Archive | November, 2016

Fibre Mobile

16 Nov

Describing Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) as Fibre Broadband (more truthfully ‘phoneline broadband’ on shorter lines) has led to (a) great confusion for consumers and businesses and (b) huge dissatisfaction when advertised speeds cannot be delivered on account of the variable constraints of the remaining copper in the final link.

Thankfully that dilution of truth by Fixed Operators has not yet been mimicked by Mobile Operators.

mobile-phone-comms-tower-3031If they did so, any cellular mobile service delivered from a Base-Station linked to the wider world by fibre optics could be marketed as ‘Fibre Mobile’ – a tag that would seem nonsensical as many folk imagine that Fixed and Mobile broadband are direct competitors.

Not all cellular Base Stations are currently fed by fibre ‘backhaul’. Many of the consumer complaints of poor mobile service are rooted in coverage and capacity limitations (congestion) further back in the network and in an environment where highly variable demands on the service make tailored design difficult.

Design complications arise not only from the siting of Base Stations and their ‘backhaul’ capacity. There are technical limitations with wireless propagation – radio signals behave differently in different parts of the spectrum.   Designers must contend with a wide range of physical environments – the thickness of walls, foliage on trees and user devices moving at speed across Base Station areas – and they are also constrained by the licensed spectrum available, typically with separate upload and download frequencies.

The point of these observations is that these constraints and performance limitations will be cruelly exposed in the coming era of 5G Mobile. That exposure stems from (1) raised expectations of vast capacity to deliver video and other interactive ‘cloud’ applications and (2) the intended use of much higher radio frequencies. System designers will gain some relief from those challenges by advanced antenna design and complete digitalization – nearly all traffic is now in data form, including voice calls that in earlier mobile generations (and fixed line telephony) were ‘analogue’.

The dominant service design factor is the frequency. Ofcom is already planning to licence frequencies above 26GHz – vastly higher than currently used spectrum typically around 1.8 GHz to 2.6GHz. Lower frequencies (or in old terminology ‘Long Waves’) can travel further – hence the use of 0.7GHz for TV and radio broadcasting.

Some of that legacy TV spectrum usage has been cleared away to make room for wide area coverage of low data-rate services – typically sensors linked with ‘Internet of Things’ applications that often operate only in one direction.

fibre-mobile-freq-coverage-graphHigher frequencies are best used for higher-intensity and interactive applications – and readers will be familiar with the large dishes that beam signals ‘line of sight’ across the country.

At the frequencies now being considered for use in 5G mobile devices, typical coverage areas are reduced to around 200-metre radius and indoor penetration through walls becomes an issue – but throughput capacity is not so much of a problem.

The bottom line on 5G design development is that a vast number of very small lower-power base stations will be needed. These may be more like today’s WiFi routers, or in the style of pizza boxes, with external antenna that are almost invisible compared to today’s mighty masts. And almost all will need a high capacity link back to the Internet and other networks in both directions.

Estimates vary but complete coverage of the UK’s 24million hectares and property (outside and indoors) could, in theory, need between 5 to 7 million small base stations requiring high capacity fibre optic connections. The current operating model, with few sites earning high revenues for property owners, will need to change to many sites (including street furniture such as lampposts) with low (or even zero) wayleave fees.

It does not take a genius to understand that the future of Mobile communications is inextricably linked to the local availability of fibre connectivity that is (a) future-proofed (unlimited capacity) and (b) symmetric i.e. having an equally high speed in both directions.

Short-term improvements for current systems such as ‘national roaming’ and ‘mast sharing’ do not address the longer-term challenges – although they may provide some clues for future technical design and the shape of future regulatory and competitive (but more collaborative) market forces.

What is urgently needed is a reimagining of how we transition from the established notions of infrastructure competition to a more advanced appreciation of consumer and business needs and encourage the willing cooperation of users in shared infrastructure development.

At the same time, the UK’s ability to implement 5G Mobile requires a complete rethink of fixed line environments. The passive infrastructure (i.e. holes and poles) needs to be liberated and, like other utilities, managed in partnership with public agencies. Renewed investment in this arena is challenging and less than glamorous but urgently needed in this era of full-throttle fibre transformation.

Surely with that imaginative but radical ‘separation’ we could envisage a massive shift away from legacy copper networks to energy-efficient pure fibre optics. Sadly most of the public investment in the asymmetric ‘Superfast Fibre’ broadband (FTTC) ‘cul-de-sac’ has been a colossal diversion from the long-term ‘future-proofed’ requirements.

Our economy’s future now depends on policy developers, regulators, local governments and industry setting aside previous tech-ideologies and reaching an understanding of future interdependencies. Only then can the work of educating consumers and enterprise begin – an essential first step towards a more collaborative future that can enable the transition to 5G.

 

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London’s post-Brexit Futures

16 Nov

WestminsterAlexandra Jones (Chief Executive at Centre for Cities) is right to point out the strengths of London’s enviable standing as a European economic leader.

In terms of scale the capital’s economic output has a 12.5% lead over second-placed Paris. Scale garners great advantages – like availability of diverse skills – but also creates challenges that eat away at economic and societal sustainability.

Brexit may have induced the summer’s existential crisis amongst London citizens but more recent events have confirmed that uncertainty is the new certainty. Clearly, comforting as recitations of strengths may be, we should avoid complacency and focus more attention on bolstering longer-term directions. So Alexandra is also right to warn of the danger signs signaled by productivity and innovation data that place London in a less-enviable position – even if Brexiteers question the veracity of variables used in economic models.

In matters socioeconomic, like brushing your teeth, we have choices that must be exercised if default decay is to be avoided. It might well be useful and timely to remind leaders that the entire country will suffer if London loses its edge but, more significantly, future fortunes will be decided by the individual decisions of thousands of enterprise leaders – and the speed of those decisions. ‘Muddling through’ seems not to be high on the curricula of MBA courses.

It is therefore entirely sound that the capital, its employers, citizens and leaders of the entire eco-system of stakeholders, should identify weaknesses and not be brow-beaten into silence by ‘patriots’ who would cry ‘talking down’ at any honest self-assessment. . . . and not merely kvetching over the state of the kitchen but cracking on with remedial resourcefulness.

Cracking on with future sustainability has two very obvious themes – investments in infrastructure and in advocacy. The former is an urgent response to the woeful state of London’s digital connectivity – trailing far behind the sort of facilities that villagers in remote parts of Lancashire now regard as commonplace.  The latter, investment in advocacy, demands an attitudinal change in the way London projects itself to the world at large and needs fully to co-opt London’s digitalized diaspora.

Earlier this year (prior to the mayoral election) FISP championed the creation of DfL as a platform for accelerating future-proofed digital connectivity. The underlying principles remain valid and recent reconsiderations of the role of passive infrastructures have exposed the urgency. Now, in advance of the 2018 Global Summit, a small coordinating body is preparing an advanced understanding of what previously may have been called ‘Smart City’ but is now becoming a stronger ‘Intelligent Community’ theme – a shift above and beyond the cleverness of technology towards deeper understanding of the myriad ways in which society can enable greater economic and community wellbeing.

London’s future sustainability as a place to live, work, and dream is dependent on both of these themes – unconstrained connectedness and a deeper mission – with recharged resourcefulness in the way those themes are articulated to Europe and the world at large.

(Written as a response to observations by Centre for Cities – 14th November 2016)

Survival Strategies: muddling through

2 Nov

For many years I railed against crusty politicians who lauded the ‘great British tradition of muddling through’. To my ears it sounded like an excuse for complacency, a lack of clear vision, and a totally unfathomable faith that things would, somehow or other, ‘all be fine’.

So why do I now doubt my earlier convictions?

img_2154Possibly the revision was prompted in part by Prof. Appiah’s current series of BBC Reith lectures. Possibly it was stirred by the Short/Sharp Brisk Brexit camp and it cannot be a coincidence that the shadows of this Halloween have been made spookier by flickering lights from orange trumpkins. But perhaps more than that, here at home Judith & I managed the awkward, almost embarrassing, enthusiasm of family members insisting that we should celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary – an achievement, from our perspective, of no great endeavour except for an ability to survive by ‘muddling through’.

It was during Prof. Appiah’s second episode broadcast from Glasgow that I pondered again the great value of approximation. Back in 2014 I’d been moved to write to friends in Northern Ireland to remind them of their diverse roots.  Those words came flooding back when, in the course of the lecture, the word ‘ambiguity’ made an appearance as a problem. I had always regarded ambiguity as one of the great jewels of the English language – the scope for flexible approximation, for multiple meanings and, as in an unwritten constitution, a lack of precision born of rich layers of diverse evolution.

From two decades ago I recalled the job advertisement for a senior Civil Service post requiring candidates to demonstrate ‘a proven ability to cope with ambiguity’. Back then I would have shouted ‘fudge’!   Now we are exposed to sharply drawn, absolutist and increasingly intolerant, blustering bullies who shout in tabloid post-truth headlines and defy any hint of ‘soft’ deviation. And it is only now that one realises that such extreme forthrightness is not just wrong but so very thoroughly un-British.

We Brits are and do ‘what it says on the tin’. Ish, sort of, defies the absolute. It is embedded in our gloriously crossbred British DNA. My letter to Norn Iron in 2014 was prompted by reports of intolerance of immigrants.   As we are now resolved to survive the next two brexiting years we would all do well to understand and ‘stand up for’ our brand values and rejoice in our great history of muddling through.

Every clear plan needs a fair amount of flexibility.  We must, of necesssity, cope with outcomes but that doesn’t mean we should hold any great respect for the illusions and misunderstandings  encountered along the way.