In a world that a generation ago would marvel at the fabled reliability of telephone services it’s a shock to realise that network resilience is now back on the agenda. And, moreover, back on the agenda not just for major corporates with multiple interdependent production sites and call centres but for small businesses and ordinary households.
You might of course imagine that, if your home or business has just been hit by floods, that you have plenty more things to worry about than the loss of your broadband service. Indeed, until the power fails, you might reckon you could just get by with a mobile phone. But that would be to grossly underestimate the significance in all our lives of digital connectivity – very little in business works without it.
Every rain-laden cloud does however have a silver lining – and in this cold wet calamity that silver lining is a great lesson in network resilience. Computer Weekly has today profiled the story of recent UK flooding – revealing a basic flaw in networks that are hybrids of fibre and copper. Locating part of your electronics in street cabinets without scope for alternative power and with cooling vents open to the elements is not a good idea if one of those elements is water en masse.
In contrast, those networks designed specifically for the digital era by utilising fibre for the complete journey (FTTP) suffered few if any outages. Economists may have argued that replacing copper would be a huge expense for little obvious gain. Maybe they couldn’t figure the value of being future-proofed in terms of capacity and quality – surely, they’d say, how many really need a gigabit right now? Having that capacity at marginal cost in 5 year’s time is way beyond their commercial horizons. But now they need also figure the cost of flood damage repairs – and the impacts of service disruptions.
Good design (form) starts with understanding purpose (function) and in a digital economy it becomes even more important to understand that prevention is a but a fraction of the cost of repair. So, come hell or high water, infrastructure planners and investors must now take note of the cost of cutting corners.
Computer Weekly has reprinted an article that I penned when considering NextGen and Digital Challenge themes for 2016. It’s impossible to rank their significance but in top place I have the Collaborative Economy – collaborative skills being now recognised as a fundamental for all manner of ventures, community projects and public sector initiatives.
New metrics for capturing Quality of Experience will gain supremacy over the poverty of legacy QoS measures (see previous post 8/12). That trend will inform regulatory efforts – not least in considering digital futures. Much will depend on regulatory expectations of (and insistence on) corporate capacity to collaborate. In many ways Collaborative Advantage will outplay old notions of Competitive Advantage.
Open Data will also contribute to a richer 2016 – particularly in Health and in Municipal Enterprise. Here again collaborative skills will fuel progress – and once again leave non-participants wondering why their grand schemes fail to deliver. Under the spotlight of new evidence, Municipal Enterprise will, in 2016, become openly and honestly discussed. The ‘art of the possible’ will no longer be assessed by an elite but liberated by data journalists and the shift towards more Open Corporate Data as enterprises begin to catch up with the public sector.
And finally 2016 will be the year when the UK wakes up to the realisation that digital access infrastructure investment is much more than searching for quick fixes by trying to adapt legacy networks designed for analogue telephony. Digital access design is significantly different – and the entire UK economy demands fresh (collaborative) future-proofed approaches.
Market behaviour is easier to regulate when those markets are narrowly defined. Service value and worth, however, can only be understood in the broader context of user application.
As the sharpest regulatory bodies are so inclined, and Ofcom’s approach to broadband is in no way an exception, the narrowing of definitions, with an intense laser-like focus on the perceived performance of specific components, stands in stark contrast to the more complex perceptions of customers.
It is entirely legitimate, indeed required, that market regulators should monitor dominant players and act to correct deviation from acceptable standards. Hence recent interventions in UK insurance markets to ensure proper disclosure of price increases. Ofcom is similarly right to be concerned about any sign of lax standards in line provisioning delays, complaint handling or repair times.
QoS Poverty versus QoE Honesty
The familiar ‘Quality of Service’ (QoS) measures that supposedly underpin contracts are often, however, reduced to a commitment to ‘best efforts’ with some compensation leeway for the most egregious failures. Those QoS measures are for most consumers (business, public sector or domestic) for most of time, fairly irrelevant. What matters more is their Quality of Experience (QoE) – but to a very large extent those experiences are way beyond the ability of component providers or their regulators to assess.
Take, for example, the consumption of on-line video. The QoE will be influenced by the functionalities of diverse access/viewing devices and the adequacy of delivery networks in a complex compound of components where the consumer is primarily interested in the overall outcome. It is pointless having an optimal home WiFi network if the capacity of the serving broadband line is inadequate to stream BBC iPlayer radio without lengthy buffering delays.
This contrast between the relative poverty of QoS metrics and a more meaningful, some would say honest, approach to QoE is hardly new. Tennis fans are enriched by on-screen metrics of player performance in much the same way as football fans appreciate ‘balanced scorecards’ that reveal much more about the run of play. Car drivers are not unaware of engine and system performance. Who has not sent an error report to the software creator when the laptop has unexpectedly frozen? Smartphone users willingly volunteer their device and cellular network performance to independent assessors like Open Signal and make use of such data when considering a new purchase.
Self-reporting Collaborative Qualities
The ability of product design teams to embed self-monitoring functionality is gathering pace (1) . Soon your new television will know and report the Netflix versus YouTube download times, the speed of channel switching, the latency of interactive gaming, audio and video glitches, packet losses and network congestion? And, moreover, attribute component causality for failings.
But all of this rich, and very real, QoE measurement is, until such time as it is routinely collected and analyzed, beyond the purview of market regulators and even further beyond the providers of narrowly defined components – even when those providers are trying to sell bundled services that compound both content and connectivity.
This is not simply a challenge for broadband providers and their market regulators – though one undeniably exacerbated by an unwillingness to provide future-proofed fibre unconstrained by the limitations of legacy copper.
Businesses of any type in any sector are increasing required to be collaborative. But how can one judge their current and future capacity to collaborate? Conventional indicators of chronic business instability – for example cash-flow constraints – are difficult for prospective partners, suppliers and clients to research and evaluate. The relative lack of Corporate Open Data, in contrast to Public Sector Open Data, is very gradually being tackled – not least via recent studies that showed how more Open organisations have less difficulty in attracting investment. (2)
This shift is, however, still seen as counter-intuitive by older business managers (and their legal advisors) who hold outmoded views of aggressive competitive advantage that do not sit comfortably with this greater need for collaboration. Meanwhile market regulators, who take a narrow view of their remit, pass up opportunities to spur their market players and investors towards greater openness and honesty. This is a recipe for increased regulatory irrelevance.
No place to hide?
Enlightened product & service designers will increasingly enable citizens and organisations to find value and worth in the context of their own application environments and also enable them to become evermore vigilant in the pursuit of component supplier failings.
Will market regulators be able to adapt to a more holistic view of consumer expectations and national imperatives?
Will regulators demand something better than QoS?
Or will the need for regulation be displaced by openly available and undeniable performance evidence?
There are pivotal periods of infrastructure evolution that are subsequently seen as revolutionary.
In the early 1980’s employers started grasping the notion of distributed computing. Before those times computers were big expensive beasts. In the late 70’s and early 1980’s there were diverse ‘mini’ and desktop ‘personal’ computer choices – with equally diverse Operating Systems.
The critical step into personal computing had little to do with technological progress – indeed some saw it as retrograde. It was almost entirely about legitimisation. When IBM defined a PC Disk Operating System (later adopted by Microsoft) some feared it would bring chaos and confusion to their ordered world. The worst of those unsettling fears didn’t materialize but the scope for ‘creative disruption’ was boosted.
Settling on a standard (albeit proprietary) backed by the global covenant of the IBM brand, created huge confidence for investors and businesses – legitimising what had previously been regarded as slightly suspect. Moreover it exemplified the very best way to utilise brand strength in the global economy. It must have puzzled many of IBM’s loyal employees at the time. It probably qualified as an ‘unnatural corporate act’. It certainly demanded inspired leadership from within their ranks.
The point of recalling this story is to contrast those heady times with today’s challenges for infrastructure investors. Some, like Apple and Google, are not afraid to move on – never resting in pursuit of progress. In the connectivity arena, however, some incumbents seem determined to keep the lid on progress for fear of corporate calamity and/or investor uncertainty.
In matters of online ‘eCommerce’ activity it is generally recognized that the UK has ‘got it’ big time. That is to say the nation simply cannot get enough of it. And therein lies the broadband rub. Some cannot get broadband at all – even in the urban jungle of London – even at the old 2Mb/s floor.
From the mid-1960’s onwards the capacity of copper to cope with ever-faster data rates (whilst still being used for phone calls) has been remarkable. But that technological stretch is now failing to keep up with demand. In computing, IBM chose not to defy progress. In broadband connectivity the big brands, not yet ready to admit the game is up, have built two defences. Firstly they’ve adopted network designs that are difficult to unbundle. Secondly, they’re leveraging their old networks by a very gradualist approach to fibre – unfortunately leaving sites at the end of long lines inadequately served.
Some attempt at legitimisation is evident – leastways from government. It may be reassuring for investors to know Ministers believe in getting better broadband. Interestingly the PM’s recent ‘brave’ promise of a universal 10Mb/s broadband commitment is a massive challenge to incumbents and a great opportunity for future-proofed alternative networks with no legacy assets to preserve. That message is fast getting across to local government leaders who’d rather see economic growth as an antidote to further austerity.
Pretty much everywhere the old question ‘how much capacity do they really need’ is derided. The question only existed because pre-fibre networks couldn’t cope. There is now no doubt about market demand for properly future-proofed networks – but let’s not fret about past mistakes. This is the time for fresh thinking.
Fortunately, it’s also a time when all the old investment parameters are being reset. The costs of doing the job properly have fallen. The economic value of doing it properly has been recognised. The demand for doing it properly never greater. The costs of borrowing never cheaper. Return on investment ever higher. The danger of living in the past never more evident. Even the future for mobile services depends on kicking old addictions to legacy networks. Astute investors are primed for the next wave.
To be fully effective, flipping would have been better taken at the flood but that moment has now passed and brand power is withered by dither and delay. Establishing long-term expectations, national imperatives and investor confidence is complex but is now no longer the preserve of politicians or incumbents.
This then is a critical time for emergent leadership, investors and for the entire economy.
Regulators have previously understood their role in remediation of past market failures. In the absence of any credible long-term policy objectives from government is it possible that the market regulator can choose to be more forward looking?
Investors routinely ask ‘Is this all I’m ever going to get?’ Can ‘market failure’ now, similarly, be understood (by the regulator) as inclusive of an apparent lack of imagination and any adequate sense of direction? If so, how could that forward-looking viewpoint be used to legitimize and incentivize new competitive investment?
In Ofcom (and their Digital Strategic Review) we must trust. The nation expects.
For seven great project teams November 5th will be remembered as the night when the UK’s top digital awards were presented in the House of Lords. At the culmination of a year-long programme to identify the digital stars of 2015, guests and anxious contenders gathered for a dinner hosted by The Earl of Erroll to celebrate great examples of digital progress.
This is the 5th year for the Digital Challenge Awards programme that recognises great projects and teams who are striving to deliver online success. The accolades were awarded across seven categories of digital endeavour.
Historical significance is rarely bestowed quickly – it usually takes time and needs a broader view than can be mustered by those clustered close to events. ‘The way I look at it’ is but one perspective. Embedding these moments in the wider consciousness demands penny-dropping realisations in a multitude of currencies.
And so it is here in the UK at this time of applied broadband brainpower. In the context of the last two decades we have never seen so many folk, taking so much notice, competing for attention and demanding action – as if their lives depended on it. The time and energy devoted to debates over broadband infrastructure investment has reached an all-time high.
For decades reluctant broadband providers have argued about how much capacity is enough, whether or not connectivity is a basic utility (like water or electricity) and issues of customer choice. The penny has been flipped. It’s landed on the side of utility and choice, and all debate about capacity is rendered pointless by future-proofed fibre (sans copper) all the way to your door.
Nobody has a monopoly on wisdom. If the current competition for grabbing attention was translated to competitive choices in broadband connectivity speeds the resultant boost to economic and social development would be astounding. That translation, alas, will now take time to be delivered but that first motivational step is happening right here, right now.
This is not to diminish the value of calls for action over the last 2 or 3 decades. Shouting from the sidelines has been an important precursor – the build-up to the big match – but now the game is attracting serious players and massive support from the stands. ‘Getting it’ has never been more ‘got’ – leastways, across the lands beyond Whitehall.
It is in the nature of events that bashing your head against brick walls leaves you dazed and unsteady when the wall crumbles and umpteen folks leapfrog over the rubble with a cheery ‘thanks mate’ as they rush ahead.
Why now? Why are the cracks opening? Who pulled those levers? Was it the exemplar of B4RN or the broadband poverty of Rotherhithe? Was it the looming need for fibre connectivity to millions of 5G microcells, the pressure for passive infrastructure access and dark fibre, or just intolerance of marketing hype?
Ofcom might claim credit for kicking off their Digital Strategic Review. The government, of course, will point to their partial responses to backbench rumblings – prompted by energized electorates – but still short of long-term leadership. Many big businesses have played their part along with the nascent industry of ‘alternative’ network providers. Did last week’s call to set a date for switching off analogue telephony provide a hefty push?
Even BT and Virgin Media, thankfully, have contributed in a way by delivering solutions that, while far from fit for future purpose, are just about sufficient for many folks to ‘get it’ – to sense the possibilities. But more than all the expert seminars, think-tanks, focus groups, ‘stakeholders’, engineers, economists and journalists, lies the will of the people and the needs of commerce.
Now is not the time for accolades – now is the time for maintaining momentum. Hidden amongst the current plethora of events, conferences, exhibitions and seminars across all sectors of the economy, the brief introductory note in last week’s NextGen15 brochure captured the zeitgeist: ‘. . . . we celebrate the end of an era. The UK agenda is finally turning towards the future – less emphasis on minimal ‘Get By Broadband’ and far more focus on Future Proofing.’
The costs of fibre deployment are falling and value is surging. As long-run OPEX savings trump short-term CAPEX, the legacy investment parameters are turned to dust. And who could read the winning projects in this year’s Digital Challenge Awards and not appreciate the extent of digital endeavour?
It is not too early to call. The walls are indeed tumbling down. Go write a note to leave for the grandchildren. Their future connectivity, mobiled, wifi’d or fixed, will be fibred sans copper. You were here. You saw the cracks. You heard the rumbling. The rest is history.