Archive for November 2012
If readers have some spare time on Wednesday afternoon, they might find something of interest listening to MPs on the agriculture select committee quiz witnesses on the government’s plans to extend next generation broadband to the Final Third.
In fact, parliament has it wrong; the blurb advertising the hearing suggests it is about rolling out broadband to 90% of the country. Since this is presumably about Defra’s £20m contribution to remote rural broadband , which is ring-fenced from BDUK’s £530m (or £1.5bn – you pick a number…), here’s hoping it’s about the final 10%, and that MPs are more clued up than the blurb writer.
BT is not being called to explain its plan for the final 10%. That is a pity, as it is the incumbent supplier. MPs could ask it to say, once and for all, where it intends to run fibre to the cabinet in the next three years. That would give would-be community network operator some protection against BT undermining their enrollment programmes with promises to build networks in competition, and then delaying build-out and/or providing inadequate facilities (see Ewhurst).
The select committee meets on Wednesday 28 November at 3.00pm in Committee Room 16.
The first bit is likely to be about more general topics, with rural broadband featuring from 3:50pm with Nynet CEO John Moore, and Malcolm Corbett, chief executive, Independent Networks cooperative Association (INCA) facing MPs.
They will be followed at around 4:30pm by communications minister Ed Vaizey and BDUK CEO Rob Sullivan.
BT has inadvertently made the case for a national fibre to the premises roll-out.
Today it announced it was delivering 10Gbps to a Cornish engineering company over that company’s 330Mbps fibre link between its office and the BT exchange in Truro.
BT claims this is the fastest “retail” broadband link in the world, but it’s not connected directly to the public internet. Nothing on the internet presently works at that speed, it claims. Indeed, the computer and networking kit on either end of the link run slower than the fibre link.
The BT press release quotes Ranulf Scarbrough, programme director for the Cornwall superfast broadband programme, saying,“What is exciting about this trial is that these hyper-fast speeds have been obtained over the exactly the same fibre that carries BT’s fibre broadband services today. All we are doing is changing the electronics at either end.”
Scarbrough goes on to say, “This trial shows we are thinking and ready for the future even though there are no current plans to deploy this technology. A lot of this project is about future proofing – making sure that it’s not just the fastest speeds today but that we can continue to be at the cutting edge for five, 10, 20 years.”
The deadline for Britain’s national next generation broadband service has slipped to 2017.
This emerged the day after the European Commission agreed to approve the government’s controversial £1.5bn procurement plan after nearly nine months of argument.
Asked to clarify the amount at stake, a commission spokesman said, “In the notification we received from the UK, the £1.5 bn (is) planned for the period until 2017.”
The previous Labour government had set a 2013 target for a universal 2Mbps service. The coalition soon changed that to “the best broadband network in Europe by 2015”.
The deal negotiated by culture secretary Maria Miller a couple of weeks ago leaves Britain targeting a minimum 2Mbps universal service, with 90% of people having access to a 24Mbps service.
On the same day that it announced its approval for the BDUK scheme, the commission approved a €2bn (£1.6bn) scheme to support rural areas in Bavaria, Germany. This plans a minimum 50Mbps network for “commercial and accumulation areas”.
Neither DCMS, the government’s responsible department, nor the commission were prepared to give details of where the UK’s £1.5bn is coming from. The official statement says the amount is £530m.
Pressed on this, the DCMS said the £1bn balance will be met by local authorities. It is unclear whether it includes £150m each for the Superconnected Cities initiative and the extension of mobile broadband to rural areas. However the commission said “EU funds” were part of the package.
This detail may be included in the agreement between the government and the commission. A commission press release yesterday said that a redacted (censored) version of the agreement would be made public in due course. Commission sources say the British government is now making the cuts.
It is unclear what will be kept secret. It is believed that Brussels was unconvinced by British claims that the resulting networks would provide “open access” on a “competitive” basis. This is because only BT and Fujitsu qualified as suppliers under the framework. The Cabinet Office later labeled Fujitsu “unreliable”, effectively blacklisting it.
It is believed that there are still disagreements over the headline download speeds deemed acceptable. The commission told Br0kenTeleph0ne, “The 30 Mbps universal coverage objective in 2020 is the objective of the EU’s Digital Agenda. We consider the (BDUK) scheme will help the UK reach this objective.”
That gives the UK eight years’ breathing room. Well, not quite. Part of the deal is that DCMS will have to report to the commission on progress by March 2015.
It is unclear what sanctions the EU can impose if the UK is behind target. That will probably be a issue for the next government.
There are material differences between Westminster and Brussels over what will result from the European Commission’s approval of a blanket purchasing agreement for next generation broadband connections in rural UK.
The differences can be summed up thus, in BDUK/Commission order: ‘Superfast’ equals 24/30Mbps; Investment equals £530m/£1.5bn; Universal access equals 90 per cent/100 per cent.
These were the views either side held at the start of the year when BDUK applied for approval. Culture Secretary Maria Miller’s recent visit to Brussels did not resolve them, but it did unblock the cash flow.
According to the Commission, the total value of aid to be delivered by the scheme is around £1.5bn (€1.8bn). “This will most likely enable the UK to achieve the objective of the EU Digital Agenda of coverage of 30 Mbps networks for all European citizens (see IP/10/581 and MEMO/10/199),” it says.
The commission goes on to say the design of the BDUK scheme contains several ‘best practices’ which will help to ensure more effective, better targeted and less distortive public interventions. A national competence centre will advise smaller local authorities. Ofcom will have a “crucial role” in designing wholesale access prices and conditions.
All information related to projects under the scheme (including mapping, public consultation, tenders, aid beneficiaries) will be published on a central website.
“The UK has also committed to submit an evaluation of the scheme to the commission before 31 March 2015 and to ensure that any forthcoming scheme will take this evaluation into account,” it says.
BT can now start extending its £2.5bn fibre to the cabinet network upgrade, firstly into rural Wales and Surrey. Projects in Cumbria, Rutland and Herefordshire and Gloucestershire should follow shortly. Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire and Highlands & Islands are busy with their procurements.
This will open up the World Wide Web as a potential marketplace for tens of thousands of small and medium sized businesses, and give them access to a wider choice of suppliers. It will allow them to take advantage of technology such as hosted applications and cloud computing, and improve the speed and efficiency with which they do business. In a nutshell, it should make Britain’s SMEs more competitive at home and abroad, and for that we should be delighted.
But the issue of whether Britain’s future networks should be built of fibre or copper is unresolved; taxpayers may have to cough up sooner than they think for a long term network solution to extend fibre to our homes and offices.
A recent exchange of emails got me thinking about BT basing its cost arguments for BDUK cash on a 20% take-up of FTTC, aka Infinity. There appears to be a logical flaw in its argument.
BDUK money is there to support the roll-out of FTTC in areas that are not “commercially viable” for BT. By definition, this means areas where BT is the monopoly/dominant supplier (aka Market 1 and 2 areas).
BT argues that it’s cost estimates are based on a 20% take-up. Since BT is the monopoly/dominant supplier, and even “competitive” LLU suppliers rent BT’s copper, take-up is guaranteed to be much higher than 20%, in fact (absenting fixed wireless operators) it will be 100% in Market 1 an 2 areas – at the Openreach and BT Wholesale levels.
Bottom line? BT’s 20% take-up argument is a red herring. It may hold true in Market 3 areas, but by definition that is not where BDUK may spend the money. Central and local governments should therefore reject BT’s 20% argument.
Communications regulator Ofcom has hinted that the government may consider raising the 2Mbps minimum universal service commitment for superfast broadband to 30Mbps.
“We now consider 30Mbps as the most sensible definition of superfast broadband, but it is up to government whether it should be 24Mbps or 30Mbps,” a spokesman said.
Ofcom has previously said it supports in principle the European Digital Agenda targets of universal access to 30Mbps, with 50% using a 100Mbps service.
In its Infrastructure report update published today, Ofcom said broadband speeds seem to be a “significant constraint” on how much data consumers can use on the internet. Downloads peak at 8Mbps until users are on “superfast” packages such as Virgin Media or BT Infinity.
“It is likely that this is caused by consumers with broadband speeds of a few MBps being deterred from using data hungry services such as high definition internet TV or large file downloads.
“The data we have published here suggests that it may be appropriate to consider increasing the USC target in due course.”
Responding to a question from Labout MP Barry Gardiner about whether the government would reassess the 2Mbps target, BIS minister Michael Fallon said ” I will certainly do that.”
Gardiner said rural businesses were being constrained by the lack of access to broadband. “Even where businesses can achieve the government’s target of 2Mbps, they are finding that that is the download speed, and they are still constrained by the greatly inferior upload speed.”
Fallon said Clause 7 of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill will help to accelerate the roll-out of broadband, not least in rural areas.
Broadband ought to be profitable to network operators, but a flawed understanding of the operational realities of the change from circuit switching to statistical multiplexing of packets has led to inappropriate business models and disastrous incentives for management.
Unfortunately, acknowledging the truth and acting on it involves huge risk for the first operator to break ranks. This is because it calls on users to pay proportionately for the quality of experience they want rather than passively accept paying for an undifferentiated pipe that may or may not be fit for service.
The risk is that customers will leave for the deluded or at least mistaken promises of its competitors, says Martin Geddes, founder of Martin Geddes Consulting and former strategy director of BT’s Innovate and Design department.
(The password is PolyService for this 8.20min video interview with Geddes
It took 14 hours to upload. Network fit for purpose? I don’t think so. )
Geddes and colleagues Neil Davies and Peter Thompson of Predictable Network Solutions have spent a year refining the empirical evidence of network behaviour into a radical new description of broadband economics. They unveiled it yesterday to a select but critical group that included sceptical collaborator Dean Bubley, whose counter views have helped to refine the model, Geddes says.
Br0kenTeleph0n3 was allowed to attend under Chatham House rules, which means we can report but not identify who said what. But we can say delegates included representatives from incumbent telcos, altnets, mobile network operators, service providers, regulators, investment companies and trade associations.
The basic thesis is that users should be able to decide and pay for the quality of experience they require. The corollary is that operators should enable them to split the service so that applications or transactions that require higher bandwidth receive it for the duration, and that those with less time-critical needs are shifted to times when the network is not as busy.
This would lower peak traffic demand and raise average network utilisation. This saves operators’ capex and optimises sustainable revenues by tying them directly to the cost of providing the requested service.
This linking of supply with demand means that operators no longer have to overprovision network capacity and that they get a fair price for the quality of service they deliver.
However, it requires them to change their mindset from selling a “monoservice” (packets as circuits) to providing a “polyservice” (different user experiences), and to rebuild their billing systems.
One needs to think of networks as markets, or in Geddes’ term, trading platforms, where users can trade packet deliveries based on time. For example, a movie download would require a lot of bandwidth for the first three minutes to get enough to the user to enable them to start watching, but the next 87 minutes could be delivered at a cheaper rate that matched the viewing behaviour on a just in time basis. Similarly, a user could order a movie for the following week, which would then be downloaded in a quiet period, at marginal cost, and stored locally until needed. A streamed video or voice call, which requires a constant connection, would be charged for accordingly.
Geddes argues that all data flows are basically rivals to each other for bandwidth. Everyone else’s data “pollutes” your flow, as Geddes puts it.
But because not all applications require the same quality of service (especially time), they can be traded, with less time-critical flows being traded for more valuable ones, and priced accordingly.
This overcomes the problem of the Over the Top operators that some telcos claim are currently getting a free ride on the networks. “It would pay BT to pay Akamai to mark those packets that could be delivered later because of the capex saving it would enjoy,” said one delegate.
A feature of network behaviour is that the problems arise in the access network ie, the bit between the user and the local exchange. Traffic delays in a network are “composable”, which means adding more follows well-known laws when in very large volumes, such as in the core network.
But even a few low bit rate flows in access networks can cause “bad coincidence” or demand spikes that lead to delays and loss of packets largely because of the way the internet protocol manages data flows. Network operators presently work around this by reserving some bandwidth, say the first 100kHz for VoIP or IPTV traffic. This perversely destroys the benefits of statistical multiplexing by creating permanent virtual circuits, which are totally wasted if not used.
This is why “throwing bandwidth” at the problem is an expensive, ineffective solution, although very good for equipment vendors. It is also why investors have largely lost faith with telcos’ promises of returns on investment, especially for large transformational projects such as next generation broadband.
Geddes argues for telcos to adopt a new approach to network planning and design called AREA (for [user] Aspiration, [network] Requirement, Execution and Assurance).
Applying these principles to an incumbent’s network upgrade allowed the telco to delay its spend by seven to 13 months while improving the users’ quality of experience, Davies says. This was because between 40% and 60% of the traffic was peer to peer, mostly to back up data. Time shifting reduced this to 10%.
There was a consensus that operators’ engineers were either explicitly or implicitly aware that the traditional business model, which regards services as “pipes”, is increasingly at odds with reality. The introduction of new devices such as an iPhone has caused major problems, and these are likely to get worse, just as users are coming to expect a broadband connection as a human right.
But some are taking action. Many people died needlessly because their medical records were destroyed in the devastating Japanese tsunami. In the aftermath, the government, telcos and users decided that the replacement network had to be secure, resilient and built around human needs rather than telco business models. This is leading to them adopting some of the principles set out above.
Present western telco executives are ignoring the problems, hoping nothing on a tsunami scale happens before their pensions and share options vest. Regulators are more interested in perpetuating themselves than in setting up conditions where regulation can be less intrusive. And politicians are easily swayed because of their short term focus and lack of technical expertise.
A perfect storm is building.