broadband Business

Does FTTP on Demand compete with Ethernet fibre connectivity?

FTTP on demand – will customers go for it?

Yesterday was at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton to give a talk on connectivity to a community of businessmen and IT types. Hampshire is, like many counties, very rural and there was a degree of complaining from the audience regarding the availability of decent connectivity.

Although the BDUK funded Next Generation Access project is rolling out to supposedly cover 90% of the country that still leaves a lot of people without access, or at least with the pitiful 2Mbs that the government it its wisdom has decided is good enough for the last 10%.

One chap mentioned that he had 20 rural sites that needed connecting. My answer to him was Fibre To The Premises on Demand which is currently being trialled by BT. FTTP on Demand has a fibre connection from the cabinet to your premises. The comparison is with Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC) which has a copper cable between you and the cabinet. FTTP therefore, in principle offers the prospect of much faster throughputs than FTTC. Initially FTTP on Demand should provide 330Mbps down and 30Mbps up, once you’ve paid for the connection. The connection charge will almost certainly not be the few tens of pounds you might fork out for a new phone line. It’s more likely to be in the low thousands of pounds.

Notwithstanding that there is a fair chance that FTTP would do the job for many rural areas. This then prompted me to compare an FTTP solution with a standard Ethernet fibre connection.

What is the difference between FTTP and a fibre Ethernet connection?

FTTP whilst being fibre all the way to your premises runs over the BT 21CN Wholesale Broadband Connect (WBC) network. This is the backbone network that carries most BT broadband traffic. Because BT has a near monopoly the pricing for this is regulated “to ensure a level playing field” but is fairly expensive (regulated price is £48 per Mbps). To make broadband services economic to provide an ISP will rent a certain amount of bandwidth over WBC and use it to service multiple customers. It is therefore a shared network.

In reality this works very well, most of the time. Although FTTP isn’t a production product yet the mechanics are similar to Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC). A network with say 40Mbps amount of capacity to carry FTTC traffic will be able to serve multiple 40Mbps FTTC lines because they won’t all be using it at the same time. Ok if everyone was online downloading torrents at the same time that is likely to cause problems but by and large that doesn’t happen and ISPs have their own ways of dealing with the situation.

ISPs productise this type of connection and normally limit the data transfer bandwidth in a bundle of Gigabytes. They do this because a given sized backhaul connection will be able to handle a certain number of bytes in a given time period. This usage capacity is usually determined for a window at the busiest time of day.

Some ISPs offer “unlimited” packages. BT is one. BT offer an unlimited data bundle for their 80/20 FTTC product (they quote something like “up to 76Mbs down and 17Mbps up”)  for £61 plus vat including calls and line rental (plus another fiver for a static IP). The Timico equivalent is £60 for the same product with 500GB a month of data. The Timico version might not sound as good as BT’s but the reality is that very few people ever come close to 500GB in a month. My “best” ever month was 250GB last December and I am a very heavy user. Also if average usage grew to levels unacceptable to BT you can bet your bottom dollar that they would either increase their pricing or stick in a limit.

There is a point to this bit of the discussion which I will come back to later.

Ethernet, as opposed to FTTC is a different product altogether. It is still fibre to the premises but relies on an unregulated backhaul network that very much has competition. The cost of the backhaul on Ethernet is anything up to ten times lower than that of FTTP (that’s what a bit of competition can do). Also Ethernet provides symmetrical uncontended connectivity. Ie it is the same speed up and down and you don’t share the connection with anyone else (though you can buy contended Ethernet which will be slightly cheaper).

Although the backhaul bandwidth is cheaper for Ethernet the fact that you are paying for it all means it is more expensive than FTTx (P or C). The flipside is that you can shift an awful lot more data in the month. A 100Mbps Ethernet connection should let you transfer 32Terabytes a month – massively more than the 500GB bundle I quoted earlier for FTTC. Also remember that Ethernet is symmetric – a 100Mbps connection is 100Mbps in each direction, whereas FTTP is 330 Mbps down and 30Mbps up.

Although there isn’t an official line on this it seems clear to me that BT has set the asymmetric levels for two reasons. Firstly so that they can boast a 330Mbps product in their commercial battles with Virgin Media’s cable service and secondly so that the product doesn’t clash with Ethernet.

A business buying Ethernet will be doing so for a number of reasons including reliability, Service Level Agreement and latency but also because they need faster upload than FTTX provides.

A 100Mbps Ethernet service retails at around £750 plus VAT. A business using the 80:20 FTTC service (in the absence of FTTP it’s the nearest one I have a price  for at the moment) and based on £60 for 500GB (we have to assume some kind of benchmark for this calc as I don’t think it is realistic to assume unlimited bandwidth for £60 – as I say the price would go up if people started hammering it) a company would have to be using around 6Terabytes of data a month to justify the move to Ethernet, unless they needed the symmetrical performance (and the other benefits). They might also want a lower latency product which Ethernet provides. If my memory serves me right the round trip time between a site using Fast Ethernet and docklands will be a fifth or lower than that of FTTX.  That’s less than 10milliseconds compared with 40 to 50 milliseconds. Ethernet could be even faster depending on location.

It is easy to envisage a chart that plots  where the cost of FTTX will intercept that of fibre Ethernet based on the growth in usage. FTTX bandwidth costs may well come down but it will also do so for Ethernet. I don’t know when the lines will cross but they will do so and that point will tell us when the country will move entirely to a fibre based network.

My forecasts for my own personal data storage needs suggest I will be adding nearly 2TB a year in storage by 2020. Unless I start consuming a lot of Ultra high definition video it suggests to me that it’s going to be a very long time before I need to upgrade to a symmetrical Ethernet service. A 30Mbp uplink as provided by the current FTTP capability would let me upload 10Terabytes in a month (all these numbers are approximate) which my calcs suggest is more than enough for my forseeable needs. Even my 80:20 line which only gives me 35:7 due to the distance to the cabinet will be good enough until at least 2020.

There are other factors which will drive the world towards fibre (as opposed to FTTC). The cost of running the network will be one – fibre has a much lower operating cost once it is in place as it is more reliable. The speed of adoption of download bandwidth heavy services such as streaming Ultra HD video is another.

I didn’t really know where I was going when I started this post. I am a big fan of rolling out FTTP. It is the most sensible long term proposition. It certainly still make sense in the near term for areas of the country that can’t get FTTC. That’s 10% of the population at least.

I’m going to leave it at that. I’ve rambled on long enough.

Ciao baby.

broadband Engineer

Openreach – it’s all noise

openreach engineer up a poleOpenreach broadband engineer finds corroded pair up pole

It’s a complicated old game, broadband. Ethernet is far simpler. You connect a length of fibre to  router at one end and one way or another it gets back to a bigger router at the ISP’s core network somewhere and hooks you up to the internet/intranet/wherever you want to hook up to. I realise that’s a simplistic way of putting it but basically that is it. it doesn’t matter if it rains or blows a gale. Fibre doesn’t normally mind.

Broadband is different. Broadband is made up of copper cables, aluminium1  if you are unlucky. Even fibre broadband, as the BT marketing hypers like to call it, is not usually fibre. Fibre broadband is, unless you happen to be one of the few with Fibre To The Premises, carried over copper in the last critical few hundred yards to your house.

So fibre broadband, or Fibre To The Cabinet, has some copper. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. Well actually I have been complaining. My home broadband performance had dropped right off from the 53Megs down and 11Megs up to at times a pathetic 6Megs in either direction.

Fortunately I have “a man who does” named Adam Rutter who leads one of our tech support teams. The BT System had rate adapted a line that could theoretically hit 80Mbps (I never expected it to do that – I am a few hundred yards from the cabinet). It normally does this if it finds errors on the line – the speed is adjusted to a point where the errors disappear. In my case the line was synching at 15Megs. Nogoode.

Adam knew there was something wrong and called out the cavalry in the guise of BT Openreach. The engineer arrived at the appointed time (good) and I hung around whilst he ran through some tests.

Now one thing you should know about a copper broadband line is that it was originally designed to carry your voice via analogue electrical signals. The specification for the copper telephone cable is therefore based largely on the parameters needed for your Aunty Mabel to hear your dulcet tones without having to put a bigger speaker in her hearing aid. Broadband hadn’t been invented in Aunty Mabel’s day (may she rest in peace).

When the boffs at the Post Office BT came along and said “Eureka we have read this article about something called ADSL and we think it is a good idea” they were stuck with a copper line that had a pre-Mabel date on it. That line spec, SIN349 for the purists amongst you, was designed to keep Mabel the inveterate talker happy on her Plain Old Telephone line and not Mabel the Skyper who loves to video conference with her nephews and nieces who in turn indulge their auntie because she shells out at Christmas and birthdays.

Now I’ve had Openreach out before to check my line and it has always passed their tests. This time I explained in no uncertain terms that there was something wrong – the evidence being in the speeds I was getting. I know it wasn’t congestion on our network and I also know how BT manages the capacity at the exchange so it wasn’t going to be down to congestion there.

Tim Drake, the Openreach engineer realised that there was no point in performing the normal line test – it would have passed. He got on the blower to their operations team and asked for the limits on my line to be lifted (the limits imposed to prevent line CRC errors).

My internet access speeds shot up, as expected.  However it didn’t take long for the errors to return. Tim spent the next hour or so testing the line looking for the source of the errors. He eventually found it at the top of the telegraph pole down the road from my house.

“Eureka” says I. Tim finished his stuff up the pole and brought down a piece of cable that showed corrosion on both strands of one pair. These wires, rubbing together in the wind and rain would have resulted in noise that was the cause of my errors and the speed downgrade. Mabel and her yakking on the Plain Old Telephone would not have been troubled by the problem. Mabel on Skype would.

My FTTC line is now back a lot nearer to where it needs to be and I am a happy bloke. I am next week having dinner with a senior team from BT and I intend to specifically commend Tim Drake for his efforts. Openreach broadband engineers have a budget of one hour to fix each problem.  Mine took two hours and Tim could have walked away early on in the process with the throwaway observation that the line was in spec and there was nothing he could do.

This he did not do and he now has a happy customer. He is a good man. He cares.

The only real answer to all this would be for a total network rollout of Fibre To The Premises. Whilst I am not saying that fibre is totally immune from the environmental problems that affect copper it is far less so. Ubiquitous FTTP ain’t going to happen any time soon, we all know that, but perhaps this blog will be used one day as an illustration of the issues that dogged that historical piece of communications antiquity, the copper telephone line.

Thanks Tim. The photo is of Tim up the pole.


1 That’s alue-min-eeum and not aloominum, y’awl

broadband Engineer internet

Penis Envy, Broadband Style: 1Gbps FTTP at Appleton & Eaton

Gigaclear speedtest showing 1Gbps broadband speeds in Appleton & EatonGigaclear gigabit broadband is blazing fast.

This is the nearest thing you can get to penis envy in the broadband world. It’s a speedtest, performed on the new Gigaclear gigabit broadband network in the fortunate communities of Appleton and Eaton.

I was recently gushing over the 20Mbps and 40Mbs speeds I have encountered at WiFi hotspots in London. Well, it won’t be long before properties in Appleton and Eaton get to London prices, as this amazing new network is sure to have a beneficial effect on valuations.

Gigaclear quote one of their customers as saying, “I run my business from home, and with only 1-2Mbps available before Gigaclear I had to plan well in advance when to upload and download”. Pricing starts at £37.

Gigaclear is digging fibre into a number of communities (check them out here).

broadband Business

Ubiquitous FTTP Broadband Business Case Crowd Source

BT says there is no business case for the rollout of ubiquitous Fibre to the Premises (FTTP broadband). I believe it.

The government says there is a business case for HS2 rail link between London and Birmingham (and beyond1). I probably believe it. After all according to Justine Greening, the Transport Secretary,  “HS2 will deliver four pounds of benefit for every additional pound spent compared to a new conventional-speed line, as well as driving regeneration, creating jobs and providing our country with the infrastructure we need to compete in the 21st century.” It must be true.

It will also no doubt save the Irish economy as gangs of ‘Navigationals’ return to the English countryside to “earn a bob” but that is another story.

I’m not aware that anyone has put much effort into a business case for ubiquitous FTTP broadband. I can see why BT wouldn’t bother. The amount we (the nation) are willing to pay for our broadband won’t make it compute. This isn’t BT’s business case to assemble. It belongs to UK PLC.

What we have ended up with is

broadband Business

When is a Spade Not a Spade? When it’s a Superspade! #BT

BT's new spade for digging through Tarmac and reducing the cost of civil engineeringNo surface is too tough for superspade. Grass and soil it doesn’t even notice. This baby likes to flex its muscles by digging up tarmac. In fact it is so soft on your hands that labourers using it are often mistaken for office workers (until they ask for four sugars in their tea and give the game away).

Most people have a whinge about BT somewhere in their portfolio of anecdotes. Last week I found myself in the slightlyBT's new spade for digging through Tarmac and reducing the cost of civil engineering unusual position of heaping praise on the company! Now I’m adding more positive comments!

BT Group has announced a series of innovations that on the face of it are largely aimed at reducing the cost of digging in fibre. These include:

  • a new spade that can cut through tarmac eliminating the need for a separate “civils “team
  • micro-trenching for faster deployment in environmentally sensitive areas
  • a mini DSLAM to provide cost effective coverage for low density areas and multi-tenant dwelling units (ie blocks of flats)
  • conductive concrete – a cost effective option for meeting electrical safety needs and which lowers civils costs
  • a polymer based plinth that allows faster, lower cost all-weather deployment and which is environmentally friendly and
  • a power supply infrastructure that removes the need for a meter installation visit and reduces deployment time by two weeks.

I can almost hear the deep intakes of breath and the look of amazement on your faces as you read this. I’m not sure whether your incredulity is down to not believing that BT could innovate in this space or whether you think that these developments are not particularly significant.

Well actually whilst each of these innovations may seem trivial what they collectively do is send out a signal that BT is trying to do something about the aspect of it’s business that is often criticised as being one of the barriers to cost effective fibre broadband rollout (FTTC & FTTP) and that is the cost of digging trenches.

When the Caio Report came out in 2009 it quoted a figure of £29Bn as the cost of rolling out fibre to every home in the UK. Of this something like £24Bn was supposedly the civil engineering cost.

Looking at it simplistically you can see that halving the cost of the civil engineering effort has a massive effect on the total cost of the network roll out with, presumably, a knock-on positive effect on the business case.

I have no idea how the announcements herein will affect the overall costs for BT. Only time will tell. For now at least the messaging is right.

broadband Engineer

Superfast Broadband: Pat on the Back for BT #FTTC

It’s fast moving this new web based world of ours. Some of it is faster moving than others.  This morning I woke up to the news (in the twitter stream – thanks to @ruskin147) that BT was looking to pull forward the rollout plans for “superfast” broadband. To do this the company is taking on an additional 520 engineers and bringing forward £300m of spend.

Competition is great. Clearly Virgin, with its 100Mbps service, is forcing the pace here. BT is saying that by 2014 it will be serving two thirds of the population with download speeds of 70 – 100Mbps.

I realise that I have occasionally been known to be a critic of those responsible for our national broadband infrastructure. On this occasion I’m going to hold back and say to BT:  Well done. This is a good decision. Keep it coming.

broadband Engineer

Busman’s Holiday Touring FTTC Broadband Cabinets and FTTP Update

A little rugby, a FTTC broadband cabinet or two, all in a Sunday’s walk.

leaning against an FTTC cabinet in Leamington SpaOn Sunday morning I was walking with a couple of my kids from our hotel in Leamington Spa to my oldest son’s flat, where we went to watch the Rugby World Cup final. To my utter delight, I came across a  FTTC broadband cabinet and insisted we stop for a photo opportunity.

My kids are used to this kind of thing, and weren’t overly embarrassed when people passed by wondering what the attraction was with a metal green cabinet when there was a beautiful park and greenhouse in Jephson Gardens a mere stones throw away across the river Leam. My daughter, though, did once move to the back of the crowd when I stopped in front of everyone to take a photo of a Grandstream SIP phone during a guided tour of Southampton University student accommodation.fttc cab dslam label

There was no doubt that it was a FTTC broadband cabinet – there was a small yellow label on it containing the words DSLAM. Anyway we continued on our way to the flat to watch the rugby which finished with, from a Welshman’s perspective, a highly satisfactory narrow victory for the All Blacks. This was despite the fact that France probably had the best of much of the game, and the ref ignoring what seemed to be a number of high tackles, where in my view France should have been awarded penalties.

The other satisfactory result would have been a storming 70 point victory for New Zealand. No sour grapes at all here 🙂

Just to finish off with some BT FTTP tidbits, I note that as of last week there are now 35,020 premises that can gain access to FTTP. There has been a steep increase in the numbers being provisioned over the last few weeks, helped by the use of overhead cables rather than underground ducts to access the cabs.

This won’t mean much to the the general public as BT’s marketing seeks not to distinguish between FTTP and FTTP, with a harmonised product set due to be announced at some point. More on this schedule as I get the info.

broadband Business

Gigaclear Set to Show UK How to Build FTTP Broadband Network at Hambleton, Rutland

Matthew Hare of gigaclear feeds fibre into the UK network infrastructure in HambletonThe sleepy village of Hambleton lies in the heart of the old county of Rutland. In the winter Hambleton, surrounded by Rutland water, can feel quite a remote place. The wind whistles eerily across the choppy white topped waters of the lake and the snow can drift deep on the single road that leads into the peninsula. It it not unknown for the village to be cut off from the outside world and this has indeed happened during the harsh winters of recent times.

Fortunately when this does happen the foolish, unwary and now stranded individuals are able to seek refuge by the warmth of the log fire and bask in the friendly welcome that is characteristic of Hambleton Hall. The Hall, “One of England’s finest country house hotels” has luxury overnight accommodation (a snip at between £245 and £360 a room) and their Michelin starred chef will assuage the needs of the hungriest. To round off the perfect enforced stay the Hall has free wifi for all guests.

Of course how fast an internet access guests will get from this wifi is another thing – Hambleton really is in the middle of internet nowhere.

This is all about to change

broadband Business

B4RN JFDI FTTH – this is real community at work – not Big Society FTTP

I note with excitement the B4RN website has gone live today. BARN do I hear you say? It stands for Broadband For the Rural North and is a community initiative set up by a team including Barry Forde, Chris Conder and Lindsey Annison to provide Fibre to the Home for country dwellers currently either completely unable to get broadband or the connection is so slow it is hardly worth the effort.

B4RN is not a Big Society, BDUK, Government funded project. It is reliant on the community itself investing in its own future. Its founders have become totally disillusioned with attempts to formalise “superfast broadband” projects under government initiatives.

To lay fibre cables to all 1322 properties across the 8 parish areas proposed for the first phase rollout will cost £1.86M. Each property taking service will get 1Gbs symmetrical broadband at a monthly charge currently set at £30 (£25+VAT).

The fibre terminating equipment in the customers property will have a one hour battery back up installed. This will allow those who want to use VoIP telephony services exclusively, to cease their landlines saving the £13.90 monthly line rental charge. Existing telephone numbers can be moved over to the service.

Members of the community can subscribe for shares in B4RN from a minimum amount of £100 up to the maximum permitted under FSA rules of £20,000.

As well as offering shares in exchange for cash investments B4RN are looking to the community to subscribe with payment of labour and/or materials. Of the £1.86M cost of building the network over £500K is due to labour; so there is considerable scope for members to contribute their labour rather than cash. There are many who could dig the trenches, install duct and make good afterwards and their contribution to the project would be invaluable. Similarly there are administrative, clerical and technical support roles to be filled and these skills and time can be offered in kind to purchase shares.

£1.86 million sounds like a lot but it isn’t. It’s around £1,400 per property. It’s a fraction of the what it would cost the likes of BT because their overheads are so much higher and B4RN is benefitting from easement waivers from the local landowners in the interest of the wider community – something that they would be unlikely to do for a for profit organisation such as BT.

What’s more this investment is hugely future proofed as the initial service will offer each property 1Gbps symmetrical connectivity, upgradeable at some point because it is fibre all the way.

I visited the B4RNlocale a couple of weeks or so ago and it is very rural. You can see the detailed business plan with a very transparent presentation of the costs of the project on the B4RN website here. It really does put BDUK to shame.

We all need to give this project our support because it seriously does represent the future of broadband in rural Britain. Also, at 1Gbps if we could but see it B4RN also represents the future of what all our broadband services should look like.

broadband Business

FTTx Update – BT Superfast Broadband Will Soon Surpass 5 Million Homes

At some point in the coming month BT’s superfast broadband service will surpass the 5 million home mark.

I’ve been a bit quiet on the fibre updates recently. I just sat in on a BT conference call on the subject. BT is contemplating changing the frequency specification on its “superfast” broadband product which will bring speeds potentially up to 80Mbps instead of the current 40Mbps.

I questioned whether this would reduce the reach of the service but apparently it increases it. The issues are potentially higher levels of cross talk and interference on lines but the higher frequency position is the standard that has been adopted elsewhere in the EU – must be ok then.

For punters it shouldn’t make any difference as BT is likely to specify both services at the same level. In other words they will say 80Megs and the underlying delivery technology will be irrelevant. This won’t quite be true because those benefitting from FTTP should get the stated maximum throughput whilst the FTTC lines will average out at a lower speed over their copper lines.

The current FTTP trials have slipped by 6 months. This is down to the odd technical hitch but also whilst BT gets a better handle on the delivery costs. By the end of the trials they should be in a position to decide what is the most cost effective technology. I can’t imagine it will be FTTP but am prepared to be pleasantly surprised. As it stands BT is currently sticking to its position that it will use FTTP for exchange fed lines and FTTC for cabinet fed with 25% of lines in areas where BT has targeted for FTTP being FTTP.

In the near term it won’t really make much difference to end users which flavour they get. Their usage behaviour doesn’t seem to change much whether they have 40Megs FTTC or 100Megs FTTP. This does suggest that the world has not yet produced services that need the faster speed. However build it and they will come, as the saying goes.
BT expects to pass its 5 millionth home with superfast broadband by the end of June 2011.

broadband Business

1Gig FTTP Broadband Coming to 24 Rural UK Communities #NextGenUs #DigitalBritain

This morning Community Interest Company (CIC) NextGenUs announced that it has secured £10m funding to provide rural fttp broadband access to up to 10,000 homes across 24 communities in the UK. This is private cash unassociated with the government’s Big Society initiative that uses (or should I say is trying to use) BDUK as a delivery mechanism.

NextGenUs is the organisation that provided 100Meg Fibre To The Premises delivered on a 1Gig bearer to Ashby de la Launde in Lincolnshire. The model is to light up broadband Notspots with the cooperation of the community using a local POP known as a Digital Village Pump. Community participation lowers costs and removes barriers such as the negotiation of wayleaves and planning permissions.

This funding is important because it will allow NextGenUs to demonstrate that it can deliver connectivity on a scale greater than a single community. Even 10,000 homes however is pretty small beer. The real issue is how can community based organisations deliver to the one third of UK homes that currently fall into the category of broadband impoverished.

For rural areas there is a lot riding on the NextGenUs model because the alternative is to leave it to the inefficient combo of government assistance and incumbent self interest. The former provides a future proofed solution with the interest of the community at heart but has uncertain scalability and the latter would eventually deliver a compromise.

We should all be offer our support to NextGenUs. Theirs is truly the Big Society at work.


broadband Business

@edvaizey @jeremy_hunt please read this #deappg #digitalbritain #fttc #fttp

Last week I wrote an analysis on the superfast broadband strategy published by Jeremy Hunt. It attracted more comments than any other post I have written in the last three years. I concluded that whilst the published strategy might enable the government to meet its near term objectives it was not necessarily the best thing for UK plc.

Now Barry Forde, the brains behind CLEO, has written a post on that goes into fantastic analytical detail as to why promoting a FTTC based plan is not the right thing to do. Indeed Barry shows that in the medium term it would be the more expensive approach and would lead to continued requests for government handouts.

I can’t better this piece of analysis and suggest you read it here.

broadband Business

Read All About It – Wheel Invented – Or a Call Upon the People of Lincoln to Vote for Superfast Broadband

With a population of only 110,000, Lincoln is not on the list of Exchanges to be enabled for superfast broadband in the forseeable future.

Of course, the wheel was almost certainly invented before anyone could read all about it. However I do get the feeling that we are somehow still in the stone age. This afternoon I registered with the BT “Race to Infinity”.  I want superfast broadband (whatever that is).  Here are the stats from Lincoln, my hometown.

Percentage of votes 0.77%
252 votes have been cast out of a total of 32,844

With only 16 days to go this spells disaster. Lincoln is not on the list of Exchanges to be enabled in the forseeable future. With a population of only 110,000 or so (at least within the general area) you would think that constituted a reasonable sized conurbation. Clearly not reasonably sized enough!

This does pose an interesting question. Lincoln is not in what is described as “the final third” – the 33% of the country that is broadband impoverished so I would find it difficult to see a situation where the government would fund connectivity under its recently published superfast broadband strategy.

How therefore does the government decide which communities it should fund?

I can envisage a four tier society

  1. Areas where the business case easily merits initial investment – ie those where “FTTC/FTTP are currently planned
  2. Areas outside the above that can only get conventional broadband and are not in the plan for FTTC/FTTP
  3. Deprived areas that are currently not spots or have very slow connectivity and are obvious candidates for funding
  4. the final 10% that BT said it could not service even with the currently envisage level of funding

Now either BT isn’t doing a very good job promoting the Race to Infinity or nobody wants the product.

My message to the people of Lincoln?

We are talking wheels here.  When the wheel was first proposed to Og (3rd cave along) 10,000 years ago he didn’t at first appreciate the benefits. It was only after ha started using it that he saw the light (lightening of his load anyway).

Get voting!

PS Og and 10,000 years are made up names and dates. I could have Googled it I suppose…

broadband Business ofcom Regs

Pros and Cons of @Jeremy_Hunt Superfast Broadband Strategy Document #digitalbritain

DCMS Minister Jeremy Hunt has finally announced the government strategy for providing “superfast broadband” to the final third. I’ve read the speech, the press release and the 64 page strategy document and this is my interpretation of where it is all at.

The government has the laudable aim for the UK of having “the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015. Moreover gov is not letting the grass grow under its feet. We have already seen work progressing on the 4 Big Society projects (initially three but apparently none included BT so a fourth was added).

Another positive is that the Universal Service Commitment of 2Megs is being rolled into the “superfast” activity. The investment in an infrastructure to just provide 2 Megs is a waste of money.

The announcement talks of a ‘digital hub’ in every community by the end of this Parliament. This is great. You do however have to read between the lines to see what is going on.
The idea of a hub stems from the concept of the Digital Village Pump as is now installed in Ashby de la Launde and is being looked at for the Cumbrian Big Society project. This concept brings a high speed fibre connection into a community and allows for that connection to be used to connect to a variety of means of terminating to local end users.

There are however some worrying indicators. In today’s announcement there are constant references to BT together with “cabinets” and “fibre connectivity to the nearest exchange”. DCMS has also now confirmed that in saying digital hub they do indeed mean FTTC. BT has said that it intends to tender for each project covered by the £830m of funding made available for this activity and that it will match any government funding. On the face of it this might not sound like a bad thing. BT has said that such an arrangement would allow it to extend superfast broadband reach to 90% or more of the population.

The real issue is something that Jeremy Hunt alluded to unwittingly in his speech in saying

  • “…unless you take extraordinary risks, you won’t survive in the digital world. I want our broadband infrastructure to make it possible for our entrepreneurs and investors to take those risks.”

It would appear that the government is taking a safe, non-risk based option here. The signs are that it is lining up BT to provide the digital hubs into these communities. Superfast broadband to 90% of the population would get the UK a long way towards Jeremy Hunt’s stated objective.

So is this a bad thing we have to ask ourselves? The problem is that BT is not a company that is going to take risks. BT is also too big to be able to innovate. Everything BT does has to scale, which is one of the reasons that the government will inevitably want to partner with it. In this case however scale = inflexibility and lack of innovation.

If, as reading between the lines suggests, we are going to see FTTC as the solution for the final third this has the following issues:

  • Once FTTC is in that is it. The end user will be stuck with a copper based solution for a long time to come. BT has said that it won’t be upgrading users to FTTP if they already have FTTC. Note that the residents of Ashby de la Launde already enjoy 100Mbps symmetrical FTTP with an upgrade path if necessary. My own view is that 100Mbps symmetrical is the minimum standard we should be aiming for. This is supposed to be a long term investment.
  • BT does not currently allow competitors access to its cabinets to connect their own services. This will prevent innovative communities and service providers from providing cost effective solutions to that last 10% that still wouldn’t be getting FTTC. BT’s preferred solution for this 10% is a copper based BET technology that facilitates the government’s 2Meg USC.
  • Even if competitors were allowed cabinet access, the backhaul for FTTC is expensive – on a wholesale basis up to 3 x the cost per Megabit as putting in your own fibre backhaul.
  • The government would effectively be extending to BT a monopoly status in these areas – something that successive governments have been working hard to erode – to the great benefit of UK plc it might be added.

It seems fairly clear to me that BT will probably win the majority of tenders. For one thing today’s strategy document effectively hands it to them because the government has said that it does not see any reason to change the way fibre rates are calculated.

  • “First, that the decisions of the Valuation Office Agency are made independently of ministers. It is not our role to decide who is liable for what under the business rates regime. Second, that the existing rates regime has been tested in court numerous times and no ruling has required any change to the regime. Third, that while in general we favour a low tax environment for new investment; it is right that non-domestic property should continue to be taxed to provide the essential public services we all rely on.”

This means that only BT is likely to be able to submit a competitive bid – all other network operators will be required to pay rates on their connectivity.

There are also other issues that weigh the scales in BT’s favour. Third party access to BTs poles and ducts has been mandated by Ofcom and we await a proposal from BT in January telling us how they are going to do this. BT’s most recent offer to NextGenUs (Ashby’s network operator) required them to use BT engineers (and consequential high labour rates & uncertain availability ) to do all the work. NextGenUs were also being quoted 21 days repair time for any problems. This is not a viable business situation. They would almost certainly repair their own problems within hours. It is very important that Ofcom negotiates hard with BT re this. Ofcom’s reputation in the industry for being another department of BT does not augur well.

If, as it appears, that BT is being lined up to take most of the cash available for NGA I can understand why the government is taking this approach. Let us not however delude ourselves into thinking that this is the best long term strategy for UK plc. This strategy is not an example of innovation and risk taking. It is anti competitive and is likely to be a step backwards from the progress of recent years. FTTP and true open access are the only sensible long term solutions.

broadband datacentre Engineer

Next Generation Broadband: The Digital Village Pump

Google satellite image of Ashby de la Launde in Lincolnshire

The story of Next Generation Broadband Access into the Final Third has to be all about the Digital Village Pump. The phrase has a certain flow to it but this is not about water. This DVP is about bytes.

The concept is that you run a fibre into a village and it terminates into a secure “datacentre” owned and run by the local community.  In the picture below the DVP is tucked away nicely at the back of a building in the centre of the village.

Digital Village Pump set in a modern day utilitarian "datacentre"
Digital Village Pump set in a modern day utilitarian “datacentre”

The DVP is air cooled with minimal ongoing maintenance and running costs.

How you get the fibre into the village in the first place is going to be different for each community.

There is very often an existing fibre run in an area – serving a school for example. It is not untypical for such runs to have multile strands of fibre, most of which are unused. This just needs identifying. It maybe a wireless feed.

How that community then distributes the connectivity is up to them. It isn’t necessarily feasible to expect people with no experience of data networks to do this themselves but the idea is that they engage a management company to look

broadband Business ofcom

Broadband Fibre Rollout is Massive Civil Engineering Exercise

BT’s broadband fibre rollout has attracted unprecedented interest and huge levels of disappointment.

Fibre dig in Newark Notts

A few recent events have brought home the enormity of the task of rolling out broadband fibre to every premises in the UK. Firstly the pigeon stunt of last month. I drove for miles looking for Furrows Farm, passing farmhouses half a mile apart on the way. Clearly not an economic prospect that passes normal business case rules.

Secondly in producing the FTTC postcode level map last week it was difficult not to notice the sheer number of cabinets involved and the areas that BT needs to cover to accomplish the rollout.

Then also last week BT sent a digger to dig up 300 metres of road at the end of our office drive. Funnily enough it was

broadband Business

Superfast Broadband Coming to Cornwall and Scilly Isles

BT announced today that Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly are set to become one of the best connected locations in the world under an ambitious £132 million BT and Cornwall Council project, supported by European funding. It will bring superfast broadband to the vast majority of businesses in this area by 2014. The project will benefit tens of thousands of local businesses, create 4,000 new local jobs and protect a further 2,000.

It is expected that other ISPs will be able to offer services using the infrastructure in the same way that they buy off BT Wholesale today. Operational details of this have yet to be announced. Rollout will be announced on a rolling basis, agreed by the project partners in consultation with internet service providers.

broadband Business internet

FTTP Broadband Installation – First Photos of Trials

Photos of BT FTTP broadband installation. Really!

As a participant in the BT Fibre To The Premises  trials I am pleased to bring you pictures of real life fibre installations in action. There is more to a FTTP broadband installation than a traditional ADSL line which utilises existing copper cabling.

There are three splices to be made.  One at the cabinet and two at your premises (inside and out). A splice is traditionally a fairly complex and expensive operation – because of the kit and skill-set required.  However you can see from the photo that today’s equipment is far more portable and thus suited to a mass market rollout when the time is right.  Note you still need a bloke to hold the umbrella 🙂 Presumably there is someone off camera heating up the urn as well :).  Thanks to BT Wholesale for the photos.

broadband Business internet

FTTP Broadband jfdi Country Style

Photo is of villagers in Ashby De La Launde digging their own trenches in preparation for fibre installation.  This is one way of circumventing the enormous civil engineering cost of lighting the UK with fibre.

Villagers in Ashby De La Launde Lincolnshire digging their own trenches in preparation for FTTP

broadband Engineer internet

FTTC Broadband at 700Mbps? The Man from Huawei He Say Yes!

I don’t know whether it’s because I’m getting old but the pace of life seems so frenetic these days. Today I read about a 700Mbps DSL prototype showcased in Hong Kong by Chinese networking vendor Huawei.

Huawei’s SuperMIMO technology uses four twisted pairs to achieve a downstream rate of 700Mbps at a distance of 400 metres. This means it would likely fit into a Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC broadband) scenario. In the UK of course we are just rolling out “up to 40Mbps” FTTC and trialing 100Mbps Fibre to the Premises (FTTP).

broadband Business internet

Broadband Connectivity: Superfast IP Networks, 21CN and MPLS Mixing and Matching

Superfast all IP networks are not just around the corner they are here already, at least if you are a business. The big growth area in business networking is in Ethernet data circuits that are rapidly replacing ADSL as the business connectivity of choice.

In fact businesses are keeping their old ADSL connections as a backup to their new Ethernet circuit so whilst the market for broadband is relatively flat the general business of internet connectivity is seeing a boom.

At Timico we will see almost twice as many Ethernet circuits installed in 2010 as we did in the first five years of our existence. Next year we expect the number to at least double again.

Engineer internet voip

VONGA is dead – long live FVA? – Openreach

BT has killed off VoNGA. Bit of a shame really because I was kinda fonda VoNGA. Voice over Next Generation Access or VoNGA was BT Openreach’s initial stab at voice over fibre and initially at least notionally aimed at new developments where it didn’t make sense to put legacy voice infrastructure into an exchange.

Now BT has strangled VoNGA in the womb. We never really heard it’s first cry.

Don’t get me wrong. It was only the acronym I liked – I thought it sounded good. The product itself, a reduced feature

broadband Business internet

Broadband Local Architecture: FTTC and FTTP

FTTC and FTTP broadband local architectures? We’ve got the pictures!

FTTC broadband continues to be a popular subject on this blog. It gets linked to from all sorts of non-telecom forums.  There is clearly a hunger for information on faster broadband.

In the interest of adding to the body of information out there I’ve added some more info in this post.  Firstly pictures of both the FTTC broadband local architecture and the FTTP  broadband local architecture, and a link to the BT Openreach FTTC / FTTP product page. Note the larger cabinet for FTTC.

broadband Business internet

Digital Vacuum Sucks in Digby? Fibrestream NextGenUs #FTTP #finalthirdfirst #digitalbritain

I braved the elements of a windswept rural Lincolnshire on Saturday to visit the Digby Fete. Digby is in the middle of nowhere. It’s two main distinguishing features are the fact that it is the home of RAF Digby and that it is the next village on the map to Ashby De La Launde.

The proximity to Ashby has become an irritant to the good parishioners of Digby because their neighbouring village has just announced that it is getting 100Mbps Fibre To The Premises (FTTP). Up until now neither village could get decent broadband connectivity.

broadband Business internet Regs

@tom_watson @andrewpercy Questions to @edvaizey on Broadband Miscellany #finalthirdfirst #digitalbritain #FTTP

It’s Friday afternoon and the first time this week I have been able to sit down and blog, this time about broadband miscellany. It could be a full time activity if I had the time as so much stuff passes my way.

I note that Minister for Communications Ed Vaizey has been demonstrating his politcal sidestepping skills by answering MP Tom Watson’s request for a definition of “super fast broadband” with:

“Super fast broadband means broadband of sufficient speed and quality to deliver the services that will lead to Britain having the best broadband network in Europe. The technology used to deliver this could be fixed or wireless but will represent a significant upgrade on today’s fixed and wireless networks.”

broadband Business ofcom voip


It’s been quite an amusing afternoon at BT Central in Newgate Street. After the ITSPA council meeting I stayed to moderate the Technical Workshop which covered VONGA and Number Porting.

More on Number Porting anon but VONGA, or Voice over Next Generation Access, was an interesting session. BT is, as we all know, rolling out Fibre To The Cabinet and then Fibre To The Premises (anyone wanting the service please get in touch).

The FTTP product from Openreach is going to have an option to take voice services that will replicate WLR3 – the standard analogue line Plain Old Telephony Service or POTS.

There are I think several drivers for this within BT. Firstly BT either appears to be obligated to, or has decided to only provide fibre services to new Greenfield site builds rather than any copper based connectivity. They still however have an Universal Service Obligation to provide telephony services to anyone that want them.

Enter VONGA stage left. VONGA allows end users to plug an old fashioned telephone handset into an Analogue Telephone Adapter socket on their “broadband” router to make phone calls.

VONGA is also part of BT’s long term preparatory work before they turn off the old fashioned PSTN and move over to 21CN voice – 2020 at the earliest as reported here.

When I first heard of VONGA I kind of got excited. ITSPs around the country were asking all about it. In fact they were worried that BT might be trying to eat their still meagre lunch.

Don’t worry lads (and lasses). There is an alternative called CPCA that allows you to provide your own telephony services from the ATA sockets in the BT kit although it wasn’t totally clear to me whether anyone could do this completely independently of paying something to BT for the privilege. BT seems to think they are the only ones able to provide the PATS level service and point to a battery in the router that will keep the service alive for up to 4 hours in the event of a power cut (all subject to spec confirmation). Ofcom and most ITSPs would disagree here.

Despite what I’m sure are Openreach’s best efforts to corner the WLR3 futures market it will be possible for Communications Providers to sell users the FTTP connection and then sell their own services overlaid onto and through the Ethernet ports in the router – just like they do now. In fact this is effectively the naked DSL currently unavailable in the UK, albeit using turbo DSL.

VONGA does notionally provide Quality of Service for voice running over a separate VLAN tied to each ATA socket. However this QoS will also almost certainly be available to users just taking FTTP.

There are several disappointing facts associated with VONGA. Firstly trial dates stretch well into 2011 and then there is no firm date for production so this isn’t likely to happen before 2012.

Secondly VONGA, initially at least, strives only to replicate what is currently already there – so expect only boring old fashioned G711 voice services. This is a shame really considering that G711 will occupy only 100kbps or so out of the 100Mbps available over the fibre so could provide a higher quality product taking up just a little more bandwidth.

I think BT is boringly missing a trick by just trying to reinvent an old fashioned service but then again I realise that this is part of the long term goal to replicate and then remove the boring old 20CN network.

The third and final disappointing fact, which is more of an amusing one really, is the that VONGA uses SIP as a signaling protocol. SIP enables the internet’s version of old fashioned telephony but takes it on to another level by providing features such as Video. Presence and Instant Messaging.

SIP however doesn’t support all the legacy features of the PSTN – it’s moved on from there. You don’t need ringback for example if you can see when someone is off the phone.

The Alcatel Lucent SIP softswitch being used by BT (one of at least four different VoIP platforms being used across the BT empire) therefore doesn’t support all the features of the Plain Old Fashioned Telephone System.

This means that whilst you might expect a broadband VoIP service to offer more than POTS in this case it actually offers less – POTS Lite if you like. Who’d have thought such a thing was possible!

Sorry about the continued abundance of acronyms!

PS we were sat in the pub after the meeting thinking up titles for this post. Kinda fonda VONGA didn’t sound true, VONGA Ponga was a bit childish so VONGA – POTS Lite got it.

broadband End User

Who Ate All the (Broadband Fibre Optic) Pies?

Reading the news online before breakfast this (Saturday) morning I came across the PIEMAN project in Ireland. PIEMAN, or The Photonic Integrated Extended Metro and Access Network, is an EC funded project researching new broadband fibre optic technology.

The project potentially promises broadband fibre connectivity over distances of up to 100km in a single hop.  This would be a huge advance over today’s 25km (ish) for an ethernet circuit. I’d guess we turn down business on a weekly basis, because the customer’s site is too far from the nearest POP for a connection to be economically viable.

PIEMAN also introduces the idea of low cost 10Gbps connectivity, with many more users able to share the same broadband fibre. This makes the Government target of 90% penetration of 40Meg by 2017 seem very tame.

broadband Business

Broadband Types: ADSL versus FTTC versus FTTP

As we begin to discuss the merits of broadband types — Fibre To The Cabinet and Fibre To The Premises compared with ADSL — there are a few points worth noting.

First of all there is the speed of the connection. ADSL2+ offers “up to 24Mbps”, FTTC “up to 40Mbps” and FTTP, which has no copper in the loop, is initially 100Mbps with an upgrade path to 1Gbps. I’m not predicting when any reader will have access to these services but those are the numbers. Also the 100M should not need the “up to” inverted commas.

Speed apart the biggest win for me is likely to be in the reliability of the service. Copper based broadband connections are very prone to service interruption due to water and electrical storms.

Believe it or not fault rates do actually go up during summer heatwaves and the thunderstorms that these unbearable periods of British summer weather tend to attract:-). Fibre does not care about water or electromagnetic interference.

Fibre bandwidth delivery is also not dependant on distance in the way that copper based ADSL is. So the overall customer experience is likely to be much improved as we move to FTTP.

BT are assuming that more of their NGA rollouts are going to be FTTC. I think that once FTTP is readily available it will supersede it’s partly copper based sibling. Uses for the bandwidth are going to come along in their droves.

broadband Business ofcom

The Demise of Fixed Broadband

A lively time is being had today at the BT Wholesale ISP Forum. The ISP world is fast moving and with so many changes going on – the move from ADSL Max to 21CN, the introduction of Fibre To The Cabinet, Ethernet in the First Mile – there are always lots of things to talk about.

We had a market presentation given by John Kiernan of the BT Market Research department.  This was largely a regurgitation of this year’s Ofcom Market Report but he also spoke about the move away from fixed broadband to mobile broadband. During the debate from the floor someone mentioned that at the Broadband World Forum in Paris yesterday the talk (presumably by the wireless network operators) was that  wireless broadband was expected to kill off fixed broadband by 2012.

I can’t see this happening in the UK anytime soon although I’m sure that wireless broadband is going to have a big part to play – I use it myself on the move.  Consumers especially are getting more and more tied in to bundles that include their fixed line, TV and broadband. Also fibre brings the potential to provide much faster speeds than are being discussed with wireless broadband (and I know that someone will now tell me you can get Gigabit wireless).

What does concern me is the increase in the pollution of the airwaves which will come with more and more wireless.  I realise we are told it is safe but…