Tag Archives: fibre

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.

 

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.

blowing-towards-thursgill

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

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

 

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.

 

 

Capturing the [broadband] Moment

12 Nov

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.

Fiber optics

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.

 

This Box Contains Up To Ten Eggs

4 Jun

[This script was written in preparation for a UK conference on digitally-enabled economic development.  This version does not include presentation guidelines and other stage directions]

 

egg box This box contains up to ten eggs.

These are no ordinary eggs. These are Broadband Eggs. Enjoy – they usually come in a Free-Range Broadband Egg Box, probably from a trusted supplier of some other trusted supplier. Be sure to read the small print and limitations of liability.

 If you buy this box of eggs please be aware:

  • the box may not be full
  • some eggs may be cracked
  • box & contents not suitable for long journeys
  • some may have been eaten by strangers on the way home
  • each egg may be of variable quality
  • some may already be scrambled

But, we believe this box of eggs is all you will ever need. 

We do not accept returns of more than one egg at a time.

Terms and Conditions apply.

 

There are many beneficial aspects of Municipal Enterprise – the increasingly evident focus on growing community development and local economic well-being. But possibly the most under-rated impact of Municipal Enterprise will be a major revolution in business and political honesty.

But – woah – before I go on – I must explain what I mean by Municipal Enterprise. We can come back to broadband egg boxes later.

Municipal Enterprise is not an oxymoron.   Municipal Enterprise is (A) local public/private investment in local enterprises, (B) generating local employment and local economic growth, (C) enhancing community well-being, and (D) often linked to essential infrastructure and community services needs.

Moreover, the profits of Municipal Enterprise can be returned to the public purse for local re-investment and replacement of local taxation such as property rates.

With devolutionary aspirations espoused across the political spectrum, folks are beginning to remember what made this country a great place before politicians imagined they needed to run everything from the centre.

More than a century ago, The Great Stink of London was in large part solved by Joseph Bazalgette’s sewers – the construction of which explains why some old waterfront properties are now on the inland side of The Embankment.

Look at the great Town Halls of Victorian times and you are looking at Municipal Enterprise writ large – built on the profits of local enterprises.

You may not all have heard of the Municipal Works Loans Board – the Treasury controlled lender for infrastructure works. You may not have heard of the Local Government association’s new Municipal Bonds Agency – designed to provide cheaper and more flexible finance for Local Authorities.

You may not be aware of how much Municipal Enterprise is practiced – not least because much of it is kept below the radar for fear that Whitehall will seek to claw back the profits from Local Authorities.

Such are the post-80’s ingrained attitudes towards public expenditure and wholesale deference to private enterprise, that, even on electioneering doorsteps with evidence of local tax reductions, Municipal Enterprise is somehow viewed askance.

Even though Municipal Enterprise is accountable through the ballot box, citizens seem to imagine that distant shareholders, motivated by short-term profits, can exclusively ensure better local outcomes attuned to needs of local people and businesses.

They may of course be right. It would be prudent to question the current investment expertise of Local Authorities who for so long have been reduced to service agencies for the delivery of national policy.

Citizens may find it difficult to understand something that seems to contradict the supposed ‘natural order’ of things – except of course that there is no natural order that does not reflect local community wishes and local needs to grow employment, retain and accommodate its children for future prosperity.

So far, in the UK, the devolution debate has focused on countries, regions and major cities – territories where the implausibility of Whitehall micro-management is increasingly obvious.

And the responses to that debate have been both fairly unimaginative and ignorant of unintended consequences.   Does major city A declare UDI and create major tax headaches for businesses and postcode lotteries for citizens needing services? Who draws their boundaries?

Municipal Enterprise is not an argument about tax and spend or ‘optimising’ welfare standards. Municipal Enterprise is about local leaders recognising future needs and investing to ensure better local outcomes.

Which thought brings us back to these broadband egg boxes.

Your local economy, your local community of people and business, needs future-proofed broadband access. Will you, dear citizen, trust your local government to ensure that the egg boxes contain what they say they contain?

Will your local leaders seek investment partners who will agree to not deliver a dismal digital cul-de-sac designed only to maximise profits and dividends for distant shareholders?

Will you locally review what some ‘expert’ regulator in London deems adequate?  Or will you demand that the regulator is ‘unbundled’ so that you can set the local standards that will meet the local needs, attract further local investment, create further jobs and innovation, and generate revenues for your local community?

And at this time of ‘Peak Snake Oil’ will your community leaders question the salesmen that promise otherwise?

For too long the over-centralised state has dis-empowered local communities and allowed those broadband eggs to be sold in boxes that are rarely full or fit for frying.

BUT

These need not be passing broadband eggs – theoretically coming your way.

These need not be pretend broadband eggs – these may be truly fully fibred, future-proofed, really SuperDooperFast broadband eggs.

These could be broadband eggs that are actually available, when you need a full set.  These broadband eggs could perform exactly as you might expect, even as your children’s expectations increase in the future

Ladies and Gentlemen – I give you – a full box of ten eggs.   Catch.

________

Note: For Ofcom-based data on the level of broadband services Delivered versus Advertised see this report produced by Which shows that whilst cable services from Virgin Media largely deliver ‘what it says on the box’ all other services based on BT’s DSL and FTTC fall woefully short of expectations.  broadband-advertising-not-up-to-speed-june-2015-406391

And the last word goes to – Vodafone and a British Engineer – for Fibre

20 Feb

 

Stockholm Waterfront - smaller

FTTH Council Europe today honoured both Vodafone and British-educated Sir Charles Kao for their great achievements in fibre.

Full story here

 

Not symmetric, not fast, not super, not fibre – and not relevant.

29 Oct

hi=-tech buildingThe ‘Cities-are-Supreme’ brigade gathered for the RSA’s Cities Growth Commission launch yesterday.  They seemed oddly united in their view that rural dwellers should accept relative broadband poverty and stop whining.  The city enthusiasts may be searching for economic growth but curiously they overlook the poverty of digital infrastructures within their own cities.

Thirty years ago, as a young teenager, my son watched TV ads with far greater interest than he summoned for any of the programmes.  Eventually he concluded that you should always ask, ‘Why are they telling me this?’

In the late 1800’s an early expert in the new field of advertising reckoned that the message should be delivered 20 times before it gained acceptance.   From childhood we know the power of repetition.

It may be heroic engineering to squeeze a little data through a copper wire designed to do something completely different but that alone is no cause for celebration.

It may be commercially ‘prudent’ to avoid paying tax (and a tad less than communitarian or socially responsible) and it may be ‘convenient’ to overlook the provisions for asset replacement funding but we should not celebrate this prudent convenience – we should ask, ‘Prudent and convenient for whom?’

Next year no doubt someone will come up with the idea of ‘celebrating’ the 30th anniversary of the privatisation of British Telecom.  For free market enthusiasts the timing was fortuitous.  They got it off the government books five years before the penny dropped and digital communications became understood as an essential utility.  But no matter – we could pretend that we now had choice.

Even better – now we had a market we could also have a market regulator.  Oftel did a really great job – determinedly reducing prices (remember RPI-x?) and, as the incumbent felt so squeezed, the regulator very reasonably allowed that an irreducible part of their line rental charges should compensate for their need to fund the replacement of the ageing copper network on an 18-year basis.

By that reckoning we should by now all be benefitting from an access network rebuilt nearly twice over but, curiously, it seems not to have happened quite that way.   Far more convenient it seems to try and squeeze digital data down copper wires and extract much value as possible from the legacy analogue network before anyone suggests that the emperor is not wearing any clothes.  Yes, we are back to children’s stories and endless repetition. These clothes are super. They are fast. Say it often enough and folks will buy it.

Fortunately we are blessed with children who do not buy it.   They know that these clothes are not woven with fibre.  They know they are not fit for purpose.  They know that muddling through with not do.  They know that so-called ‘fibre broadband’ is not fully fibred, is not super, is not fast, is not symmetric, is not future-proofed and is not relevant for they way we live now.

They also know that they’ve been massively let down by a generation who trusted too much and did not dare to ask, “Why are they telling me this?”

The City Growth Commission will ask lots of questions – mostly about empowerment of cities, their leadership and their capacity to prosper.  In gathering evidence they’ll not apparently be asking, ‘Where are the UK’s Gigabit-Cities and who is building them?