Archive | September, 2016

Blowing towards Thrushgill – East of Lancaster

27 Sep

[‘From our own correspondent’ – visiting rural Lancashire to get a feel for great digital design]

Place your finger on the map at Lancaster and then move it across to the East until you find a large dark patch. This remote and roughly triangular terrain, in and around the Forest of Bowland, is not some black hole where civilisation vanishes but a place where businesses blossom and communities thrive.

brn-vanThese remote 53 parishes contradict the supposedly inevitable economic migration towards ever-more-complex city conurbations. In this rural patch you can find a world-leading example of sustainable digital infrastructure – largely because, in the rough-hewn ways across Lancashire/Yorkshire borderlands, the locals would have no truck with BT’s ‘phone-line broadband’.

If you live, learn and work in a remote area you soon learn a thing or three about resilience. Here you value the interdependencies on which communities build sustainability. For technologists and economists (and most politicians) there are huge design lessons here.   One might imagine (given the popular substitutes for five minutes thought) that densely populated cities would most readily justify the investment in future-proofed fibre. It might be assumed that remote areas would be the least likely candidates for great infrastructure investment.

In the UK (and particularly East of Lancaster) almost the exact opposite prevails. Larger places may be woefully underserved by dependence on a supposedly cheap short-term fix but, in this scattering of villages and hamlets, that same dismal design would deliver an even worse performance.   Not for them the inadequacies of variable and unreliable phone-line broadband. Digital technologies are a great enabler of economic well-being – but only if they work in all weathers all of the time.

That is why the B4RN fully future-proofed design is not just a great example for those who live learn and work away from large towns or cities. It also tells urban city dwellers that they too could aspire to something vastly better, more affordable and more energy-efficient.   Local governments are slowly beginning to realise that, whereas BT saw their copper network as a great asset, it is the holes and poles that are of greatest value in this digital era. It is unfortunate that most of those holes and poles are cluttered with copper cables but Local Authorities who have the good fortune (Like Bristol) to own alternative ducts are enabled to speed ahead.

This, of course, is not a problem East of Lancaster. There are precious few ducts and many of the poles are rotting relics of a bygone era. So the locals ignore any old holes and poles and, with a great deal of local community cooperation, dig their own ducts into their own fields and blow their own fibres through them.

  • Fifty Three parishes served by 25 nodes,
  • More than 2200 fully-fibred connections
  • Serving 65% of all properties,
  • A small army of local folk who have learned that this digital stuff is not rocket science
  • And what they get is 1000Mb/s in both directions.
  • For £30 month (inc. VAT)

But no one should pretend that this community-led effort is easy.   It requires massive motivation and collaboration (particularly from landowners) and astute management of the entire cooperative scheme. Some would say that the broadband service itself is only a small part of the benefit: making it happen demands that communities come together and develop greater cohesion. At the outset in 2011 it seemed like a pipe dream and potential funding was unlikely. Five years on B4RN has shown that it makes perfect sense and, as the Chinese proverb says, ‘Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it’.

Local Authorities everywhere are thinking (perhaps for the first time) that the holes and poles should be far better maintained and unclogged to make way for the future. Down in Westminster, BEIS and the IPA (HMT/Cabinet Office) understand the need for business investor confidence, particularly during the UK’s structural separation from the EU. The most immediate trigger for inward multi-sector investment to the UK would be to signal support for well-designed, resilient and sustainable pure fibre networks and replacement of legacy copper.

B4RN, East of Lancaster around the Forest of Bowland, may, on a draughty day, seem a very long way from Westminster but strategic connectivity lessons travel at the speed of light – in both directions.


B4RN – ‘Blowing toward Thrushgill’ by B4RN shareholder Walter Willcox.

The B4RN ‘Show-Tell’ day was sponsored by the network’s ‘blown fibre’ specialists – Emtelle


Passive Infrastructures – platforms for digital progress

27 Sep


stanley-steamerLike some chicken/egg conundrum the emergence of cars and the improvement of roads went hand in hand – each requiring the other to be fit for purpose.   And the evolution continues to this day although investment in the great civil engineering effort of new road building has largely passed.   Much the same was true of railways and energy distribution – evolutions to meet changing needs.

It is odd, then, that those using the ‘passive infrastructure’ for the digital evolution have not followed the same course. Unlike roads, the underlying infrastructure of holes and poles is still largely used to carry the equivalent of Stanley Steamers or Model T’s to convey the information that is now mostly in a digital form more suited to travelling at the speed of light.

This is much like a canal barge operator facing new competition from railways. They would claim that fast travel might be a danger to health or that speed should be curbed. The huge investment needed to pave roads must have been seen as exorbitant – until, that is, folks worked out the real cost to the economy and society of not doing it.

Of course, a complete replacement of copper wires with fibre is expensive but it’s nowhere near as expensive as previously claimed. The cost is probably less than half of early (over-puffed) estimates and still falling as techniques and materials improve. So the time is rapidly approaching when a combination of falling costs and increasing understanding of value eliminates the rationale for Stanley Steamers and Model T communications. Some would say that time has long-since passed. But logic is not driving the debate. At stake here are imagined fears for the shareholders of canal and barge operators Telco’s.

But, of course, those shareholders (investors) are actually sitting pretty. They own the holes and poles and until recently gave not a damn as to how they were used. What they now know, and are increasingly minded to say, is that if their holes and poles are not repurposed then others will build alternatives or find ways to avoid using them. And what they also know, since they hold diversified portfolios, is that all their other investments would be vastly more successful if light-speed connectivity made business flow faster and more reliably at far lower cost. And some would go further – seeing the need for true future-proofing – for who know what next will be coming down (or up) the line?

Unfortunately Shareholder Power is not of much concern to the enterprises in which they have invested. If grumbles grow they can be bought off with a hefty dividend and, in effect, told not to complain. Cash today nearly always trumps potential cash tomorrow. Long-term perspectives are rarely apparent to executive managements in the thick of the wood. Nor is it much concern for a regulator whose job it to manage fair play in this market rather than the long-term interest of the wider economy. It may be obvious to investors that the prime, most sustainable, asset is not the old twisted copper but the holes and poles.   But how can wiser heads prevail? It will not be put to a referendum but a view is emerging that a very different type of ‘structural separation’ may provide an answer without incurring vast overhead cost.

A transfer of the passive assets to new enterprises (part public owned) with a remit to set tariffs for their use would enable local governments and other public sector agencies (or the regulator) to provide proactive direction – incentivizing more efficient use, investing in regeneration and new-build and urging Stanley Steamers off the road. This type of Structural Separation is far more imaginative and likely to be more effective in creating strategies more attuned to our digital futures. It’s a fair bet that the ‘un-separated’ parts of the enterprises might suddenly see virtue in relaxing resistance to, for example, dark fibre.

Already the regulator Ofcom has demanded that hole & pole capacity is made available to alternative operators. Some cities, like Bristol, have the good fortune to own a duct network. In other (more dirigiste/clear-minded) countries the regulator has set a course for the elimination of the copper that clogs those holes and poles. Meanwhile government in the UK has asked, very gently, if our digitally inclined citizens might, perhaps, be allowed have the right to ride on slightly faster Stanley Steamers – leastways in one direction. The idea that Stanley Steamer technology could be stretched a bit more keeps recurring – but, like a cul-de-sac, that extended design is still very much a dead end.

Lots of very clever people will doubtless spend much time and money trying to find the blindingly obvious solution. Yes – the passive Structural Separation will take time and have an overhead cost (not to mention legal fees) – but that is a consequence of poor decisions three decades past. Sure – the complete infrastructure investment (holes and poles and cables) will be a cost for all parties – a fraction of an extra runway, a smaller fraction of HS2, an even smaller fraction of Hinkley Point. The more equitably shared design, however, could be delivered way before any of those projects and is likely to make all of them either a greater success or moderate their need. Deeply ingrained in Telco-talk is a view that ‘a level playing field’ is a large flat area under which they have buried the competition. Taking control of the playground would certainly improve the prospects for the UK’s new premier league of digital players.

Even the national energy demand would tumble if we stopped heating pavements with expensive cabinets full of electronics to push information down copper wires. The transformation could put a spring in the step for the prospects of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and we’d no longer hear the immortal words, “That’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into, Stanley


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