Tag Archives: broadband

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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Graphic credit:  Steamcar.com

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A Certain Uncertainty

16 Jul

Question Marks And Man Showing Confusion Or Unsure

Time and again in recent weeks the pleas from European business leaders (and particularly here in the UK) for an end to uncertainty – or at least less of a policy vacuum – might have seemed quite the opposite of what might have been expected from our supposedly mighty risk-takers.

Any fleeting signs of stability have momentarily bolstered stock markets and smoothed exchange rate readjustments and yet it is ‘disruption’ we are oft told that is the golden characteristic of progressive, thrusting, opportunistic and innovative times.

This apparent contradiction reveals another truth. Businesses like to disrupt others but otherwise dislike being disrupted – and larger business with more at stake like it even less.   Yes, they’ll welcome innovation – but only on their own terms. And that is, of course, why monopoly power is so dangerously regressive.

Even, as in the case of BT’s Openreach, where the threat of regulatory changes looms large, uncertainty can invoke the sort of paralysis that borders on an existential crisis. No wonder, then, that when interviewed CEO Clive Selley is sounding more like Macbeth: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.”  There is no standing still in business and confidence is essential fuel.  Do nothing and nothing happens.

But his organisation’s current uncertainty exists only because of the ever-widening gap between national economic imperatives (championed by the regulator in lieu of government) and the resistance of an incumbent determined to extract shareholder value from legacy assets.

Put simply (though to be fair it is far from simple) Openreach can see little investment rationale in providing everyone with future-proofed broadband services. They would much rather stretch the capability of their existing copper assets and hope that demand for capacity can be constrained.

On the other hand, those who argue (in the national interest) for a future-proofed infrastructure (inevitably with vastly greater use of fibre) point to the wider creative constraints of underperforming connectivity. Download speeds are, they’d say, far less important than upload speeds, low latency, minimal packet loss, greater reliability and vastly lower operational costs.

And it is these factors that are now calling time on strategies that were decided well over a decade ago and based on dodgy economics. Fibre was said to be inordinately expensive. It was said many times over and that mantra became embedded in investors’ minds. And it was wrong. And facing up to that truth is awkward. Not perhaps as awkward as Brexit but, like that referendum, the choice has been determined by those whose delusions are most believed.

Now, more than ever, the UK needs to rethink the parameters around digital infrastructure investment. We applaud the creative industries and the clever clogs beavering away developing new services, cutting costs and making lives easier – particularly in the public sector. But all that cleverness is nothing without affordable underlying future-proofed connectivity.

Yes, in some places, gradually, we can find signs of a smarter approach. Yes, we can see that sharp, thoroughly commercial, minds have cracked the challenges of doing what was previously dismissed as not financially viable.   All that remains is for incumbents to recognize the new realities or suffer the consequences.

Meanwhile, leastways until our incoming Digital Minister grasps the issues, the UK will muddle through with a certain uncertainty.

 

 

Broadband Policy and Local Government

6 May

In the UK we hardly need the example of the increasingly fragmented approach so clearly visible in Australia to underline the need for Local Government intervention.

A recent study from ‘down under’ noted that:

In the Australian context, the recent decision to build the NBN using a mix of technologies will leave the country with a patchwork of different levels of access to the infrastructure as well as producing different speeds across the network. This will intensify the need to investigate the implications of telecommunications at the local level, as Australian local governments then need to respond differently based on the level of access provided for them in each case.[1]

The example is not needed in the UK because we already have a fragmented mix of technologies and, since the late 1980’s, never stood much of a chance of envisioning a more cohesive approach to digital infrastructure.  It is, however, only in recent times that Local government has taken a more determined attitude to this lever of economic and societal development.

But illustrating local impotence, there’s a common link in that final phrase ‘provided for them in each case’ – a sense that incumbents are a law unto themselves as if still nationalized and a touching national belief in the power of market competition.

This newfound realization of the significance of digital infrastructure at the local level is not merely driven by the need to catch up with central government programmes for online transactions in the cause of greater efficiency. Nor is it entirely induced by the devolutionary ‘letting go’ of top-down controls – a hesitant process that reveals great lack of imagination and inbred presumptions of local incompetence.

More than that is the emergence (though we still say it quietly) of municipal enterprise – the realization that local government has the clout and competence to play a vital role in creating economic and societal well-being. And, moreover, not cowed into silence on account of outdated and over-simplistic ideologies that would label Public=Bad and Private=Good.

Summoning the will-power to be so bold, Local Authorities are beginning to leverage their strengths – even where the outcomes disrupt the supposedly ‘natural’ order of things, like incumbent dominance.  Local leaders do of course need to ‘gather strength’ – not least because they do not get much comfort or assistance from national regulators who are mired in refereeing markets whose definitions are increasingly irrelevant at a local level.

In the context of ‘austerity’, there is thin cover in the search for ‘efficiency gains’ (AKA cutting costs) but the real motivations are to take ahold of the shambles and JFDI.  That is why there will be many more Gigabit Cities across the UK long before London aspires to join the 21st century.

Leadership strength is best applied holistically – and digital investment is but one (albeit enabling) part of local economic and community development. Those leaders who can grasp the bigger picture are unlikely to let go of the opportunity to deliver real benefit for local businesses and citizens.

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[1] Local Government and Broadband Policy in Australia: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10630732.2015.1073976

 

Holding the Line: fibre futures overstated?

7 Mar

In one respect at least Ofcom’s recommendations from its Digital Communications Review announced last week quickened the pulse of investors in future-proofed fibre infrastructure.

Fiber optics

Serious analysts described the moves as “a huge boost in helping the nation catch up with other countries’ increasingly advanced broadband infrastructures”. In media interviews, Ofcom’s Chief Executive Sharon White was keen to point out that UK had already achieved 2.6% penetration for Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) as an indicator of progress.

That 2.6% figure contrasted markedly with the report just seven days earlier that the UK had once again failed to reach the threshold of 1% penetration for inclusion in the European league table of optically connected homes and buildings.

Close inspection of Ofcom’s report reveals that the data was not Ofcom’s own assessment but relied on estimates by consultancy Analysys Mason – and, in turn the consultancy’s data supports a 2% UK penetration achievement in availability (not actual connections) of FTTP – a figure that compares unfavourably with Denmark (over 30%), Spain (over 60%) or Japan (70%).

So, discounting the quoted 2.6% figure (which may simply have been ‘over enthusiasm’), the 2% availability figure, if customer take-up were then estimated at 25%, would explain the difference between last week’s Ofcom-induced excitement and the previous week’s FTTH Council Europe disappointment.

Does this matter?

Supporters of BT’s Fibre to the Cabinet strategy and their plans for G.Fast would say not. What matters, they’d say, are not massive headline download speeds but sufficient capacity with which we can get along – leastways for the time being.   Others, of course, profoundly disagree – pointing to demands for symmetry, lower latency, future-proofing and an altogether better use of the UK’s energy supply.

There is another reason why the presentation of statistics matters.  Regulators – particularly those who would claim to be evidence-led – should surely be expected to present their views in ways that can be fairly understood by their primary audience, the citizens, businesses and public sector agencies on which the economy depends.

Ofcom’s outputs last week were greeted with mixed reviews – a welcome for clear intent on competitive Duct and Pole Access and severe doubts on the practicality and efficacy of such measures.  It is now for Ofcom rapidly to pursue their recommendations with renewed vigour – if only to prove that they were not misguided in stopping short of full separation of BT and its Openreach honey-pot.

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This article was first published by Total Telecom 07/03/2016

 

Germany Out-Qualifies UK in Future-Proofed Fibre League

17 Feb

QUESTION:

Which country’s Prime Minister is also the Minister for Communications and Media?

 The annual gathering of European fibre fans rarely produces surprises.

Every year I note few delegates from the UK. Every year I report that the UK is notably absent in the fibre penetration league tables. Every year the table gains extra lines. Now that Germany and Poland appear in the table, the UK’s absence is even more obvious. The entry qualification is at least 1% penetration of Fibre to the Home or Building – full fibre that is, not some halfway house still dependent on copper.

Table 1:  European_Globalranking_endsept2015 (PDF download)

BT and DT have long shared an enthusiasm for leveraging their existing copper assets – and the sudden appearance of Germany in this table does not imply some huge change of incumbent heart.

The shift more likely reflects the success of alternative operators and municipal networks –and, statistically, their greater willingness to provide data on their success. In contrast, the UK’s alternative networks have learned to avoid any great political visibility and BT has been reticent in admitting to its own success in FTTH in order not to shade its FTTC strategy.

The rapid FTTH/B growth of Spain and Portugal does however reflect decisions by the main players – a recognition that long-term infrastructure investment is best done once rather than in short-term projects with more-expensive retrofitting.

Many would argue that, with new copper technologies such as G.fast, there’s ample life left in old copper networks. Even the FTTH Council Europe recognizes its value when applied correctly. If the fibre reaches the building, then G.fast can boost internal distribution and avoid engineering visits to install new kit. So whilst FTTH Council Europe distances itself from stratospheric hype’n’hope performance claims, the manufacturers of clever kit for copper are not dismayed.

Critics will say that the patches of fibre brilliance only occur in small places – like Jersey, Andorra, Luxembourg, Cumbria, or Stockholm – but, unlike London, these are places that cannot afford to be complacent.

Luxembourg (this year’s host for the FTTH Europe conference) has been served by a diverse mix of broadband technologies. Now they can boast that over 50% of the Grand Duchy has future-proofed FTTH available – and is en route to being a fully Gigabit digital Duchy by 2020. This incumbent-led investment is, of course, merely the essential enabler of future economic growth, inward investment and social development.

As the Prime Minister (who also doubles as Minister for Communications and Media) says, “We want a smart Luxembourg within a smart Europe.”

[This article first appeared in Total Telecom  17/02/2016]

 

 

Network Resilience: come hell or high water

13 Jan

Fiber optics

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.

 

The Collaborative Economy – and digital themes for 2016

30 Dec

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.

Fiber optics

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.