Br0kenTeleph0n3

Following the broadband money

Lords slam government’s strategy-free broadband plan

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Lord Inglewood: government strategy risks widening the digital divide

The government got its priorities wrong, started with a “flawed prospectus”, and risks making the digital divide permanent unless it revises its non-existent broadband strategy, the House of Lords says.

“Access to the internet should be seen as a domestic essential and regarded as a key utility. The spectre of a widening digital divide is a profound source of concern which requires the government to address its origin with greater vigour than we believe is currently the case,” the lords’ communications committee says in its report on the UK’s broadband strategy published this morning.

It adds that current progress may prove illusory. “The government’s strategy lacks just that – strategy,” committee chairman Lord Inglewood says in a comment on the report. He praised the government for addressing the issue of broadband especially in hard to reach areas. But it had not met its original brief.

“The complex issues involved were not thought through from first principle and it is far from clear that the government’s policy will deliver the broadband infrastructure that we need – for profound social and economic reasons – for the decades to come.”

Government’s preoccupation with network speed has had a “detrimental effect” on policy-making and the long term national interest, and the lords were not clear why the original speed (24Mbps) was chosen. Moreover, the government did not have a plan to meet the European targets of 30Mbps for all, with 50% using a 100Mbps service by 2020.

The lords set out an alternative vision for Broadband Britain:

  • Every community should be within reach of an open access fibre optic ‘hub’

  • Every such hub should be fed by ample fibre optic cable, providing open access on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms to optical links back to the exchange, and back to the public internet— allowing third parties to build their own

  • local access networks to appropriate technical standards, using whichever technologies they choose, from that hub

  • For the hub to support backhaul for a wireless network where there is demand, so that consumers would have access to a wireless internet service from at least one of these hubs — assuming they can afford to do so.

This will allow different providers “contribute to the reach and resilience of our national connectivity” and allow all individuals to benefit from whichever services, including public ones, will run over it.

Government should focus on delivering a high-spec infrastructure that is future proof and built to last. “Fibre optic cable, the most future proof technology, must be driven out as close as possible to the eventual user,” they say.

The lords dismissed arguments against dark fibre, and aligned themselves with Europe. “We endorse the European Commission’s suggestion that open access to dark fibre at the cabinet-level should be introduced as a condition of BDUK’s umbrella state aid permission.”

The lords also want to see a competitive national market in dark fibre. “The exclusive ability of one provider to build a final fibre link is actually a categorical departure from the idea of an open access fibre optic hub … In fact, it well and truly puts the kibosh on the idea.

“While the government clearly considered the (dark fibre) proposal in general terms early on in their deliberations, it is fair to say now, that it has disappeared from their plans in implementation.”

The committee also recommend:

  • that Ofcom actively considers changes to some aspects of the regulatory regime;
  • that the government undertake a detailed costing of its proposal, not least because it removes the final mile – the most expensive per capita component of the network – from the costs requiring public subsidy;
  • That the government pay “urgent attention” to the way public funds are being distributed, particularly the operation of the Rural Community Broadband Fund;
  • and that government and industry consider switching terrestrial broadcast from the airwaves to the internet.

A DCMS spokesman says the goverment will respond in due course. Normally that’s about two months.

The Communications Management Association (CMA), which represents business communications users, says it is pleased the lords recognise that the provision of digital access networks should be considered a key part of the national infrastructure and as a strategic national asset.

“They have clearly understood that all parts of the UK economy are increasingly dependent on the quality of digital access and the open availability of competitive services that can be delivered via those local networks,” CMA chairman Michael Rowbory says.

The CMA is also pleased that the report highlights the needs of businesses as well as consumers. “For far too long it has been felt that the regulator has not held a properly informed regard for the needs of wealth-creating consumers.”

The CMA says claims that higher-quality business connectivity, in contrast to households, is readily available, if costly, are “disingenuous”.

“They overlook the fact that most new economic growth comes from micro and small enterprises whose needs overlap in cost, performance, flexibility, consistency and upload capabilities with those of many ordinary households,” Rowbury says.

The CMA has consistently pointed to factors other than headline ‘up to’  speeds, which it claims are rarely delivered. “If the need for future-proofed infrastructure investment is to be realised, this report can be regarded as a clarion call for fresh thinking in in terms of national priorities, network design and local management,” Rowbury says.

The lords’ comments on dark fibre will please former BT manager and now independent consultant David Brunnen. Speaking ahead of publication of the report he said it is ridiculous that many overlapping networks that taxpayers have paid for are not yet carrying services for the wider community.

“How many times do wavelengths on the same fibre have to be sold at full price before someone realises that we are being collectively ripped off?” he says.

Brunnen said access to dark fibre would be a huge boost for mobile networks. “The expansion of the mobile network infrastructure is hugely dependent on the fibre capacity available for vastly more but smaller base stations.”

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Written by Br0kenTeleph0n3

2012/07/30 at 23:08

28 Responses

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  1. W00t, bravo the Lords.
    I am glad they have seen through the hype. We need fibre out to the sticks, access to it at a price we can afford and people will JFDI in the places the telcos fear to tread, creating much needed competition to an incumbent who wants to keep us all tied to old phone lines to protect their ass ets. Public funding and support should go to the Altnets. Not to protect obsolete copper and to make those who already have a connection go faster. The Lords have seen through the ‘up to’ which is also great news, as that has misled may people for a decade.

    chrisconder

    2012/07/31 at 07:56

  2. Indeed Chris – the ‘little boy’ has pointed out the King’s New Clothes at last. Well done HOL and all who contributed.

    Anyone listening up there?

    Mike Phillips

    2012/07/31 at 08:09

  3. Great news. The HoL seemed to have listened to the many hours of evidence and agreed that the UK strategy is not good enough. Which is what many people knew anyway. So now we have established that, What now? I assume the government can choose to ignore the findings and listening to Ed Vaisey on R4 just now, he didn’t seem too concerned by the report.

    Martyn Dews

    2012/07/31 at 08:21

  4. It’s worrying that so many people miss the point. None of what the Lords state will make one bit of difference, costs will be significant. every part of what Openreach is building wouldn’t change, so lords propose to add more on. who is paying for it because it will cost alot more money.

    1: Pt to Pt fibre will be mind blowingly more expensive to deploy than PON. And PON can deliver all the speed we will ever need.
    2: Fibre hubs into communities won’t help with the last mile. who is paying for the core network that this will need let alone the cost to pull core fibre cables through the network.
    3: Up to – so even if I tell promise you 1G – 1G to what? Your new hub in 2 above?
    At the LINX the exchange point peaks at just over a terabit per day. So in order to scale to give everyone 1G to somewhere. Well obviously won’t so we still have an “up to” problem. We could do a Germany and force all VDSL to sync at 50M but that chops 30M from millions of people.
    4: If I could deliver upto 1G over copper for a few hundred pounds? or upto 1G over fibre for a few thousand pounds which would you take? (google G.FAST)

    Neil.

    neilmcrae

    2012/07/31 at 08:38

    • Neil, I agree that what the Lords have said may not make any difference, and I do realise this country is broke… but the money being spent on a fast train for a few would easily pay for fibre hubs.
      There is already dark fibre running all over the place. All communities need is affordable access to light it. New businesses can spring up, new altnets, and deliver a service to everyone who wants it. Wifi can be a temporary solution to drive uptake. After all, 1st generation broadband for many people through the phone lines has made this country have one of the highest take ups. Its no wonder the incumbent wants to protect its assets with the copper, but the time has come to move on, and fibre is the only solution. You can’t deliver anything worth having over copper over distance.

      chrisconder

      2012/07/31 at 09:06

    • “PON can deliver all the speed we will ever need.” I’m sure that will go down in history along with “The world only needsa bout five mainframes” (IBM chairman Thomas Watson) and “640k should be enough for anybody” (Microsoft chairman Bill Gates).

      Ian Grant

      2012/07/31 at 09:23

      • Ian – leave the networking to the experts as you make yourself look like a complete idiot.

        PON with DWDM-TDM has theoretical speeds of _well_ above 1tb/sec with a fraction of the cost of pt2pt fibre. Of course Korea and Japan which has the biggest deployments clearly don’t know what they are doing. Its also super cheap with filters able to run huge number of channels with downstream improvements from active networks filtering into PON the sky is the limit.

        neilmcrae

        2012/11/26 at 22:12

      • So, I can get 1Tbps over twisted pair at my house, thanks to PON with DWDM-TDM? Show me.

        Br0kenTeleph0n3

        2012/11/26 at 22:28

      • Neil – LINX does a great job. I don’t have specific details on the Comcast issues with the LINX core – happy to read about it if its publicly available.

        As for the biblical pt-to-pt vs PON discussion (it’s up there with the Linux/Windows debate) I’ve yet to discover OLT drivers and optics for PON that compare in price to simple pt-to-pt in a low density rural project. Simple single fibre CWDM pretty much doubles the price of the optic driver alone in the ONT, or the CPE itself has to implement TDM demultiplexing – again, not cheap. Perhaps you could provide some financial numbers at which PON makes commercial sense over pt-to-pt in a rural setting of say, 2500 subscribers? In your role at BT as Chief Network Architect, you no doubt consider much larger economies of scale – understandable. But BT aren’t solving the current rural broadband problem for us, so we’re doing something else.

        The additional complexity inherent with maintenance of a rural deployment using PON adds substantially to the costs a community network has to consider. For urban deployments with higher subscriber counts and where duct capacity is the currency that counts, I would tend to agree with your bias towards PON. In France you get a better deal the thinner your fibre bundles are when renting duct space from a utility, for example. Either way, PON only saves you money from the first aggregation point away from the subscriber premises if the increased pt-to-pt fibre count is more expensive than the plant to run PON. Power savings are not significant enough to count on anything but a regional or national scale. For the 2500 subscriber network above, three PoPs with power are more than sufficient to serve the entire rural network using the cheapest LX transceivers currently on the market. Somewhat ludicrously, the current market price hike for BX CWDM transceivers makes a business case for using two fibres at each premise. Future proofed delivery by upgrading to BX when you need a physical fibre for something else, without deploying a forklift at the OLT site.

        As you say, when rural communities have the skills and motivation to build – great. For the rest of the country, we’re waiting to see what BDUK provides via BT and Fujitsu. Are the big telcos really interested in fixing rural broadband? Is there enough money in it for them? I’m not convinced there’s a business case that works for them, even with public money.

        RobL

        2012/11/27 at 04:54

    • Neil – what are the GEA / ALA issues?

      Somerset

      2012/07/31 at 12:32

  5. Well done HOL. @Neil – not sure where you see the “mind blowing” costs in Pt-to-Pt fibre. When the community dig, 80% of the cost is erased (the civils). Suggesting LINX or any other exchange is unable to scale to accommodate the next generation of switching rate somewhat underestimates the clever folk who make LINX what it is.

    It’s all opportunity. Opportunity that is denied to us by the current incumbent biased commercial model.

    Companies with vision that offer dark fibre backhaul for rural Alt Nets are forging the way. The realisation by government that they have to help with the backhaul, not the rural last mile, is starting to take, spurred on by coherent and calculated study and reporting such as we just received from HOL. The backhaul is where significant work remains to make “Open Access” a reality. Right now – it appears to be a dream, a very expensive dream. Did I say VOA and tax? Let’s not go there.

    RobL

    2012/07/31 at 09:02

    • RobL,
      I’m a director of LINX and have been involved in the running of the company since it was founded almost 20 years ago. I suggest you go look at the nightmare that Comcast currently have and see how well the core currently scales.

      When communities build, great, but for the VAST HUGE MAJORITY there is no community to do this, and thus it costs money. But then you have the electronics costs where PON is super cheap and can deliver all the bandwidth we will ever need.

      Neil.

      neilmcrae

      2012/11/26 at 22:16

  6. .Watching the HOL Committee hearings on-line I doubted that their noble Lords and Ladies could understand anything that was being said but they have seen the light (at the end of fibre for everyone) and they say BDUK have failed to get it – it’s not about headline speed it’s about laying down a fibre network to EVERY community, for the benefit of EVERYONE and EVERY ISP………they are NOT saying FTTP is God basically it’s FTTC plus copper plus Radio if need be…the government is paying out already 3 times for national fibre – to every surgery (NHS N3), to every school and thru BDUK

    3 cheers for the good old HOL!!!

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/government-broadband-policy-is-preoccupied-with-speed-report-concludes-7993978.html

    http://www.computerworlduk.com/news/networking/3373020/peers-warn-government-of-anticompetitive-broadband-strategy/

    The original report and video:

    http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/communications-committee/news/governments-broadband-strategy-risks-leaving-communities-behind/

    Best regards,
    Mel

    Mel Bryan

    2012/07/31 at 12:01

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  8. Getting technical – ‘Every such hub should be fed by AMPLE fibre optic cable’. Who writes this stuff?

    Somerset

    2012/07/31 at 20:56

  9. When something like this is in the report you have to question the ability of those writing it.

    “…a future where appliances in our homes and at work, like fridges and desktops, are connected and enabled as interactive multimedia devices, and far more beyond, bringing benefits to society.”

    Also see http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/08/01/sheep_need_twitter/

    Somerset

    2012/08/02 at 07:51

    • Of course @Somerset you are right. How foolish of people to look ahead and have visions of how things will be and what will be possible,

      PS I’m writing this on my iPad (other tablets are available), which looks very much like a tablet that was featured in Star Trek TNG. I recall thinking at the time how it would be great to have such a device but probably it would not be possible. I thought the same about being able to store my record collection on a micro chip too! I have since learnt to me more open minded. You should try it Peter. :)

      As for the report in The Register, I read that too. As with most of the reports, I find their slant on the news amusing and it often brings a smile to my face. I stopped taking the article too seriously after the “Sheep need Twitter” headline though.

      Martyn Dews

      2012/08/02 at 08:38

    • @Somerset Glass half empty again Somerset? In any report where a substantial effort has been invested over an extended period of time by many different individuals, there will be a variance in audience technical level and quality of prose. To expect anything less is naive.

      The skill in understanding such a report lies in a understanding the balanced view of the contributors on the important points, while leaving behind the window dressing and less useful content. My fridge is just fine the way it is just now, but that’s not why I read the report.

      RobL

      2012/08/02 at 08:47

    • @Somerset – Many places in the world are experimenting with ‘internet of things’ ideas, from smart meters and smart grids, traffic control, logistics managment, ‘smart shelves’ for automatic re-orders, healthcare etc. It may not become the world you want, but it will come nevertheless. People are having too much fun inventing the future to stop.
      Stop being such a wet blanket. After all, the bankers and policians have shown us that it’s only money. Spending it on communications infrastructure means we’d have something to show for it after it’s gone. At least we’d have a chance of getting more if we were all properly connected.

      Ian Grant

      2012/08/02 at 09:35

  10. Just provoking discussion! Is providing ‘hubs’ realistic and how would they be funded, defined and managed? Job for Ofcom…

    Providing connectivity cannot be left to communities as the current needs of a few may carry no weight, has to be government led?

    Somerset

    2012/08/02 at 12:03

    • I think you would get a more positive response if you offered solutions instead of carping about the problems. We all know there are issues, and you are right to raise them. but simply pointing them out without offering some ideas about how to address them makes you look like a dog in a manger. Let’s have a discussion about ways and means rather than wring our hands at the scale of the problems..

      Ian Grant

      2012/08/02 at 12:51

      • Well said Ian. And leaving it to the likes of Ofcom or our government isn’t a useful approach. Both organisations have not managed to meet the challenges of rural broadband to date. So the answer has to be something they haven’t tried yet … but can support, with additional risk.

        Having lots of Alt Nets doesn’t build a perfect autonomy of inter-operable service providers, but it’s a first step along the way. Excluding Alt Nets just because they haven’t got £20M annual turnover, or internal committees and fully salaried employees with enough time to travel the country discussing NICC openness, isn’t going to solve the rural broadband issue either, for example. Getting fair access to dark fibre all the way to high capacity peering points is fundamental to any solution – a clear starting point one would think?

        RobL

        2012/08/02 at 13:05

      • Exactly. For example, I’m sure the B4RN project would benefit from competition among suppliers to backhaul their traffic and provide alternate routing. That would hold true for every community, up to and including county councils. This would also open up the market for people who’d like to provide network-based businesses such as peering points, data centres, digital studios etc in places people would like to live without having to commute hours to work. We can debate the numbers, but BT is right to highlight its contribution to local economic value added (or in the case of Ewhurst, subtract). The altnets need to show that their presence benefits the community too.

        Ian Grant

        2012/08/02 at 14:14

      • Agree Rob, and agree Ian.
        Its vital to get the affordable backbone in, so that others can go where telcos fear to tread. Getting the hubs is the first step to enabling communities and new businesses to build the difficult bits. The monopoly won’t share their toys, but there is lots of dark fibre out there if the government would incentivise the lighting of it.

        chrisconder

        2012/08/02 at 13:22

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  13. Discuss: We have a single supplier to properties for connection of gas, water, electricity and drainage, why not for broadband?

    Also: ‘Every community should be within reach of an open access fibre optic ‘hub’’ How many will that need in the UK if, eg. 5km is a reasonable distance. I assume this includes all the areas in the UK including those with VM and other providers.

    Would be interesting to know where ‘the ample amounts of fibre’ go to.

    Somerset

    2012/08/03 at 10:04

    • Your first point: broadband can be delivered via different media – fibre, copper, radio; the other utilities can’t. Your second point: about 4,500 in England – that’s the number of civil parishes, according to the Wikipedia oracle. Start there and see what’s left to do.

      Ian Grant

      2012/08/03 at 11:23


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