broadband Engineer H/W Net

Rural Broadband — a Lesson in JFDI (Part 3)

Rural broadband service deployed by Tim Robinson has made a difference to his local community – Part 3

Readers who not yet read Part 1 and Part 2 of Tim Robinson’s post will want to do so now, whereas those who have done so and who are no doubt eager to plunge right in should get on with it!

The success of the farm project has encouraged us to deploy into other rural areas. For the less financially promising locations we have taken a very conservative approach to funding, generally getting most of the installation costs for new repeater sites paid for upfront by the very customers who are driving the deployment. This ensures our ability to remain profitable and also ensures a level of commitment from our customers. Also, early on we took the decision that all services would be provided on a one-month contract. People seem to like that. A lot.

We have so far chosen areas that that Big Telcos will have real trouble covering with FTTx but that we can easily reach from our existing backhaul. We are also deploying into a local business park that has particularly bad ADSL service Such facilities are a lucrative area for us and seem thus far to have been deliberately avoided by Big Telcos, but we cannot be complacent as they are likely to be targeted in the future. We have sought to be very supportive and provide a good level of customer service, and business users tend not to be lured by the promise of high speeds and free sport channels. People seem to like that. A lot.

Since 2010 nearly 100 customers have connected to the network. In answer to such demand, we have expanded from a single VDSL2 backhaul from AAISP to multi-homed Ethernet transit over VDSL2. More recently, we added an EAD fibre backhaul. Our VoIP service has been widely used by our customers as a way of reducing cost and improving audio quality, as even phone calls over 8km lines sound rather muffled in comparison!

Some random thoughts and lessons learned:

  • Don’t just sit there and moan at Big Telcos. Do something creative. Nothing will happen unless you do.
  • If you don’t ask, you don’t get. People are much more accommodating of having a rather ugly 60cm dish on their chimney than you might at first have thought.
  • Farmers and landowners are great to work with. They have a can-do attitude to most things, unlike the naysayers of Big Telcos and the local authorities. They also have cherry pickers to help with link tests, and 4x4s to pull you out of muddy fields.
  • It’s easier to seek forgiveness than (planning) permission. We are operating on the basis that our antennas are ‘de minimis’ and the local council have been extremely supportive of our service.
  • When FTTx becomes available, not everyone leaves. A lot of people actually have a strong dislike of Big Telcos and welcome the alternative!
  • Use a professional aerial contractor for all ladder work. You know it makes sense.
  • A bridged Layer 2 wireless network will eventually end in tears. Route, Route, Route!

Things that are holding back small ‘alt-nets’ from deploying more coverage:

  • There is no such thing as ‘BT Retail’, ‘BT Wholesale’ and ‘BT Openreach’. These exist only in the minds of the regulator and BT plc’s internal processes. They are all part of BT plc and they can juggle profit centres to suit their shareholders, keep the wholesale prices high and retail prices low. Until BT Openreach is physically and legally separated from the other two, there will never be a ‘level playing field’ in this market. I call upon the government to force the Openreach division to be hived off into a totally independent, Network Rail-like, not-for-profit company.
  • Cost of backhaul. With the incumbent monopoly charging for fibre backhaul in the way they do, there will often not be a business case for installing service to some of the more remote places – wireless represents the only sensible way of delivering the connectivity.
  • By all accounts, the BDUK government funding of rural broadband is an utter fiasco. The whole process has been shrouded in secrecy, deliberately restricted to BT as the only real participant, and is thus holding back our wireless deployments. This is because we as small operators don’t know where the taxpayer funded FTTx footprint is to be extended next. It’s like the government building a road but not telling anyone where it is going to be until the diggers arrive! Government funded FTTx is part of the national infrastructure and there should be total transparency of which cabinets will be upgraded, which postcodes are served by these cabinets, and which will definitely not be done.
  • Fibre business rates and proposed business rate liability on wireless internet antennas. These are not progressive taxes, and as such makes it hard for small telcos to invest in fibre or wireless infrastructure. I call upon the government to overhaul this iniquitous situation and instead find a way to raise funds in a more progressive manner, based on profit. Oh wait. It’s called VAT and Corporation Tax.

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Rural Broadband — a Lesson in JFDI (Part 2)

Rural broadband service deployed by Tim Robinson has made a difference to his local community – Part 2

Readers who have not yet read Part 1 of Tim Robinson’s post will want to do so now, whereas those who have done so and who are no doubt eager to plunge right in should hesitate no longer.

More often than not it pays to keep your mouth shut, however sometimes it pays more to be a blabbermouth! Had I kept quiet about the VDSL2 connection my friend Dave and I jury-rigged from his house to mine I’d have had a 40 Mbit/sec internet service all to myself. Alas, though, I was unable to keep such a good secret. I told my neighbours, who were immediately intrigued and wished to know more. Significant help was offered in exchange for a slice of the pie, so we ran an ethernet cable to the next door neighbour, and a cantenna-based 2.4 GHz link across the road to the other neighbor, and needless to say they were both chuffed to bits. Looking back on it all now, too, I think it is fair to say that without their encouragement and loads of assistance that just might have been the end of the story.

The roof of my house has a bird’s eye view of large swathes of the town, and this inspired us to consider the opportunities that this might open up to serve to the broadbandless burghers of Basingstoke. We decided after a couple of months that it was time to take things a bit further, to spread the net wider so to speak! With the addition of a cheap Mikrotik router, a Freeradius server, some clever MySQL queries from one of the neighbours, and a couple of rooftop antennas, I was able to get a basic configuration running that would allow us to bill users in a way similar to AAISP’s rather complex billing plan. And so, with just a few hundred quid’s worth of kit was born. It may not have compare to the American WWII effort at Iwo Jima, but it felt good nonetheless to get that first base station up and running, with the help of one of my pioneering neighbours. The first paying customers were all members of the Basingstoke Broadband Campaign who lived in my area and who were prepared to put their money where their mouths had been. And the rest, as they say, is history.

During all of this time the leviathan had not completely gone to sleep, as while I was extending the network out to Chineham and Beggarwood — which had even worse broadband speeds than we had over in our neck of the woods — BT and BDUK were plotting to use government money to overbuild my commercially deployed network and steal my customers. Well, that’s how it felt, anyway.

BDUK have since overbuilt a major part of my footprint, and it has been interesting as there was not a sudden and mass exodus from our 8 Mbit/sec service to VDSL2. As such, we had breathing space in which to look for ‘pastures new’, and we started to look further ‘afield’. (Puns very much intended – read on.)

Rather more recently, I was invited by Hampshire County Council to attend a Country Landowner’s Association meeting held in Winchester, to discuss rural broadband. The keynote speakers were Bill Murphy of BT and Maria Miller MP, (who was also Minister for Media Culture and Sport at the time), and needless to say the meeting did not go particularly well for either of them (though the lunch was quite good). There was a lot of animated discussion and, being a member of the awkward squad, I asked a few pertinent questions from the floor.

After the meeting a farmer and his wife approached and told me their long and sad tale. He had a load of farm buildings he’d converted into industrial units, and BT did not have enough copper to provide phones to all of them. The lines that did exist extended 8km to the exchange, too, so broadband was slow and flakey. Word on the street was that one tenant had been quoted £12,000 in excess construction charges to get one analogue line installed, and the farmer was having trouble letting some of the units as a result. He asked me the question I was waiting for: “Could I do anything to help?”

We looked at Google. I told him there was a problem in the way, that being a huge hill that blocked line of sight to his farm from my house. The response to that will forever remain ingrained in my mind. “That’s not a problem. That’s MY hill! Why not stick a repeater on top of it?”

The farmer took me around to his land and showed me what could be seen from where. He spoke to his neighbours, and quite literally elevated us and our survey antennas to new heights in his cherry picker, with cows looking on suspiciously from below. He generally oiled the wheels of progress in such a creative and ‘can-do’ way that within a few months I was connecting his farm, his home and the first of his tenants to our network!

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Rural Broadband — a Lesson in JFDI (Part 1)

Rural broadband strategy- sometimes a community will haver to jfdi & sort their own solution welcomes guest blogger Tim Robinson, Director of TxRx Communications Ltd. Tim’s post will run in three parts, beginning today and extending through to week’s end.

It is an onerous task to write a guest blog for one with as much credibility as @Tref, however this tale needs to be told, and the opinions herein need to be aired.

In the beginning there was ADSL. Historically, most of Basingstoke has suffered from bad broadband speeds. This all comes from having a telephone exchange in the town centre, and having most of the residential areas built in a doughnut-shaped ring around the centre of the town moving out 4-7km (as the copper runs) from the exchange. Thus, broadband was doomed before it was even a twinkle in BT’s eye.

As broadband became more of an essential utility and less of a luxury, campaigns were lead by frustrated people (including me) for whom 1.5 mbit was simply not adequate for doing one’s job, or keeping the offspring up-to-speed with the latest cat videos. We raised the issue with the Big Telco and others, but they all said nothing could be done. Unbeknown to us, though, there was activity between BT and our local council, and in 2010, there was a fanfare of excitement when it was announced that Basingstoke was going to be one of the first towns to get VDSL2 – colloquially (but incorrectly) known as ‘fibre broadband’.

The poor residents on the outskirts of Basingstoke breathed a collective sigh of relief, basking in the ‘knowledge’ that finally BT was doing something to help us. There was elation, and delight. Things were not all that they seemed, though, and the elation lasted only until the actual deployment plans began to be made known. That elation, in fact, quickly turned to disbelief, anger, and frustration. It seemed that BT were cherry-picking the cabinets in the already well-served Virgin Media areas close to town, plus a few others that met some secret internal criteria. The worst served parts of the town would continue to be unserved by the new technology! We were furious that BT had chosen to deploy VDSL2 into places that didn’t really need it, and omitting the places that did!

There were meetings. Beer was cried into. Letters to our MP written. There were Big Meetings with the campaign groups, the council, our MP and important people in BT. Above all, though, there was the spark of an idea. If some areas were to be served by VDSL2, why not pick up the backhaul from a VDSL2 connection and use wireless to provide internet service to the parts that were not included? Thus, this was the start of the JFDI* approach to broadband provision.

I live at the top of a hill. It transpired that a friend — let’s call him ‘Dave’, as it is after all his name — lived exactly 981 metres away, and was one of the ‘chosen ones’ set to receive VDSL2. With an element of stupidly unnecessary risk on Dave’s part, involving antics with a torch and a drill at the top of a three-section ladder, my friend and I determined that we had line of sight to his chimney from my house. Leveraging that knowledge, we managed to get an 80 mbit wireless link from Dave’s house back to what was to become a data centre in my garage. Our excitement was palpable, akin to the feelings of those pioneers who made the first London to New York phone call. Soon after, one of my neighbours lent me an old laptop, which we set up in Dave’s loft and from which we ran constant iperf and ping tests to see if our contraption would actually work.

Convinced over a couple of months that this wireless lark might actually fly, I took the plunge and ordered a shiny new phone line for Dave’s house from AAISP, along with a shiny new VDSL2 connection. (Installation was not exactly smooth, but that is another story.) Finally, once the connection was installed, I linked the Openreach VDSL2 modem straight into the wireless link and fired up a PPPOE connection at my house. Bingo! Suddenly what was 1.4 Mbit/sec on a good day became 40 Mbit/sec…and this was a very good day, indeed.

*To the uninitiated, JFDI stands for ‘Just Flippin Do It’. There are other alternative interpretations of JFDI but this is the one I am using.
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