Friday, July 27, 2012

Google Fiber launches in Kansas City


Yesterday (further to this previous post) Google launched its Google Fiber service in Kansas City - you can see a video of the launch event here (amusingly introduced with this soundtrack).

Lots of information on the Google Fiber website and blog. This extract from the blog explains how the roll-out will work; demand is key to determining when and where this will happen:
"Tell us if you want Google Fiber in two easy steps:
  1. Pre-register: Starting today, if you live in an eligible Kansas City household, you can pre-register by visiting google.com/fiber. All you need to do for pre-registration is provide some basic information (like your name and address) and pay a $10 deposit.
  2. Rally your neighbors: Over the next six weeks, get your neighbors and friends to pre-register too.
Here’s why: Google Fiber works better when communities are connected together. So we’ve divided Kansas City into small communities we call “fiberhoods.” We’ll install only where there’s enough interest, and we’ll install sooner in fiberhoods where there’s more interest. You can check out your fiberhood’s pre-registration goal, as well as a real-time status update of all Kansas City fiberhoods on our rankings page. 
The rally lasts for six weeks and ends on September 9. When you participate, not only will you help bring Google Fiber to your home, you’ll also help bring it to your community—if your fiberhood reaches its pre-registration goal, we’ll also connect community buildings like schools, libraries and hospitals with free Gigabit Internet. 
After the rally, we’ll let you know if your fiberhood has reached its goal. If so, you can sign up for your service package. The first homes will get service shortly after the rally ends, and all qualifying neighborhoods will receive service before the end of 2013."
 This extract from the FAQs on the Google Fiber help pages explains fiberhoods in a little more detail:
"A fiberhood is a portion of Kansas City, KS or Kansas City, MO that includes about 250-1,500 households. We determined fiberhood boundaries based on a number of factors. First, we worked with the Kansas City governments and community leaders to learn about pre-existing neighborhoods or communities. Then, we looked at those communities and determined very clear boundaries at their edges like streets and parks."
Not sure what the pre-registration goals are for fiberhoods are, but according to the initiative's twitter feed this afternoon three (Hannover Heights, Roanoke and Coleman Highlands) have already achieved theirs. The plans and pricing page lists three residential service packages to choose from:
  • gigabit Internet (1 Gbps upload and download) plus TV for $120/month (+ taxes & fees) on a 2-year contract with no data caps, with a Nexus 7 tablet, TV Box, 2 TB Storage Box, Network Box and 1TB Google Drive;
  • gigabit Internet (1 Gbps upload and download) for $70/month (+ taxes & fees) on a 1-year contract with no data caps, with a Google Network Box and 1TB Google Drive included and a Chromebook as an optional add-on (starting at $299);
  • free Internet for a one-off installation fee of $300 (this is waived for the other two packages), including a Network Box and up to 5Mbps download and1Mbps upload speeds with no data caps and free service guaranteed for at least 7 years.
More on these packages here. Google has also set up the Google Fiber Space to showcase the possibilities and potential of gigabit Internet. One word: wow.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

More evidence of the economic importance of broadband


Earlier this month, Techworld published an article questioning the extent to which slow and unreliable broadband is discouraging high-tech businesses from setting up shop in the UK, and potentially damaging London's economy. This was based on a press release published by the Greater London Authority about a report to the London Assembly's Economy Committee:
"Representatives of the capital’s businesses and academics told the Assembly’s Economy Committee  that London is lagging behind Seoul, Berlin, New York – and even Vilnius and parts of Moldova - when it comes to broadband speeds. They said slow and unreliable broadband meant that new start-ups would avoid London and set up elsewhere and existing companies, frustrated by slow speeds and poor service, are being driven out. Committee Members also heard that BT was taking far too long to set up broadband connections – in one case up to three months - meaning some companies had to use dongles so they could carry out day-to-day work.   BT denied the allegation, saying it took seven days, on average, to connect broadband in London."
The minutes of the discussion are available here. This follows on from London's Digital Economy,  a report published by the Authority in January 2012, drawing together a variety of data sources (such as the Broadband Quality Survey 2010to "highlight London’s position in the digital arena". For example:
"...UK broadband services enable users to “comfortably enjoy” the latest web applications but still lag some way behind the best in the world, such as those in South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. The Survey scores London at 30, the same as Glasgow and one point higher than Birmingham. This compares to the winning city of Seoul that has an overall score of 73."
In the USA, Connect Iowa this month published a report  focusing on the critical link between jobs and broadband across the state, illustrating that broadband is critical to empowering Iowa's workforce. Key findings include:
  • Among businesses that use the Internet, 38% (or approximately 24,000 businesses) advertise job openings or accept job applications online.
  • Approximately 1,000 Iowa businesses only accept job applications online.
  • Nearly two-fifths (39%), or approximately 720,000, of Iowans search or apply for jobs online.
  • Rural Internet users are significantly less likely to use the Internet to search or apply for jobs. Forty-two percent (42%) of non-rural Iowa Internet users search or apply for jobs online, while only 35% of rural Iowa Internet users search or apply for jobs.
  • More than one-half of adults with annual household incomes of less than $25,000 (53%) go online and search or apply for jobs.
  • Approximately 57,000 Iowa businesses still do not utilize the Internet to attract and recruit new workers.
  • Approximately 149,000 low-income adults in Iowa use the Internet to search or apply for jobs online.
Finally, this FCC blog post describes a new initiative designed to address the low rate of broadband adoption by low-income Americans. Increasing access to broadband amongst such groups in turn increases access to jobs, education and economic opportunity.

Net neutrality update


Following on from developments last month (details here), the European Commission has this week launched a public consultation "seeking answers to questions on transparency, switching and certain aspects of internet traffic management, with a view to its commitment to preserve the open and neutral character of the Internet". In particular the Commission is seeking views on:
  • internet traffic management, including congestion management, managed services and privacy issues;
  • transparency, in particular regarding the actual internet performance (speed and quality) and restrictions of internet access products;
  • the possibility for consumers to switch operators; and
  • internet interconnection issues between network operators.
According to the press release, these questions have emerged as key issues in the "net neutrality" debate that has taken place in Europe over the past years, including the recent findings of the Body of European Regulators of European Communications (BEREC). The intention is to "end the net neutrality waiting game in Europe", turning BEREC's findings into practical recommendations.

The main thrust would appear to be on ways to empower consumers to exercise informed choice, rather than placing restrictions on the marketplace, thereby creating a competitive, innovative marketplace where consumers can easily understand the strengths and limitations of a particular service, switching to another provider if required. This is in keeping with the general principle that regulatory intervention in competitive markets is inappropriate unless it becomes the only way to resolve problems. In some ways the approach seems to be to encourage industry to self-regulate rather than face unwanted external regulation. The consultation closes on 15 October 2012.

Commentary from ISP Review here, on the same day the EC also launched a consultation on a future EU Network and Information Security legislative initiative (press release here). Also of note is the launch today by the Broadband Stakeholder Group of a voluntary Open Internet Code of Practicewith signatories to the Code confirming that they will:
  • Ensure that full and open internet access products, with no blocked services, will be the norm within their portfolio of products.
  • Provide greater transparency in instances where certain classes of legal content, applications and/or services are unavailable on a product. These products will not be marketed as “internet access” and signatories will be obliged to ensure that any restrictions are clearly communicated to consumers.
  • Not target and degrade the content or applications of specific providers.
...which would seem to provide a good fit with the principles underpinning the EC consultation. However, it would seem there remain some issues to be ironed out, as both the BBC and ISP Review report that while ten ISPs including BT, O2 and Talktalk have backed the agreement, Virgin Media, Everything Everywhere and Vodafone have so far opted out. The BBC list the following reasons for this:
"The businesses which declined said they all supported the idea of an open internet, but had qualms about the code itself. Virgin Media suggested the circumstances under which traffic management practices could be deployed needed to be defined more strictly...Vodafone said the code was "impractical" as it would have restricted how it marketed its packages...Everything Everywhere - which runs the T-Mobile and Orange mobile networks - said it was simply not ready to join."

Higher education broadband developments


Some interesting recent developments in the higher education sector, both in terms of content and infrastructure.

The BBC reported that the University of Edinburgh was the first UK university to participate in the Coursera project, which provides an online platform which carries course content from its partner universities (coverage from the New York Times here). Coursera offers its courses without charge and has acquired 650,000 students since its launch. The BBC article states that this is indicative of  a rapid change over the past year in attitudes towards delivering higher education online, with universities no longer considering whether or not they should offer courses online but simply how to put it into practice. The edX project, being launched this autumn, is similar, being a partnership between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), based on MIT's earlier prototype MITx service. The Khan Academy deserves a mention in this context too (more here).

In many ways it's still very early days for these services, and a number of issues remain to be resolved, for example in relation to how to assess and accredit online education. But it will be interesting to see in time if and how these models come to complement and augment the traditional model of higher education. Anything which makes the sector more accessible, both domestically and internationally, can only be a good thing in my view; though such programmes are clearly entirely dependent upon the sufficient availability of broadband connectivity if they are to have true universal reach.

In terms of infrastructure, ArsTechnica recently reported on the Gig.U initiative (more here) which seeks to "seeks to accelerate the deployment of ultra high-speed networks to leading U.S. universities and their surrounding communities". The ArsTechnica article describes the opportunity the initiative is attempting to build on:
"College towns have several advantages that make them ideal locations for the nation's fastest broadband networks. The people who live near college towns tend to be relatively affluent professors and tech-savvy college kids: both desirable customers for a broadband network. In addition, the Internet began as an academic project, so universities themselves tend to have deep expertise in building and maintaining high-speed networks. And universities often have a lot of influence over local governments whose cooperation will be crucial to making the project cost-effective."
The project's specific aim is to drive demand for new gigabit applications:
"Right now, there's a kind of chicken-and-egg problem with next-generation Internet services: there are few applications that can make use of gigabit network speeds, but no one wants to build those applications without an installed base of customers. Levin (Gig.U Executive Director) sees his project as a partial solution to this problem. He hopes Gigabit Squared will be able to "lead demand" for new high-speed Internet applications rather than merely following demand that already exists. "One of the best things that occurred when the Internet went private—the universities kept control of the networks on their campuses," he told us. "The best networks are really the campus networks." Levin hopes to see high-speed connectivity spread outwards from the nation's universities to encompass the surrounding communities."
Finally, Bill St. Arnaud makes a number of interesting observations in a recent blog post about the future of R&E networks and cyber-infrastructure which offer some synergy with the thinking behind Gig.U:
"Almost all of the major Internet applications we know of today such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc were first developed at university dormitories and laboratories by students who had access to these high speed research networks. The unfettered bandwidth and “permission free” environment made possible by universities connected through R&E networks enabled these students to create exciting new applications and services that would not be possible on commercial networks of the day."
This opportunity for experimentation and exploration is key to creativity:
"...R&E networks are morphing into “entertainment” networks as the bulk of the IP traffic (over 60%) at many universities  is video streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, video file sharing etc.  This is consistent with other data I have seen over the years, that the bulk of most IP traffic on R&E networks is destined for residences and dormitories, of which a substantial is entertainment or game based traffic. (Lightpath traffic is generally much more research intensive)...this preponderance of social networking and entertainment traffic on university R&E networks is not a bad thing. Students are the leading adopters of advanced technology and when they are given the  freedom of having virtually unfettered bandwidth and few restrictions they can be very creative. New services such as R&E CDN networks, collaborative platforms, integrated wireless services, etc promise to leverage this entertainment aspect of R&E networks to facilitate a similar revolution as students in residences get exposed to these technologies and adopt them into new products and services out into the working world."
In this context the Gig.U initiative appears particularly insightful.

Google Fibre update


Some interesting speculations in advance of the much-anticipated launch of Google Fibre in Kansas City tomorrow, 26th July 2012 (see here for more).

The Green (Low Carbon) Data Centre Blog offers this analysis of why Google embarked on the project:
"Google fiber connects users with a 1 gigabit bandwidth connection vs. a more typical 10 megabit to the home.  Remember the days when the corporate LAN was 10 megabit, and it was a privilege to have 100 megabit?  1 gigabit is the common connection in corporate LANs now, and data centers are networked with 10 gigabit...Google is going to be able run load tests on these data centers with 1 gigabit connections to thousands of users...With this data Google will be able to more accurately plan for when 1 gigabit will be pervasive what kind of changes are needed in the data centers, servers, networking storage, software, operations to run 1 gigabit connections."
GigaOM suggests Google's intention is to explore strategic options rather than simply operational issues:
"Google said it wanted to build out the network so it could see what people might do with a full gigabit connection, but I also think this is Google’s answer to the ISP’s continued whining about how much networks cost to operate and how providers like Google or Netflix should pay them for delivering traffic across the ISP’s networks. Soon, Google will have real data on what it costs to build and operate a wireline network — and in typical Google fashion I expect we’ll hear about how it has driven those costs down by building or adapting gear in a way traditional ISPs haven’t. Hopefully at the event we’ll also learn more on what Google plans to charge for access to the network as well as if it plans to share it with other ISPs."
Another interesting commentary from GigaOM here. Bill St. Arnaud's Free Fiber to the Home Blog (also cited on Fiberevolution), in questioning how Google is going to make the venture profitable, suggests Google intends to connect everyone for free with a basic level of Google TV ad-driven service and offer energy management services on top:
"An intriguing hint on Google’s strategy is their plans to deploy fiber above the neutral wire on the poles. Although far less cluttered than being below the neutral wire, this means that specially trained or electrical utility crews  must install the fiber. It means that any moves adds, or changes to the fiber splice boxes etc will require these same expensive, unionized crews.  Generally when deploying a FTTH network, drops to individual homes are installed when a customer subscribes to the service, but with fiber installed above the neutral wire, it probably makes more sense to deploy all drops and splice boxes during the initial build out. This also drives up front costs. The only way for this type of strategy makes sense is if Google plans to fiber up every home from day one...Google will offer a basic free high speed Internet to each and every home, perhaps bundled with Google TV using their new set top box. A variety of premium services will also be offered for additional fees...The other potential area for Google to make money is operating as an ESCO (Energy Services Company)...rather than enticing customers to monitor their energy Google, in partnership with the local utility, could offer to peak manage the customer’s power usage, by briefly turning off air conditioners and hot water tanks. They could also install smart thermostats and other devices to further reduce energy consumption. The money in the energy savings would use to pay for the fiber or premium services, rather than being returned to the customer as piffling amount of energy savings."
It will be interesting to see what tomorrow's announcement brings.

Ofcom: 4G auction plans published


Yesterday Ofcom published its plans for the auction of 4G spectrum, which is to be underway by the end of 2012 with the first services expected to be available in the second half of 2013. From Ofcom's press release:
"The plans should see mobile broadband rolled out to at least 98% of people in villages, towns and cities across the UK. This will be achieved through 4G, the fourth generation of mobile technology, which will deliver much faster mobile data speeds to phones and other wireless devices than presently possible."
The auction will add considerably to the amount of mobile spectrum available for use by operators:
"The 4G auction will offer at least two spectrum bands – 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz. The lower frequency 800 MHz band is part of the ‘digital dividend’, which is ideal for widespread mobile coverage. The higher frequency 2.6 GHz band is ideal for delivering the capacity needed to deliver faster speeds. These two bands add up to 250 MHz of additional mobile spectrum, compared to 333 MHz in use today. This combination of low and high frequency spectrum creates the potential for 4G mobile broadband services to be widely available across the UK, while offering capacity to cope with significant demand in urban centres."
Ofcom has decided on the following approach to promote competition:
"Ofcom has concluded that UK consumers are likely to benefit from better services at lower prices if there are at least four credible national wholesalers of 4G mobile services. Therefore, in the interests of competition, Ofcom has decided to reserve a minimum amount of spectrum in the auction for a fourth operator. This could be either Hutchison 3G or a new entrant altogether."
Coverage obligations will ensure as wide availability as possible:
"The spectrum bands will be auctioned to bidders as a series of lots. One of the 800 MHz lots of spectrum will carry an obligation to provide a mobile broadband service for indoor reception to at least 98% of the UK population by the end of 2017 at the latest. The 800 MHz spectrum is well suited to providing high levels of coverage, and we anticipate that imposing the obligation on one operator will drive other operators to extend their own coverage in response. Given that it is easier to provide coverage outdoors than indoors, a network meeting this obligation is likely to cover more than 99% of the UK by population when outdoors."
Further information here, Ofcom also published yesterday a  draft of the legal instrument which implements the auction rules and gives effect to its decisions. This is subject to a statutory consultation closing on 11 September 2012. No decision has yet been made on whether Everything Everywhere will be allowed to launch 4G services using its existing spectrum holdings in advance of the auction:
"In November 2011, the mobile phone operator Everything Everywhere (EE) submitted an application to Ofcom to use its existing spectrum to deliver 4G services. Ofcom consulted earlier this year on whether to allow the change of use. A final decision on EE’s application – which is being considered independently of the auction for new spectrum – will be published by Ofcom in due course."
More on this here. Coverage from the BBC here and Technology Correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones here. ISP Review's coverage expressed disappointment in what it saw as Ofcom delaying the auction, though Rory Cellan-Jones' article suggests the auction is still within Ofcom's envisaged timescale. ThinkBroadband's coverage is here.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

BT & Fujitsu update


Earlier this week, BT announced it had won the contract to deliver next generation broadband services across North Yorkshire, one of the four original Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) pilot areas (see here and also here). From BT's press release:
"The project, which will commence with immediate effect, will build on BT’s commercial investment so that 90 per cent of North Yorkshire homes and businesses – some 365,000 premises - will have access to world class broadband speeds of up to 80Mbps  by the end of 2014. Ultra-fast broadband speeds of up to 330Mbps will also be deployed in certain areas and made available ‘on demand’ throughout the entire fibre footprint should North Yorkshire businesses want to upgrade to even faster speeds. The remaining 10 per cent of premises will also see a speed uplift as the project aims to deliver 2Mbps or more by the end of 2014 to all homes and businesses. BT will also look to work with communities in the final 10 per cent to see if fibre can be extended further through innovative collaborative projects."
Similar announcements from NYnet here and North Yorkshire County Council here, with commentary from ISP Review here. Earlier this month, BT announced they had won the contract to deliver Public Services Network (PSN) cost savings and faster internet speeds in schools, libraries and fire stations across Northumberland. From the BT press release:
"The deal will see BT Global Services continue to provide Northumberland County Council with NorthNet, a shared services platform which supports the councils own IT services and those of other public sector services in the area such as schools, health centres and emergency services. By providing Northumberland County Council with advanced network access BT is enabling the council to deliver better services and improved access for citizens in areas previously beyond reach of the NorthNet network. Rural towns including Wooler, Belford, Bellingham and Rothbury are set to benefit, with schools in those areas to see an increase in internet speeds giving faster access to educational support material and internet based applications. BT’s existing partnership with the Council has already generated £860,000 worth of savings, and the new deal is set to deliver further benefits. It includes upgrading the existing council network to be PSN ready, enabling the council to reap the benefits of greater connectivity across public sector services."
According to ThinkBroadband, an announcement will be made shortly that BT has also been successful in WalesAs I reported recently, Fujitsu have now signed BDUK's Framework Agreement but are yet to win any business in this area. However, ISP Review report that Fujitsu has "announced the expansion of its 100G Dark Fibre network to cover an additional 2,500km of fibre optic cable, which supports “true” 100Gbps (Gigabits per second) data capacity across its carrier-grade Managed Wavelength Service (MWS) network." Fujitsu press release here.


Update: both the Welsh Government and BT have issued press releases announcing that BT has been awarded the contract this afternoon. From BT's press release:
"The initiative, which is subject to State aid and major projects approval from the European Commission, will take the total amount invested in Welsh fibre broadband to around £425 million when BT’s commercial investment is also taken into account. The project is the next phase in the delivery of the Welsh Government’s commitment to make high speed broadband available across the country. It will build on BT’s existing investment with the aim being that 96 per cent of Welsh homes and businesses will have access to world class broadband speeds of up to 80Mbps by the end of 2015. Ultra-fast broadband speeds of up to 330Mbps will also be deployed in certain areas and made available ‘on demand’ throughout the entire fibre footprint should Welsh businesses want to upgrade to even faster speeds. This major investment is set to transform the broadband landscape in Wales and boost the Welsh economy. It will be of particular benefit to the tens of thousands of local businesses who are scattered throughout the country. This is because fibre broadband provides speeds that are approximately 15 times faster than those available in Wales today with ultra-fast broadband providing an even bigger uplift should businesses require it. The project will be of particular benefit to those homes which currently receive speeds of less than 2Mbps. According to Ofcom, more than 20 per cent of Welsh homes currently receive such speeds but that number will fall to around two per cent when the roll-out is complete. The Welsh Government is developing plans to address any remaining premises which will form the final phase of its commitment to making Wales a broadband nation."
Commentary from ISP Review here and the BBC here.

Full commercial launch of Openreach FTTP services announced


Earlier this month, Openreach announced the full commercial launch of its fibre to the premises (FTTP) range of products. From the press release:
"The full set of wholesale products, which range from 40Mbps to 330Mbps downstream and 2Mbps to 30Mbps upstream, will allow Communications Providers (CPs) to differentiate themselves in the market by offering a wide range of fibre products to suit the needs of small and medium businesses as well as bandwidth-hungry consumers. These products, which have only previously been available to CPs on an ‘early market deployment’ basis, will initially be available within the 15 exchange areas where FTTP infrastructure has been deployed to date. However, this availability will improve as Openreach expands the FTTP network to other exchange areas and explores the option of deploying the service to new housing developments and multi dwelling units such as apartment blocks."
This follows on from the previous announcement of the eight pilot areas where BT's FTTP on demand service will be trialled (details here). A fact sheet about the on demand trial is available here and another about the FTTP service is available here.

Ofcom's 2012 Communications Market Review


Yesterday Ofcom published its 2012 Communications Market Review (press release here). A few headline points of interest:
  • Traditional forms of communications are declining in popularity, with the overall time spent on the phone falling by 5% in 2011. This reflects a 10% fall in the volume of calls from landlines, and for the first time ever, a fall in the volume of mobile calls (by just over 1%) in 2011.
  • UK households now own on average three different types of internet-enabled device – such as a laptop, smartphone or internet-enabled games console – with 15% owning six or more devices.
  • Four in ten (39%) adults now own a smartphone, a 12 percentage point increase on 2010.
  • Internet connected ‘smart TVs’ are growing in popularity with 5% of UK households now owning one, giving consumers the ability to ‘Turf’ – both watch TV and surf the web.
  • Home internet access went up by three percentage points to 80% - the largest rise was among 65 to 74 year olds, increasing nine percentage points to 64% between Q1 2011 and 2012.
  • However, year-on-year growth of the UK online audience has slowed to 1.6%. Since January 2004 the number of desktop/laptop internet users in the UK rose by an average of 6.2% each year to 39.7 million in January 2012. However, annual growth has slowed from 10.3% in January 2009 to just 1.6% in January 2012. Average time online per month per internet user stood at 23.5 hours for 2011.
  • A third of people aged 16-24 lived in homes where mobiles were the sole form of telecoms in Q1 2012 – more than double the 15% average across the UK. 
  • The total number of UK fixed broadband connections passed 20 million for the first time in 2011. In addition, the number of mobile broadband connections passed 5 million during the year, and by the first quarter of 2012 76% of UK homes had a broadband connection of some description, with most of these (84%) relying solely on a fixed broadband connection.
  • BT and Virgin Media’s superfast broadband services were available to around 60% of UK homes by March 2012.  This was seven percentage points higher than a year previously, mainly as a result of BT’s ongoing fibre-to-the-cabinet rollout. At the end of March 2012 there were 1.4 million UK superfast broadband connections,equating to 6.6% of all connections.
If home Internet access stands at 80% and 76% of homes have broadband, 4% of households must still be reliant on dial-up? Separate Ofcom releases focused on developments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Of particular note is that Northern Ireland has the highest availability of superfast broadband in the UK, with superfast services being available to around 94% of premises, compared to 60% for the UK as a whole.

Both ISP Review and ZDnet focused on the low takeup of superfast services, while the BBC's coverage was more general. ISP Review note that the takeup of superfast services, while still a small proportion of the whole, has increased significantly over the last year:
"...Ofcom notes that this 6.6% figure still equates to 960,000 (162%) more than there had been a year previously (i.e. 2.1% in Q1-2011). The regulator expects a significant rise over the coming years as Virgin Media, which can reach around half of the country, continues to upgrade its customers cable broadband speeds and coverage of BT’s FTTC technology increases towards passing 66% of premises in 2014 (possibly 90% by 2016/2017 if it wins the lion’s share of government funding)."

Friday, July 13, 2012

Community broadband projects update


There have been a number of reports in the press recently about local, often community-led broadband projects, in the wake of the coverage of the B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North) project, the winner of the Internet Hero award at the recent Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) awards, "for bringing high speed internet into remote rural communities, setting an example for others to follow."

In the Cotswolds, ThinkBroadband reported that Cotswolds Broadband is looking to deploy a full fibre (FTTP) service to some 9,000 homes in the Chipping Norton area of West Oxfordshire:
"Cotswolds Broadband will be the infrastructure operator, allowing a variety of retail providers to offer their service over the network, with initially packages connecting at 40 Mbps and 100 Mbps. The project has some funding from the Rural Community Broadband Fund which is administered by DEFRA and the BDUK with the purpose of improving broadband in the more rural parts of the UK. The level of funding is thought to be around £1.5m."
Some Googling also revealed Cotswold Wireless, who provide networks that "extend widely over the Cotswolds and surrounding areas" (more details including a link to a coverage map here).

In Dorset, ISP Review reported that the Communities Partnership Executive of North Dorset (CPEND) is proposing to solve local rural broadband woes by laying a fibre optic cable along a former railway line (trailway) that runs from Sturminster Newton to Blandford:
"...the plan would involve running a fibre optic cable down the 8 mile stretch of trailway and linking up several villages along the way including Durweston, Stourpaine, Shillingstone, Child Okeford and Okeford Fitzpaine. Several further villages, Manston, Hammoon and Fiddleford, could potentially also be included into the project. The CPEND is now understood to be developing a full application that would aim to secure a slice of RCBF’s £20 million budget and might also seek additional money through private investment. Bournemouth University has also started a local survey to assess the projects potential economic and social impact. Overall some 2,200 people and 100 businesses could benefit."
The Telegraph reported that broadband is being delivered via church spires in Norfolk, similar to the service provided by Allpay in Herefordshire (more here):
"From the top of All Saints church in the village of Salhouse, Norfolk, it’s striking how many other church towers can be seen, rising up from nearby villages. They are the tallest man-made objects for some distance and they could be the key to delivering decent broadband speeds to rural Norfolk. WiSpire, a wireless internet service provider (WISP) backed by the Diocese of Norwich, is putting transmitters and receivers on top of Norfolk churches and using them to beam broadband signals across the county...WiSpire’s plan is to transmit its broadband signal across the county from church to church. Six churches are connected now and up to 10 more will come online over the next two months. By the end of next year the company hopes to have around 50 churches, covering the majority of Norfolk."
The same article reports that WISP, County Broadband, is delivering internet services to north Essex and south Suffolk, and also that satellite broadband provider ToowayDirect has announced an upgrade of its services to deliver as much as 18Mbps download speeds (more here).

Finally, earlier this year ThinkBroadband reported that in Hampshire a school's fibre connection has been used to provide broadband for the local community, previously a broadband notspot:
"A variety of partners have worked together to create a case, showing that certainly in Hampshire, there is scope for using Public Service Networks such as the fibre services linking schools to also connect residents. The village of Little London now has people connecting to the hybrid FTTC/Wireless service which has people running at speeds of 30 to 40 Mbps and uploading material at 10 to 15 Mbps, previously about the best they could hope for was 0.5Mbps. The village had very limited broadband service previously and through the partnership of Hampshire County Council, Magdalene, Netadmin, Fluidata and Virgin Media there is now a live service."
More details here, school connections have also been used in this way by NYnet in North Yorkshire and I've discussed this approach previously here and here.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

EU update: enhancing the broadband investment environment


Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, has today announced the initial outcomes from last year's consultations on access for alternative operators to the fixed telephone and broadband networks of established operators (see this previous post from October 2011). According to this speech today, the three key points designed to drive additional investment in NGA across Europe are as follows:
  1. Tougher non-discrimination rules which ensure that incumbents do not get an unfair advantage. That means mechanisms ensuring competing operators get the same inputs, on equal terms and of equal quality, as the incumbent's own retail operations. Also that their margins are not artificially squeezed. This should enable alternative operators to compete on quality and service, in addition to price.
  2. Stable copper prices: no price cuts on average to what incumbent network operators can charge to competitors buying wholesale access to their copper networks. The evidence shows that lowering copper prices (from current average of €9 per month) will not induce greater investment in very fast broadband. But we do need to aim at more consistency in the approach to price regulation across Member States. There are some justifiable differences due to local conditions, but current outcomes vary too much.
  3. More flexibility for "next generation" wholesale products: national regulators will no longer be required to apply cost-oriented price regulation in almost all circumstances. But the flexibility on "next generation" pricing will depend on application of the non-discrimination rules to ensure genuine equal treatment of competitors, and on a competitive counterweight from copper-based services or other infrastructures like cable and 4th generation wireless.
These decisions will be put into legal form through formal Recommendations to be made before the end of this year and will apply until at least 2020. From Neelie Kroes' blog:
"...for investment of any kind to take place, investors need to see a healthy return that takes account of risks. The regulatory framework alone can’t do that – it takes other measures, too, like to boost online content, public funding and innovative public-private financing from the CEF and structural funds, and measures to reduce the cost of roll-out. But today’s announcement is one important piece of the puzzle. It gives more consistency within our single market; it allows fair competition. And most importantly, it provides the regulatory certainty needed for long-term investment to happen."
Full details in this memo and commentary from ISP Review here, which offers this analysis:
"The new rules could have a serious impact upon the UK government’s strategy, which aims to make superfast broadband speeds of 24Mbps+ available to 90% of the country by 2015. Europe is understood to have expressed concern over the country’s allocation of state aid, which appears to favour BT, doesn’t open access to Dark Fibre and effectively excludes smaller providers. The UK’s target of 24Mbps+ is also somewhat below Europe’s."
The European Competitive Telecommunications Association (ECTA) today issued this statement, welcoming some aspects of the announcement but not others:
"ECTA, the pan-European industry association representing over 100 pro-competitive telecoms operators welcomes the steps Mrs Kroes has announced to counter some of the abusive behaviors that incumbent operators put in place to resist competition. However, the direction that Mrs Kroes said to  be willing to take on pricing of copper-based legacy networks and on fibre-based Next Generation Networks will harm the competitive conditions of the broadband markets and will eventually harm consumer interests without fostering investments."
The statement offers this in relation to the recommendations regarding pricing of legacy (copper) infrastructures:
"...the approach...on asset pricing policy is catastrophic for competitors, for consumers and for the competitiveness of our economy. Mrs Kroes is asking for more of the same when it comes to pricing, but fibre technology and regulatory holidays have been there for years and investments have not taken place by the dominant firms who keep asking for more money. Incumbents have been only partially upgrading their networks (VDSL) and re-building their monopolies on future broadband (the incumbent retail broadband market share of VDSL lines in the EU is close to 100%). There is no reason to believe that without competitive pressure, incumbents will give up their goldmine legacy network to invest in Europe. Investments will take place in more attractive emerging economies and  short-term yield-hungry banking investors will continue to be rewarded with more than a half of incumbents’ cash-flow."
This is what the full EU announcement had to say on this issue:
"The question whether a rise or fall of copper prices would spur NGA investment is complex. Different factors pull in different directions, and vary in relative strength: according to context and in their effect on alternative and incumbent operators. Last October we explored some ideas on how to reconcile these competing factors. NRAs were concerned that an approach linking the copper price to NGA investment commitments would be difficult to enforce in practice, and open to gaming. But more importantly, after examining all the evidence, and given the significant competitive relationship between copper and NGA networks, we are not convinced that a phased decrease in copper prices would spur NGA investment. Indeed, we now see fibre investment progressing relatively well in some Member States where copper prices are around or above the EU average."
In contrast, the FTTH Council Europe has also made a statement in response to today's announcements, welcoming the recommendations:
"The FTTH Council welcomes the Vice-president Kroes’ initiative to change the investment environment...Competition is unlikely to drive investment in less densely populated areas given the impact of lower density on costs  in  particular.  Selective use of public funds to stimulate fibre investments will be needed as well as appropriate access remedies to ensure end-users benefit...The FTTH Council has long advocated a greater emphasis on network based competition in densely populated urban areas when more than one network operator is normally present already. Today’s announcement seems to be a move in that direction. Countries that are emphasising the need for network based competition like France, Spain and Portugal see not only more investment, but also see a more competitive market dynamic even when revenues are falling."
Given the complexity of the environment and these recommendations, it will take a little while for the dust to settle here I think. Hopefully, these measures will help to spur further competition and investment in UK NGA infrastructure in future, something we need more of. However this statement from Openreach included in ISP Review's commentary suggests the UK is already further ahead of the rest of Europe in this regard:
“BT has long been in favour of regulatory clarity and certainty and so these are very welcome proposals from Commissioner Kroes. BT already provides other companies with fair and equal access to its network but this is unusual in Europe. The business case for fibre is tough and most companies are unwilling to make this long term investment so the regulatory certainty being proposed is encouraging. We hope that other parts of the Commission follow the Commissioner’s lead in developing guidelines that promote investment and competition.”

Fujitsu: further developments


Further to my previous post about BT and Fujitsu both signing the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) framework contract, the Financial Times reported yesterday that Fujitsu has now withdrawn from the bidding process for both Cumbria and North Yorkshire ("Fujitsu withdraws from broadband bidding"):
"Duncan Tait, chief executive of Fujitsu, said: “We withdrew from Cumbria because we cannot currently see a clear path towards a mass market that is required to attract leading retail service providers. We continue to monitor the market place and see where we can get this to make sense. We will look at each on its own merits and see if there is a way to make it work and get to the scale we need for our anchor tenants.”"
The article went on to report that Fujitsu need to win coverage of at least 1m premises to be of sufficient scale to attract consumer broadband companies such as Virgin Media, who would deliver retail services over the wholesale infrastructures Fujitsu will build if it is successful in future local authority procurements. Further commentary from ISP Review and also ThinkBroadband, which offers this insight into the issue and also into Virgin Media's expansion plans:
"An indication of the problems over the size of investment required by the potential bidders is revealed when BT suggests that where it is part of a BDUK project, these solutions will only turn profitable after 12 years. This situation where BT appears to be the only telecoms company willing to invest in new networks is a product of almost 30 years of regulation. The cable franchises was an attempt to create a national network to compete, but with billions of debt still hanging over Virgin Media they have reached around 48% of UK households, and expanding at just 100,000 properties per year. The UK does have fibre alt-nets appearing, though actual physical connections and sightings of actual users can be rare, and none of them have delivered anything approaching the size of deployment required for BDUK projects."
This additional ThinkBroadband article suggests there may be a solution:
"Is there a simple answer? Yes, but it is the one that many don't want to accept, and that is that the UK only has one national local loop provider, and that is Openreach. If we are to meet the Government's targets they look to be the only possibility, their solutions are not perfect, but represent an improvement for the majority. Improving competition in the local loop, may require more subtle changes to funding, to encourage new start-ups and investment from those running fibre networks across Europe (though to date most of those in Europe are city based), such as those who are already looking to provide full fibre services in small areas of the UK. These embryonic companies may grow to provide serious competition in five to ten years."
Other commentaries (such as this one from The Register, also here) focus on the competition issues identified by the European Commission in relation to BDUK's framework. See this article from ISP Review and this one from The Guardian for more, as well as this analysis from TeleGeography:
"With both BT and Fujitstu having reportedly signed contracts last Friday for their respective portions of funding, it has been confirmed that no work will move forward until the European Commission is satisfied with the plans. It has been suggested that one of the main concerns with the setup is that BT is unprepared to offer access on a sufficiently open basis to the infrastructure it will roll out, with Brussels thought to want the incumbent to allow rival operators to be able to rent its dark fibre."
Finally, Tim Farron, MP for the South Lakes, has issued a statement calling on the Government to step in and run the Cumbria project directly in the light of Fujitsu's withdrawal:
"This is another blow for the broadband project and sadly another self inflicted blow by the County Council. This process has been going on for 18 months now and it's appalling that we've not been able to move any further. Securing the modern infrastructure our county needs should be one of the council's top priorities. I want to see the county council supporting community schemes which are ready to be rolled out, such as Fibre Garden in Garsdale and Dentdale. This would help to get things moving whilst we continue to work to bring super-fast broadband to the whole of Cumbria. I am happy to help the county council engage with the Government, to make sure that we can finally make the progress we all want to see."

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

BDUK: Broadband Delivery Framework now in place with BT and Fujitsu


The section of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) website describing the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) Broadband Delivery Framework reports that the framework agreement will be between BDUK, BT and and Fujitsu:
"To help speed up the procurement process, BDUK has put in place a Framework Agreement, with input from a number of the pilot local authorities. Local authorities and other local bodies can run a mini-competition from the framework to select a specific supplier to deliver broadband services for a local project. The Framework Agreement will be between BDUK, as part of DCMS, and BT and Fujitsu, while each call-off contract will be between the relevant local bodies and a specific contractor. The Framework will be suitable for the majority of local broadband projects – i.e. those looking for an investment gap-funded model."
Br0kenTeleph0n3 covered on this on 30th June, based on this article on the EDP24 website reporting that both Norfolk and Suffolk had been given permission to invite BT and Fujitsu to tender in relation to their broadband plans for the region. ThinkBroadband also reported on this a day later, and the Financial Times offered their commentary ("Broadband contract attracts two bidders"on Monday 2nd July:
"BT and Fujitsu have been chosen by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which operates the £530m broadband delivery UK programme. This aims to provide superfast broadband to 90 per cent of every county by 2015 and ensure a minimum 2 Mbps elsewhere. The national framework agreement, under which councils can choose from a list of already approved providers, so avoiding some of the costs associated with the tendering process, is aimed at accelerating the speed of rural broadband provision...Many councils have decided to proceed using the national framework list of suppliers."
The Connecting Devon and Somerset project website also reported on 2nd July that the programme has launched its procurement process:
"BT and Fujitsu have now been invited to tender for the Connecting Devon and Somerset contract to deliver the infrastructure for superfast broadband across the area. Both companies signed up to the National Framework following a lengthy procurement process. The Connecting Devon and Somerset programme is led by Devon and Somerset County Councils in partnership with Bath and North East Somerset, North Somerset, Plymouth and Torbay Councils. It aims to provide 100% broadband coverage of at least 2Mbps with a minimum of 85% superfast broadband at 24Mbps by 2015 and superfast broadband for all by 2020."
This is North Devon and BBC Somerset reported on this announcement too, with further coverage today from Tech Week EuropeUpdate 2:51 PM: Northamptonshire has also been given the go-ahead to proceed to the procurement stage, according to the Northampton Chronicle & Echo this afternoon. The article lists the first five projects going to tender as Northamptonshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Wiltshire and Devon & Somerset (joint tender).

Broadband for businesses - not just a a rural issue


A new report from think tank The Centre for London into East London Tech City, "a vibrant high tech cluster in East London", offers some interesting insights into broadband connectivity and its importance for businesses (coverage from the BBC here). The report reviews the success of the initiative to date and offers recommendations for future development in the light of identified issues and concerns. From the  introduction:
“Since the late 1990s, a vibrant high-tech cluster has been growing in Inner East London, focused on Shoreditch and Clerkenwell. Since 2010 the UK’s Coalition Government has led a high profile drive to accelerate its development – the ‘Tech City’ initiative – taking Silicon Valley as a model...We believe the Government is right to be ambitious for the UK’s digital economy. The future of advanced economies like Britain lies, in important part, in growing research-intensive, innovative, high-value digital companies. Britain’s digital economy already takes the biggest share of national GDP in the G20, and may increase that share by a third by 2016.”
Broadband connectivity was identified as one of seven main areas of concern in the cluster, with connectivity seen as a constraint by businesses, both in terms of reliability and speed and broadband connection times. Over a third of businesses mentioning broadband or wifi as an issue; one respondent had this to say: "It’s not so much that there isn’t good broadband here, it was more of the 6 weeks to 8 weeks time-lag before it’s actually installed." Bandwidth isn't an issue for all companies, but for some, especially those working in video or media, high-speed connections are critical. More broadly, interviewees felt the lack of connectivity was "detrimental for an area selling itself as the digital capital of Europe."

The report offers the following recommendations in relation to connectivity:
  • ISPs should try to guarantee a two-week connection time, where cabling and landlord permissions allow;
  • Workspace providers should consider integrating broadband into their basic rental packages, or include permission for connection within lease agreements;
  • GLA (Greater London Authority) monitors connectivity in Inner East London and other digital hotspots in the city and seeks to ensure (possibly using the Urban Broadband Fund) that they have a rich network of wifi and 4G transmitters.
The UK has some catching up to do in terms of broadband:
"Our findings chime with wider evidence on the UK internet ‘offer’. By international standards, UK broadband speeds are not the worst, and have been improving over time. However, Britain needs substantial future investment in its broadband network, over and above funds currently announced, to approach world leaders such as South Korea. There are also persistent concerns that the UK regulatory framework, which has focused on retail price competition, has been less successful at improving minimum service standards, encouraging investment and technological change. Disputes over 4G roll-out are the most recent example of this, with 4G now not arriving here until 2013…US experience suggests that 4G will become an important complement to wifi, but won’t supplant it. Digital economy firms will need smooth access to both technologies."
Another recent report also highlighted the importance of broadband for businesses - but this time in relation to rural areas. In The missing links – revitalising our rural economy, published in May 2012, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) reports that six in 10 rural businesses are suffering with the slow speed of their broadband (the report is available here with a press release here). From the forward:
"However, rural businesses face challenges not encountered by their urban counterparts. They struggle against the odds of poor communications, unreliable broadband services, and patchy transport services that exacerbate the distance they often are from their markets."
Broadband access is increasingly important for rural businesses:
"According to the FSB research, 85 per cent of rural businesses and 84 per cent of urban businesses expect their reliance on the internet will increase. Yet, 34 per cent of small rural firms have said that they are dissatisfied with the reliability of their internet services and 24 per cent are dissatisfied with the value for money their internet service provider offers...63 per cent of small firms are dissatisfied with the speed of their broadband connection compared to 48 per cent of businesses in urban areas."
The FSB makes the following recommendations:
"...the FSB calls for the delivery of high speed broadband (20Mbps) to 98 per cent of rural communities and businesses by 2015. Internet Service Providers should prioritise areas for network expansion by not just the number of households, but by the number of businesses weighted to reflect the economic potential of those businesses to the national economy. This is an ambitious target but one that must be met if the needs of rural communities and businesses are to be met."
The FSB also acknowledges rural mobile connectivity issues and the importance of the technology for rural businesses, with the following recommendation:
"The forthcoming spectrum auction is a golden opportunity to redress this issue. An improved and consistent 4G network is crucial for small businesses and is expected to provide a significantly superior service to current 3G network offered in rural areas. This technology has the potential to place small businesses at the forefront of digital and technological development, giving them a better chance to grow, diversify and overcome the barrier of greater distances to markets. Government should urgently proceed with the Spectrum auction to allow small rural businesses to benefit from a full range of 4G services."
There are some interesting similarities in the issues identified and recommendations made in these two reports, despite their focus on very different geographical areas. Broadband disadvantage is clearly a challenge for businesses but it seems it is not unique to those in rural areas.

Monday, July 02, 2012

£120 million broadband boost for the Highlands and Islands


Further to this previous post, last week the Scottish Government announced an investment of £120m to bring superfast broadband to communities across the Highlands and Islands. From the Scottish Government press release:
"This investment will mean Highlands and Islands Enterprise, who are in discussions with BT, can roll out a programme to deliver world class connectivity for the region.  This will call for a broad range of technical solutions, for example, by laying underground cables and in some cases, sub-sea cables to connect island communities."
The comment "discussions with BT" relates to the area's status as one of the four original Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) superfast broadband pilot projects (more here). Commentary from ISP Review here.

UK Department for Education publishes consultation on Internet parental controls


Further to my last post in May 2012, the Department for Education (DFE) has now published the consultation on Internet parental controls mentioned in previous announcements. From the DFE press release:
"The discussion paper asks for views on three broad options for the best approach in keeping children safest online, in a rapidly changing digital industry:
  • A system, known as default-on or opt-in, where people’s home Internet Service Provider or each internet-enabled device (laptop and desktop computers; mobile phones; tablets and television) blocks harmful content automatically before any customer purchases it. They can later choose to adjust or remove the blocks if parents want to access the blocked websites.
  • A system where customers are always presented with an unavoidable choice about whether or not they want filters and blocks installed either on their home internet service and/or each internet-enabled device they are buying – an approach known as “active choice”. This applies at either the ‘point of purchase’, either online, telephone or over the counter or when a customer first switches on a new device or internet subscription.
  • A system that combines features of both systems, where customers are presented with a list of online content that will be blocked automatically unless they choose to unblock them – or active choice plus."
The concept of "active choice plus" - where adult content is blocked automatically with users being able to request access to it should they wish - is the main development here. Also see coverage from the BBC, ISP Review (further commentary here) and The Guardian. The discussion document re-states the intention to move on from the active choice put forward in the previous Bailey Review to blocking by default/active choice plus:
"The Government has been working with UKCCIS and its members to ensure that parents are always presented with an unavoidable choice as to whether or not they want filters and blocks installed on their internet service or internet-enabled device.  This approach is often referred to as ‘active choice'. Since the publication of a report from the Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection, chaired by Claire Perry MP, the public debate has been framed around the apparent ease of access that children have to online pornography. The report argued that internet service providers (ISPs) should provide broadband connections into homes with filters already in place as the default setting to block access to pornography. Adults who wanted these filters removed from their service would have to tell their ISP they wished to ‘opt in' to these sites. A variation could be to combine these ideas, so that the user is clearly and unavoidably presented with a list of content types that will be blocked unless they choose to unblock them with a simple action such as removing a tick from a box. Evidence shows that giving ‘default' answers like this tends to encourage more people to accept the suggested option, and most ISPs do this for things like virus protection, where there's an obvious benefit to ticking ‘yes'."
The document acknowledges that no technical solution can by itself be 100% effective but that "it is right to look at the role technical solutions can play as part of a package which also includes education, awareness raising, and, if necessary, regulatory measures." The consultation runs until 6th September 2012.