Following the broadband money

Archive for January 2014

BT to broadband councils: Ask yourself – do I feel lucky?

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PAC chairman Margaret Hodge: seeking direction

PAC chairman Margaret Hodge: seeking direction

So, what did we learn from Round 2 of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) v BT/BDUK (rural broadband division)?

Hopefully not as much as we shall learn in the promised Round 3, but it had better come soon before we all lose interest and find better things to do with our lives, like learning macramé.

What did emerge were clearer reasons for BT’s secrecy. Former Ofcom official Sean Williams, who spoke for BT, said that the equipment BT is installing in the BDUK intervention areas is exactly the same as that which it is installing in its commercial roll-out. Therefore revealing the price it pays for equipment in the BDUK areas would help its competitors in the rest of the country.

This is disingenuous, perhaps delusional. No-one wants to duplicate BT’s copper network, so the price of a DSLAM and its path is irrelevant to competitors. The few firms that do want to provide connectivity in rural areas want to run fibre to the home or to a distribution point (call it a digital village pump if you will), and from there use high speed wireless to the home.

They would find it helpful if they could use BT’s ducts and poles and cabinets to do some of it, but as they would be able to offer faster speeds than BT’s copper, BT wants to keep them off its passive infrastructure at all costs.

Most would also like BT to backhaul their local traffic, but few can afford to pay the charges BT is asking to build (or light) the connecting fibres.

Someone should be checking these costs, because Ofcom has allowed BT to set its own prices for wholesale fibre access. In consequence Ofcom is now having to investigate a TalkTalk complaint that BT has run a margin squeeze on the product.

More to the point, in many cases BT fibre already goes to rural villages and towns, but only to schools and other public sector enterprises like hospitals and clinics. It would have been extraordinarily short-sighted of BT to run only a single fibre pair to each of these places, so there are likely to be spare unlit fibres in the neighbourhood. These could be put into service in short order at marginal cost. If someone was paying attention.

Even if BT was that myopic, there is likely to be spare capacity on the fibre pair due to different peak times for business and recreational traffic. Even if this got congested, well, BT now knows how to make ordinary fibre carry 1.4Tbps over distances of more than 400km. That should be enough for most rural communities, at least in the short term.

The other thing we discovered is BT’s employment of Catch-22 with respect to post codes. Williams said BT’s policy is that local councils are free to publish maps that contain BT’s proposed speed and coverage data down to seven-digit post code level. This is precise enough to say what upload and download speeds each and every premises in the country will be able to get. Two, Northamptonshire and Dorset have apparently done so. But it’s up to councils to decide.

Most other councils have published speed and coverage maps down to five-digit post code granularity. This is because, Williams said, the finer details revealed in the seven-digit post cost templates are secret and covered by the non-disclosure covenants in the contracts councils have signed with BT. Publishing them would break the contract and theoretically open them to legal action from BT.

Catch-22, or as Dirty Harry said, “You have to ask yourself a question – Do I feel lucky? Well, do you?”

Unfortunately none of the MPs on the PAC sought an assurance from Williams that BT will not exercise its rights if councils publish the speed and coverage details at the seven-digit resolution. Hopefully they will do so in Round 3.

One bit of good news that almost got lost in the noise is that BDUK’s analysis of early roll-out invoices suggest that BT has over-estimated by about one-third the associated management overhead costs.

It’s early days yet, and as the BT installation teams gain experience, those savings should grow. One hopes that they will not be used to finance the new £50m expansion of BT’s city fibre networks.

See the Round 2 video here starting at 16.53.20.

Written by Br0kenTeleph0n3

2014/01/31 at 06:54

Why 19Mbps won’t be enough

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The present high speed broadband roll-out will see the UK lose its status as a first world economy, contends Wispa CEO Richard Brown.

Brown plans to challenge the Broadband Stakeholders’ Group conclusion that the average UK broadband user will not need more than 19Mbps download speed by 2023.

His talk to the Chartered Institute for IT (formerly the British Computer Society) in Wales will be webcast on Wednesday, 29 January at 18.00 on YouTube, while his presentation is available without commentary on Prezi.
Brown plans to examine the effect the BSG’s endorsement of BT’s fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) strategy in the light of competitive ubiquitous broadband roll-outs and historical UK investments in ubiquitous infrastructures.

Brown has been a vociferous critic of the government’s broadband contracts, arguing that done differently, it would be possible to deliver 100Mbps to all for less than the £1.4bn of taxpayers’ money that governments are giving BT.

“Predicting usage is pointless; enabling usage is essential,” he says. “Does it really matter how? No, but it really matters if.”

One of the killer apps is ultrahigh definition TV or 4k TV. Exactly two years ago BT was telling housing developers in-home networks would need to run at around 250Mbps to support 4k content cached in a local recorder. At this month’s CES International show, Netflix boss Reed Hastings suggested that a new codec, HEVC, would allow 4k to be streamed over a 15Mbps in-home such as Wi-Fi.

But getting the content into the house is going to be the problem, something content distribution network operator Akamai is looking at. Basically it means caching content closer to the end user, and that might mean giving Akamai access to your various devices so that it can pre-load content for you.

But what about live streaming the Olympics in 4k? That’s when the copper and air links between you and the core network are going to resemble a human trying to pass a kidney stone. And as painful.

Written by Br0kenTeleph0n3

2014/01/28 at 06:58

Posted in Uncategorized

BT and the AstroTurf wars

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 A derelict BT microwave mast. © Copyright Peter Barrington and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence Share alike 2.0.

A derelict BT microwave mast. © Copyright Peter Barrington and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence Share alike 2.0.

For the past week BrokenTelephone has been conducting a private correspondence with Peter Barrington who goes by the internet handle of Somerset.

Barrington has been a prolific commentator on BrokenTelephone, as noted here. His comments have been partial, and biased towards fulfilling BT’s agenda with respect to next generation broadband. Although often invited to debate issues, he refuses to reply when the answer may be unfavourable to BT.

BrokenTelephone has tolerated Barrington’s comments, whose volume amounts to spam,  in the interests of free speech. However, one of his private letters in the correspondence noted above gave pause for thought.

In response to the earlier story about a business park in the Bovey Tracey exchange area, Barrington sought help establishing how one could work out how many businesses there might be in a post case area. We published his email address so that people could help Barrington directly as the issue was peripheral to the story. As it turned out, a reader simply replied in a comment.

Even before that, Barrington asked that his email address be removed. I demurred. Barrington then wrote, more politely, “Would you please remove my email details from your website. We contribute to these sites on the basis that email details will not be published, particularly due to the possibility of spam and disclosure of personal information.”

Why “We”? Why “sites”?

As anyone who has an interest in how the government is spending £1.4bn of taxpayers’ money with BT knows, this subject area is full of commentators who push the BT line exclusively, who will not acknowledge contrary evidence, safe in the knowledge that “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”.

This is known as “Astroturfing”. According to Wikipedia, this is “the practice of masking the sponsors of a message (e.g. political, advertising, or public relations) to give the appearance of it coming from a disinterested, grassroots participant. Astroturfing is intended to give the statements the credibility of an independent entity by withholding information about the source’s financial connection.”

Barrington claims BT doesn’t pay him. However, he also claims to be a former BT engineer, so as a BT pensioner he has a pecuniary if indirect interest in BT’s fortunes.

Wikipedia goes on, “Some studies suggest astroturfing can alter public viewpoints and create enough doubt to inhibit action.”

It adds astroturfing threatens the legitimacy of genuine grassroots movements.

The authors of an article in the Journal of Business Ethics, quoted by Wikipedia, argue that astroturfing that is “purposefully designed to fulfil corporate agendas, manipulate public opinion and harm scientific research represents a serious lapse in ethical conduct.”

If BT has to resort to astroturfing to make its case, how strong can its case really be?

Written by Br0kenTeleph0n3

2014/01/27 at 23:56

The BT (Bovey Tracey) broadband mystery

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A lonely cabinet waits in vain for its fibre friend outside a Devon business park. Picture from Google Streetview.

A lonely cabinet waits in vain for its fibre friend outside a Devon business park. Picture from Google Streetview.

A reader has objected to some elements of the previous story and asked for an explanation of how the figures were derived, particularly with respect to the Devon postcode mentioned.

This is the explanation.

If you simply put the postcode in (SamKnows) you are told FTTC is available on the exchange, which is true, but not the whole story. Bovey Tracey exchange, or at least parts of it, are or will be enabled, which means Sam doesn’t really Know the crucially important fine detail.

BT doesn’t commit to enable all cabinets on an exchange, and the evidence suggests that while some decisions are undoubtedly made for good engineering reasons, the overall impact of not enabling cabinets sits heaviest on business areas.

Using Google Maps it’s easy enough to find some businesses in the business park and get their phone numbers – putting these into the BT broadband checker shows FTTC is not available locally in the park.

Waveguide Solutions – 01626 835255 – FTTC is not yet available in your area

RB Engineering – 01626 835951 -FTTC is not yet available in your area

Country Bus – 01626 833664 – FTTC is not yet available in your area

Intertruck – 01626 834688 – FTTC is not yet available in your area

Some parts of the Bovey Tracey exchange area have been enabled – the nearby residential area appears to be enabled – but the cabinet that appears to serve only that end of the business park hasn’t.

Looking on Connecting Devon & Somerset’s website, it’s difficult to elicit anything. Its interactive map explains almost nothing other than that Bovey Tracey is partly enabled commercially and that part of it will be enabled with public funds. However, the final coverage map tells a different story if you are prepared to analyse it. There is a small but definable hole in coverage which corresponds to the business park.

To answer one of the other points – the information is scanned from the maps provided by councils, so any gaps are where no commercial builder has declared an interest and where public subsidy is not planned either.

The maps typically show a combination of commercial footprint, which includes Virgin Media, and publicly subsidised footprint. In Devon’s case, the map depicts the expected coverage once their programme is finished, so any holes in coverage are what is left once BT, Virgin, AN Other and the public investments are completed.

Written by Br0kenTeleph0n3

2014/01/22 at 23:18

BT’s broadband roll-out neglects businesses – the proof

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Until now there has only been anecdotal evidence to suggest that businesses may be getting deliberately stuffed in BT’s fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) roll-out. Now a reader has analysed some of the county broadband roll-out maps to test whether this thesis holds water.

It does.

Here’s the table he’s built up so far, based on Royal Mail post code data and published county maps.


Percentage of business premises in county

Percentage of business premises in No build areas




















































“There is clearly a trend, where in almost all counties, business premises are proportionately less likely to be covered under the BDUK programme than residential premises,” he says.

Keen-eyed will notice that Bucks and Herts (who act in concert) buck the trend with a roll-out that appears to favour businesses slightly. But woe to businesses in Staffordshire and Leicestershire where they are especially neglected.

Our reader says a post code chosen at random, TQ12 6UT in Devon, was typical of the pattern. This is a business park on the edge of a town, the kind of area that you’d probably want to prioritise if you wanted to encourage economic development.

cab-15 - Copy

“The local exchange appears to have been enabled but the business park has been missed off, and doesn’t appear to have been included in the county council plans either, despite having a cabinet sited right at the park entrance.”

Our reader argues that it “would be a lot better” if county councils simply published a list of postcodes in the final 10%. “Forcing the industry to go through this complex process of scanning maps to extract postcode information introduces errors and wastes time and effort to maintain a veneer of secrecy.”

Fortunately for some neglected business parks, other service providers aim to step in where BT fears to tread.

Last summer BDUK sent the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (Inca) a list of hundreds of postcodes of enterprise zones and business parks that are not being served by BT’s broadband roll-out. Inca joined with the Federation of Communications Services, which represents some 300 B2B comms providers, to address these business ‘not-spots’.

To speed things up, suppliers can use a template developed by Mike Kiely of the BitCommons to aggregate demand from 90 businesses in the Perseverance Works in Shoreditch, London and issue requests for proposals.

Written by Br0kenTeleph0n3

2014/01/20 at 23:35

Posted in Broadband, Finance

Great moments in customer service – BT-style

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Darren Rogers of the Chairman and Chief Executive’s Service Team (BT Retail) writes:
“Hello Mr (name withheld)
“We’ve been passed your complaint regarding availability of BT Infinity from the Surrey Advertiser.
“I’ve done a check of your telephone line using our broadband checker.
“Although the results show the cabinet has been upgraded for fibre, it does tell us you are too far from the cabinet to maintain a stable fibre service.
“Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be able to transfer the line to a closer cabinet.
 “I’m sorry this isn’t the answer you were looking for, but if you need any further help our Customer Service team will be happy to help on 0800 800 150. There’s also our website for all the latest news on our products and services.”
 Best wishes
Darren Rogers

Written by Br0kenTeleph0n3

2014/01/16 at 07:01

Broadband buyers need to get their hands dirty

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Telephone poles lashed together because Openreach can't afford to  swop cables from the old pole to the new one.

Telephone poles lashed together because Openreach can’t afford to swop cables from the old pole to the new one.

This is a guest post from Walter Willcox and David Cooper, who have been involved with Surrey village Ewhurst’s efforts to get high speed broadband. Regular readers will know that it’s not easy, as this post, based on their experience, shows.

Many local authorities that congratulated themselves for securing deals with BT are now employing their staff to promote the benefits of high speed broadband using BT’s marketing-speak, which can be grossly misleading and sometimes even false.

Surrey County Council, indeed all county councils, should pay more attention to the technical details.

Take the claim that BT is installing “fibre broadband”. In Ewhurst and almost every other village in the country, the final link between the cabinet and the premises is copper or sometimes aluminum. It is remarkable that no-one has asked the Advertising Standards Authority to investigate BT’s “fibre broadband” claims for possible misrepresentation.

But there is a more important practical issue: millions of subscribers are likely never to get the service promised by BT and paid for by taxpayers under the BDUK contracts.

The often-stated figures for those “Having Access” are based on the total number of telephone lines in the fibred-up street cabinet, yet very few of the new cabinets approach that capacity. Surely the ASA should require the cabinet capacity to be clearly stated?

BT deploys new upgraded full-featured fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) cabinets with a capacity of 192 or 288 lines, but BT’s investment in the cable infrastructure is limited to single ducts and a single set of tie cables that each provide a capacity of just 100 lines.

BT is on record saying that it will install more cabinets if the demand is there. Inevitably this means delay, sometimes of over 80 days, while remedial work is done to the cables, followed by even more delay to install a second cabinet.

Most of the BDUK contracts to date are supposed to complete by the end of 2014 or 2015, so what happens if a cabinet’s full capacity is needed after the contract ends?

Similarly, do local authorities realise that to meet demand greater than that provided by the first cabinet, the streets will have to be cluttered with more cabinets? Besides, who will pay for the extra cabinets post 2015?

In addition, technology advances such as and vectoring, which have still to be proven in the field, are dead ends because of the copper in the last mile. BBC Newsnight and others reported last August that FTTC was the wrong technology in the opinion of experts, here and here.

The local authorities’ lists of postcodes that BT will cover disregard the known line performance and lengths. BT knows the limitations of the service speeds and provides that data as soon as a cabinet is forecast for service. For example, in Peaslake, Surrey BT told the Surrey County Council it will cover the postcode GU6 7NT; yet superfast broadband is unavailable at all 10 addresses, according to the BT Wholesale estimator.

Those unfortunate subscriber at the extremes of the network, or with sub-standard lines, are not even informed by the BT estimator that the fibre cabinet is commissioned. (However the curious may pick up that the category “Fibre Multicast”, which is still shown, indicates that the cabinet is enabled.)

BT is very good at promising the world, but once a customer is hooked for its VDSL service there can be a distinct change of attitude. The subcontractors that BT Openreach hires for installations simply don’t carry the test equipment that can confirm the line’s performance. They rely on a speed test which, just after installation, is tuned to the maximum possible speed. This can change in just 48 hours. At one site we know of, a sync speed of 40Mbps on 9 July degenerated to only 4.38 Mbps by 08:09 on 11 July.

Subscribers then risk a charge around £170 to fix the wires if a fault is detected within their curtilage* (the area around your premises over which you are deemed legally to have control).

A number of ISPs are now offering self-install packages but the result is likely to be more disgruntled customers. How many end users have a detailed understanding of house wiring, let alone line performance issues? Surely Trading Standards should insist on a proper performance test once the connection has had time to “bed down”?

The difference it makes can be material. One case we know of concerns a new Sky self-install where the installation produced 13 Mbps. After remedial works to the house wiring the speed jumped to 28Mbps. That is still well below the “up to” 42Mbps the user was led to expect.

The separation of powers between Openreach and its wholesalers means that when a fault occurs, the end user has to convince the ISP, and the ISP has to convince Openreach to fix it.

This thread on the Kitz bulletin board (two pages) shows just how hard it can be to figure out and fix what’s wrong. It shows clearly that faults on the copper (telephony) network can destroy broadband performance, and that Openreach’s process and practice to fix them is arcane and open to error, to say the least.

Those responsible for making policy and for paying BT might also like to ask how BT can invest a billion pounds on TV sports contracts while Openreach’s maintenance performance has been so bad for so long that it has accepted it must pay fines if it misses certain targets.

Even casual observers can see signs of poor maintenance. For example electricity poles are quite properly being replaced, but the old rotting and unsightly poles remain lashed to the new ones, apparently because Openreach can’t afford to swap the cables from the old poles to the new ones.

These may be boring technical details, but in the end, they determine the customer experience. BT may be able to buy off shareholders with dividends and politicians with promises, but only performance will win the hearts and minds of customers.

As BT is the monopoly supplier in most rural areas, unhappy customers have only the ballot box through which to voice their displeasure. With elections just 18 months away, anyone whose job depends on a vote should start getting their hands dirty with the technical details of superfast broadband.

Written by Br0kenTeleph0n3

2014/01/14 at 00:32