Council last week published its strategy for delivering superfast broadband across the region, following on from the announcement in October's comprehensive spending review that the county was one of four superfast broadband pilots being funded by Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), alongside North Yorkshire, Cumbria and the Highlands and Islands. From the council's press release:
"The aim is to have 90 per cent of homes and business in the county linked up to fast broadband by 2015, and by 2020 50 per cent of premises having the opportunity to access broadband speeds of 100Mbps."
More information about broadband developments in Herefordshire is available here, which is where the new strategy can also be downloaded. Some key extracts:
"...90% of homes and all business premises having the opportunity to connect to a superfast broadband service offering at least 40Mbps download speed and better than 10Mbps upload speed, by 2015. In the short term, by the end of 2012 progress should have been made by private initiatives for all homes and premises to have access to broadband at speeds of 4Mbps. By 2020 50% of homes and businesses should have the opportunity to access 100Mbps download speed with a choice of upload speeds. Broadband services in Herefordshire must be affordable to the user and in most cases offer a choice of Internet Service Provider. How the vision should be delivered is subject to a range of technical options, but the majority of homes and premises should be served by a county wide fibre optic infrastructure. New homes and new premises on business parks should be built by their developers with fibre optic connections."
The strategy goes on to acknowledge that FTTC may be "the first stage", given the cost and length of time provisioning is likely to take, but regards FTTH as an eventual progression from any interim FTTC solution. Open access considerations are acknowledged too:
"Other parts of the country are investing in fibre networks providing open access to any Internet Service Provider (ISP) and standards to provide interoperability are being developed through the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA)."
And on what funding is available:
"The pilot project will provide at least £5M (partly split with Gloucestershire and Wales) so an initial area can be enabled and the problems, benefits, take-up and usage can be more accurately assessed...To maximise the use of the BDUK funds the focus will be on extending a fibre network infrastructure as far as possible into rural areas, and where the final “mile” service is not easily achievable by the provider (e.g. where the distances involved prevent use of existing copper circuits) to allow local communities or other providers to deliver the fast services to more remote homes and businesses."
The important role of local communities and the JFDI ethic is recognised too:
"This may require a separate funding stream to match fund a community's own investment in this local loop unbundling, and a community may partner with an alternative provider to deliver the service.  The success of this approach would depend on the involvement of communities, possibly through Parish Councils and the parish plan process.  In some rural areas the communities have worked together with local landowners and farmers to lay ducting through fields, rather than roads, and have been able to lay fibre at less than 20% of normal costs.  A rule of thumb for cost of delivering a fibre optic connection in this situation is between £1,000 and £2,500 per premises/home, but other technologies can provide a fast service at a lower initial cost.  There is also scope through the planning system for ensuring that any major development in a rural area, including wind turbines or anaerobic digesters, include the provision of a fibre connection for the local community."
Other technologies mentioned include Allpay's and Airband's wireless broadband services. Allpay's service was recently featured on the BBC's Midlands Today programme; I wonder if the LLU analysis of Herefordshire I undertook last year might be of some interest or relevance? Thoughts on costs and financing, via a partnership approach, include the following:
"The different technologies that can be used to deliver broadband services each have their own implementation and operational costs, and one that is cheap to implement may be much more expensive to operate over a long period of 25 years.  The pilot scheme will be used see what the different telecoms providers can deliver to enable the maximum number of homes with a fast broadband service at minimum cost. Whatever the cost may be, the investment required for a county wide fast broadband service would deter the private sector from investing on its own.  However, a 40% take up of the faster service from all homes would generate additional income, and a connection charge could be used to contribute to initial costs.  In addition to this, higher levels of rental income would be obtained from larger businesses and Herefordshire Public Services, and some of the savings made from maximising technology to deliver services (e.g. tele-healthcare) could also be used to fund the programme.  When considered over the long term, such as 25 years, the costs do become more manageable.  By tackling work in stages (e.g. by simply taking fibre to a community in the first instance) there may be scope for spreading costs while delivering early benefits for people who are keen to take the service or who need it."
The importance of community involvement is stressed again here, this time in the context of community investment (at a fixed cost over a fixed period) potentially being used to leverage loan funding. All in all, an interesting read - and far more informative than the "blank sheet of paper" referred to at the NextGen10 conference. The next step for Herefordshire is the completion of the tender for the pilot, to secure a commercial partner (or partners?) via a competitive exercise. This is currently still in development, but the intention that delivery of the pilot infrastructure improvements should commence in Autumn 2011, so they'll need to go to market very soon to meet this deadline?

It'll be interesting to see what strategies are developed by the other three pilot areas. Barry Forde's trilogy of posts on the Broadband Cumbria website (on the importance and practicalities of FTTP vs FTTC, followed by a design methodology for the Eden Valley and finally a possible funding and service model) is also well worth reading. I attended Herefordshire's second Broadband Summit last week, so more to follow in another post, once I've managed to decipher my notes.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Ofcom update part 2: wholesale broadband access (WBA) developments

Further to my post last week on Ofcom's intentions in relation to wholesale local access (WLA), here's the companion post on recent developments in relation to wholesale broadband access (WBA).

Just to refresh, WBA relates to the wholesale broadband products communications providers (CPs) provide for themselves and sell to each other, whereas The WLA market concerns access to fixed telecommunications infrastructure - the connection between the consumer and the telecommunications network. WBA offerings are therefore based on one or more WLA services, with the WBA market sitting between the WLA market and the retail broadband market providing the services that consumers purchase.

Ofcom's WBA consultation was published in March 2010, alongside the WLA consultation, and was followed by a second consultation in August 2010. This further consultation considered, in particular, geographic market definition. Ofcom published a statement following the two consultations at the beginning of December 2010 (full version here). In summary, Ofcom found that while there is effective competition across most of the UK, there remain a number of areas where this is not the case:
"We have found that there is effective competition in almost 80 per cent of the UK. However, in just over one-fifth of the UK - covered by what we have called Market 1 and Market 2 - we have concluded that there is not sufficient competition and so we have imposed regulation to protect consumers. Market 1 is made up of exchange areas in which BT is currently the only provider of wholesale broadband services, whereas Market 2 comprises exchange areas with two significant providers, or with three significant providers where BT's market share is 50 per cent or more. BT has Significant Market Power (SMP) in both of these markets and will be subject to a range of regulatory obligations, including general access and non-discrimination obligations and a requirement for charges to be cost oriented. In Market 1 we have decided that BT should also be subject to a charge control, the details of which will be the subject of a separate consultation."
This separate consultation was announced last month under the banner of "better value broadband in rural areas". From the press release:
"Ofcom has proposed significant reductions in the prices that BT Wholesale can charge internet service providers (ISPs) in parts of the country where it is the sole provider of wholesale broadband services – mainly in rural areas. The proposed price reductions are between 10.75% and 14.75% below inflation. As a result, Ofcom expects competition between retail ISPs, who will benefit from the lower wholesale prices, to lead to reductions in retail prices which will benefit consumers. The changes may also lead to better quality services by enabling ISPs to allocate more bandwidth per customer which could deliver faster broadband services. This could benefit nearly 12% of UK households or around 3 million homes and businesses. These are mostly in rural areas including parts of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as the South West of England, Norfolk, Yorkshire, Cumbria, Northumberland and other areas. In other areas of the country where there is some wholesale broadband competition delivered by local loop unbundling, Ofcom is not proposing any charge controls."
In a nutshell, Ofcom found that there is not sufficient competition in just over one fifth of the UK, so has imposed regulation to protect consumers. The full consultation (which explains Ofcom's proposals for the WBA charge control in Market 1 exchange areas) is available here with a summary here. Specifcally, Ofcom are proposing charge controls for BT’s 8Mbit/s IPStream Connect product:
"In Market 1 BT sells several WBA products, each with different speed options. However, we propose to charge control only BT’s 8Mbit/s IPStream Connect product. CPs use this product to supply 86% of WBA services in Market 1. Therefore, controlling IPStream Connect directly protects most consumers in Market 1 and constrains BT from excessive charging on the other products. Also, 8Mbit/s is the maximum downstream speed available in Market 1 and the most used by end users in Market 1."
Ofcom currently define market 1, 2 and 3 exchange areas as follows:
"...there are four separate geographic markets in the UK as follows:
  • Hull Area: 0.7% of the UK premises;
  • Market 1: exchanges where only BT is present (11.7% of premises);
  • Market 2: exchanges where two Principal Operators (POs) are present or forecast and exchanges where three POs are present or forecast but where BT’s share is greater than or equal to 50% (10.0% of premises); and
  • Market 3: exchanges where four or more POs are present or forecast and exchanges where three POs are present or forecast but where BT’s share is less than 50% (77.6% of premises)."
Following the consultation (which closes at the end of March 2011) Ofcom expects to publish a statement in the summer. The charge controls are planned to come into effect shortly after publication of the statement.

I'll let you know (as I live in a Market 1 exchange area) if/when my bill goes down and/or my bandwidth goes up (my downstream rate is currently 1568 Kbps with 128 Kbps upstream according to my router, despite close proximity to the serving exchange)...but again, I shan't be holding my breath.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

"The Internet’s edge is thickening, and its core is diminishing”

Another really interesting report from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), this time on some of the ramifications of the increasing growth in delivery of video over the Internet.

The starting point for Now Playing: Video over the Internet is the recent dispute between Level 3 and Comcast over the Internet peering capacity needed to support Netflix streaming. Level 3 have won the contract from Akamai to deliver streamed video from the Netflix service (which "offers both on-demand video streaming over the internet, and flat rate online video rental (rental-by-mail) of DVD-Video and Blu-ray Disc in the United States and Canada (streaming only)", according to Wikipedia).

The dispute arose when Level 3 "asked Comcast to make300 Gigabits/second of bandwidth available for its free and exclusive use within the Comcast network, and Comcast responded that it would only provide the transmission capacity if Level 3 agreed to pay for it", according to the report, which goes on to illustrate how this dispute illustrates not only the impact video is having on the nature of the Internet but also how this instance throws some aspects of the net neutrality debate into sharp relief. For example, on the steps being taken to ensure that video can be delivered successfully, keeping pace with ever increasing demand:
“…Internet operators have already taken some very significant steps to ensure that the Internet doesn’t collapse under the massive new load that’s just around the corner: Content Delivery Networks such as Akamai and Limelight Networks have installed video servers in colocation centres and Internet Exchanges (IXs) as close as possible to the ISP networks that carry bits to the last mile, where the users are. These servers attach to ISP networks through a few feet of cable, not across the long-haul links that have been the source of Level 3’s traditional revenue stream. (They make use of long-haul links, but mainly to seed their servers with movies that will typically be downloaded hundreds or thousands of times without any further perturbation of the long-haul network.) Colos, as they’re called, exist to make this kind of interconnection fast and cheap, and succeed because distance drives cost in network economics. ISPs install routers in as many colos and IXs as possible, the better to keep their costs low and their performance high, so all the CDNs need to do to reach them is connect through a common Ethernet switch in the colo center. Arguably, CDNs bypass the Internet; at least, they bypass of the Internet backbone in the interest of better service and lower cost.”
This has sometimes been referred to as "the flattening of the Internet" as more and more traffic is delivered over its own bespoke infrastructure in this way. The main bone of contention in this instance is the fact that Level 3 will be delivering far more traffic to Comcast than it receives, undermining the principle of traditional peering arrangements:
“There’s nothing wrong with Level 3’s requesting 300 Gbps of bandwidth from Comcast at the best price it can get, but there’s an established convention around the Internet for network-to-network traffic exchange that Level 3 doesn’t want to follow: You only get free access to a network if you can offer equal value in return, something Level 3 can’t do because their network isn’t extensive enough to do as much work for Comcast as Level 3 expects Comcast to do for it...When some Network A connects to a Network B of similar size, scope, utilization, and capacity, they’ll typically interconnect with no money changing hands; this is traditional Settlement-Free Interconnection (SFI) or peering. But if Network A is a small regional network and Network B has international scope, undersea cables, and massive redundancy for quality and reliability, Network A will pay Network B a volume-based transit fee for moving its packets.”
According to the report, the key driver here is (or should be) the economic one, with the money following the direction of the dominant traffic flow:
“The traditional way that operators have resolved questions about payment for interconnection is to measure traffic between the two networks and to have the money follow the direction of the dominant traffic flow. If Network A sends more traffic to Network B than vice versa, Network A pays. This works for the networks that have historically served as backbones, carrying traffic for others but not generating any of their own. The “sender pays” model works well enough to capture the economics of long-haul networking even though it doesn’t single out all the cost factors; ensuring that money flows in the same direction as traffic has been a good-enough simplifying assumption to keep the backbone ecosystem healthy and competitive.”
There's more:
“…every packet (except the malicious ones) on the Internet flows because someone asked for it—that fact alone doesn’t entitle anyone to free transit...Network costs are determined not only by how many packets a network carries, they’re heavily shaped by the distance the packets must be carried; long pipes cost more to build and operate than short ones…So even in the case where two networks hand off equal numbers of packets to each other, the network that carries them furthest has higher costs and is entitled to a larger share of the fees, all else being equal. This discrepancy has to be accounted for in any rational peering or transit agreement, as those that are public all do. This idea also serves the public policy goal in which rewards flow with investment; the more extensive the infrastructure, the greater the fees it should generate.”
And this is the report's key point about the changing nature of the Internet I think:
“While the Top 10 networks in terms of traffic in 2007 were all transit providers, two networks have entered the Top 10 as of 2010 that are not traditional transit networks, Google and Comcast. The Internet’s edge is thickening, and its core is diminishing.”
In response to Level 3 crying "foul" on the basis of net neutrality to the FCC, the report has this to say:
"Netflix has made a business calculation and determined that the stars are aligned such that playing the net neutrality card now will provoke the most favorable reaction from Comcast and the FCC: The agency is struggling to assert net neutrality rules against the objections of a hostile Congress, Comcast wants the FCC to approve its merger with NBC Universal, and Level 3 needs to succeed in the CDN business because the transit business is declining. Regulators should not buy the claim that paying for transit from a few widely separated colos to ISP end users distributed across three-quarters of a million route miles is unfair."
And in conclusion, on what an appropriate regulatory response should look like:
"The firms are capable of working out this dispute on their own; other CDNs have been able to reach satisfactory terms with Comcast and the other ISPs, and Level 3 is not doing much different from what Akamai and Limelight have done in the past. The FCC would do well to step back and let the firms work out the terms of an agreement among themselves."
To my mind, the key role of regulators in relation to the net neutrality is ensuring transparency at all levels - that way the customer understands what he or she is paying for, and providers have the ability and agility necessary to innovate to bring new services to market (like CDNs).

Any claim that CDNs violate net neutrality seems a red herring to me. CDNs are about additional, dedicated capacity; they aren't about reserving capacity to prioritise certain traffic, a point well made by ZDNet's David Meyer in relation to BT's ContentConnect service his blog (also referenced in this previous post).

All of which, in a roundabout sort of way, continues to underline the importance of maintaining a dedicated broadband infrastructure for education, just as Akamai and other providers of CDN services do for their customers?

Ofcom update - WLA, SLU, LLU, PIA, VULA, GEA, ALA and WBA in support of NGA - so that's all clear then?

I never followed up my post last March on Ofcom's two consultations on ways to encourage investment in next generation access (NGA) - on wholesale local access (WLA) and wholesale broadband access (WBA) - with details of their outcomes. This post relates to the WLA consultation and developments since, I'll cover the WBA one separately. So here goes, let the TLA-fest commence...

The WLA consultation (where WLA relates to fixed telecommunications infrastructure - the physical connection between a consumer's premises and the local telephone exchange) covered a range of proposals to encourage NGA deployments, including physical infrastructure access (PIA), more commonly referred to as duct and pole sharing. The idea here that access infrastructure (principally BT's), in the form of underground ducts and telegraph poles, should be opened up for use by other communications providers (CPs) to reduce the cost of deploying fibre. The consultation also described a new mechanism called virtual unbundled local access (VULA) designed to replicate local loop unbundling (LLU) in an NGA (fibre) context, as well as considering existing mechanisms like LLU and sub-loop unbundling (SLU).

Following the consultation Ofcom announced its WLA proposals in a summary statement on 7th October 2010 (press release here and full document here). In addition to requiring BT to continue to offer its existing access mechanisms, the bulk of this statement set out how the two new interventions, PIA and VULA, should be provided. As part of the consultation, Ofcom commissioned an analysis of how PIA costs compared with deployment based on a wholesale NGA product such as BT’s Generic Ethernet Access (GEA) product:
"The modelling showed that a shared infrastructure NGA network deployment would have significantly higher fixed costs than the GEA product at current prices even under very favourable assumptions about infrastructure sharing. These fixed costs mean that a shared infrastructure based NGA network deployment would be more expensive for a CP than GEA at all but high customer penetration. This suggests that it may be a less attractive option for CPs in areas where BT has deployed its own NGA network, at least while demand for NGA services remains uncertain. A PIA obligation looks to be a much more attractive option for areas where BT has not deployed an NGA network. In these areas a PIA obligation would make entry easier by reducing CPs’ costs and putting them on a more equal footing with BT. This could speed up the initial NGA network deployment.”
Which suggests PIA may be less of a silver bullet than it's been hailed as in some quarters perhaps? Ofcom's statement also noted that in future PIA obligations won't solely fall on incumbents with significant market power (SMP):
“…the EU regulatory framework has recently been amended and the amendments have to be translated into UK law by May 2011. One of the amendments relates to infrastructure sharing, widening NRAs’ powers so that they can require any CP to share its physical infrastructure rather than just CPs designated as having SMP. We plan to undertake some scoping work and expect to announce in the near future how we propose to consider the case for exercising the new infrastructure sharing powers.”
 ...where NRA stands for national regulatory authority. Ofcom's statement required BT to provide a reference offer (RO) within three months of its statement, to be followed by a review process before launching. Openreach published its RO together with indicative pricing (£21 per pole and 95p per metre) on 14th January 2011 (related Ofcom annoucement here). A service launch is due in February 2012 if Ofcom's timeline is followed (and my maths is correct). Ofcom’s statement acknowledged that “that defining access arrangements for poles is likely to be more complex and more time consuming than for ducts”, and therefore granted BT six months to produce an RO for poles, as opposed to the three it was allowed for ducts – so is this due in April/May 2011? Interestingly, the related BT press release mentioned that a commercial launch is expected is summer 2011, which is ahead of Ofcom’s schedule. Computer Weekly reported a mixed reception to Openreach's offer, so it will be interesting to see how the review process develops.

The most contentious aspect of PIA seems to be its scope, or the purposes for which it can, or in this context, can't be used. This scope was set out on page 117 of Ofcom's March 2010 WLA consultation:
“The purpose of the proposed remedy is to promote competition and infrastructure investment in the deployment of both FTTC and FTTP NGA access networks. We therefore propose that the geographic scope and the allowed uses of the remedy should be limited to this purpose. We are therefore proposing that the scope of the remedy should encompass all infrastructure in BT’s access network (i.e., ducts, poles and associated infrastructure such as chambers), where the access network is defined as the network between business and residential end users premises and their serving BT exchange. Physical infrastructure beyond serving exchanges would fall outside this scope. Thus, CPs would not be able to install cables in sections of BT’s network outside the access network, for instance between local exchanges and metro-nodes. We are proposing that use of the remedy should be limited to the deployment of access networks for: Broadband and telephony services; and SLU backhaul services between cabinets and serving MDF sites. Thus operators would not be able to use the remedy to install cables for other purposes. The installation of cables for backhaul circuits or leased lines would not be permitted. We would consider whether it would be appropriate to extend the scope of the remedy to other services in the relevant market reviews.”
These limitations on PIA have brought criticism, particularly from Geo which published this briefing paper on the matter. CEO Chris Smedley also addressed this in his presentation to NextGen10 in November 2010. From Geo's briefing paper:
"The limitations on duct and pole access will severely harm investment and limit returns to public  and private investors. It is short sighted to restrict an investor from exploiting the full capabilities of  the access network in this manner. Further, it perpetuates BT’s monopoly, gives it an unfair  advantage over other operators, as it is not subject to these restrictions, and it is free to fully  commercialise its network. The restrictions will be particularly detrimental in rural and remote areas where wireless and  mobile technologies will be, or form part of, an effective broadband solution, together with VDSL  and fibre roll-outs. By excluding these technologies it will eliminate any “village pump” investment  models or hybrid fibre/wireless or mobile deployments."
Ofcom's justification for their approach is set out on page 110 of their statement, in relation to the limitations on geographic scope:
“We have proposed PIA as a remedy to promote effective competition in the WLA market and therefore the geographic scope of the remedy that we can impose is restricted to the WLA market, i.e., local access networks. It would not therefore be possible to extend the scope of PIA to include backhaul or core network infrastructure as part of this market review. However, we recognise that fibre NGA networks will be free from the copper network transmission limitations and may therefore adopt a different topology, particularly in relation to their reach (i.e., the area served from the access nodes) which in some cases may be larger than for copper local access networks…we consider it would be appropriate to allow PIA to be used over an area that more accurately reflects local access in the NGA context. We have therefore modified the SMP condition (FAA12) to allow PIA to be used in infrastructure between end user premises and the serving BT NGA exchange (existing and planned) or other BT exchanges that are broadly equivalent in terms of distance from the end user premises and level of aggregation… It is important to note that the geographic scope is intended only to limit use of PIA to local access deployments, and does not imply a requirement for CPs to serve premises from BT’s NGA exchanges (though they could if they wished to), and will allow them to serve end user premises from their own exchanges and to ‘break-out’ from the BT duct/pole network at intermediate points before the BT NGA exchange to connect to their own networks.”
And the justification for the limitations on the purposes PIA can be used for is on page 111:
"Leased line and backhaul services are currently regulated under the business connectivity market, where BT is required to provide these products on a cost orientated basis and in many cases in accordance with a specific charge control. We, therefore, consider that introducing PIA as a remedy into the business connectivity market could undermine the remedies that we have already imposed in that is our view that it would be inappropriate for us to extend the scope of PIA without assessing the need for and impact of a PIA remedy in the business connectivity market. We have therefore decided to maintain the scope of PIA as proposed in the consultation document, allowing it to be used for the deployment of access networks for broadband and telephony services and also for SLU backhaul services between cabinets and the local NGA exchange. We will consider the case for allowing PIA to be used for leased lines in the next business connectivity market review, which we intend to commence in the first half of our view, extending the scope of PIA to include leased lines would be unlikely to stimulate much additional investment in NGA networks in the short term.”
 ...which rather suggests to me that it would perhaps have been more sensible (and in keeping with the wishes of the industry) to consider PIA more broadly in the first instance, as a mechanism cutting across all market sectors, not just in relation to the local access market?

Moving on to VULA, the other new intervention, here's what Ofcom concluded:
“…BT will be required to provide VULA services on fair and reasonable terms, conditions and charges as soon as reasonably practicable to all CPs who reasonably request in writing such services. Further, we conclude that the key characteristics that we set out in the consultation document should be maintained, noting that there are likely to be many additional considerations when developing and implementing the detailed product specifications. We also conclude that we should implement our proposed specific form of no undue discrimination. Finally, we conclude that there should be no explicit price regulation of the VULA products and that instead BT should be given pricing flexibility. However, we consider that the requirement on BT to provide VULA on fair and reasonable terms, conditions and charges may be important to ensure that BT does not introduce inappropriate pricing structures.”
So no regulated pricing for VULA products is currently proposed. Ofcom also acknowledged BT's development of its Generic Ethernet Access (GEA) NGA wholesale products for CPs, which will be the means through which it addresses its VULA obligations, though some concerns still remain over these and there doesn't yet appear to be a definite timetable for availability. From the next steps section of Ofcom's WLA statement:
"It is clear from the responses, and from general discussion with industry, that further development of BT’s GEA products is needed to meet the demands of BT’s CP customers. We consider that these developments should be considered and progressed by the industry working groups, with the facilitation of the OTA (Office of the Telecommunications Adjudicator), in the first instance. We would however note that BT is under a general obligation to provide network access on reasonable request. CPs can therefore formalise there requirements under this requirement and if BT and CPs are unable to agree there is the option for the matter to be submitted to us as a dispute."
So VULA's a goer, but there's a way to go before it's a reality. The recently finalised active line access (ALA) documents prepared by NICC (commentaries here and here) should assist with bringing products to market?

Whew. Right, next up: the outcomes from the WBA consultation...but not just yet.