Tag Archives: FTTH

My, how you’ve grown

15 Feb

(Musings from Marseille)

The time-lapse shock of grandparents is guaranteed to annoy their youngsters. Much the same effect can be evident when delegates turn up at their annual conference. While they’ve not been paying attention this past year, the world has moved on. And it’s no longer ‘their’ world.

That shock is very much on display here in Marseille at the annual FTTH Council Europe conference. And yes – the youngsters do get annoyed, not least because it takes time and great effort to turn around those giant oil tankers that plough on not noticing (or caring) that that the tide has turned.

But make no mistake; the tide has more than turned. The seas we are navigating have been redefined. The assumptions that have driven businesses along straight lines probably never envisaged buffers at the end of the track.

Here at this fibre-fest the proponents of G.Fast to interconnect with old copper networks inside buildings (not an interconnect from some point halfway to a distant hub) are hearing that the Passive Optical LAN (POL) brigade are intent on eliminating even that last copper thread.   For corporates and campuses, the drivers are two-fold – future bandwidth flexibility and vastly reduced energy consumption.

That latter driver is major. Whilst IT departments have been urged to find ways of cutting datacenter energy costs, the internal networks to desktops have been ignored. Optical Networks may reduce energy demands by 80% and that immediate saving has great appeal for the property management sector. It has long been obvious that pushing signals through copper is more difficult than using glass. In the wider networked world, are any network providers offering ‘Green’ access tariff options as are found in energy packages?

Putting a value on future bandwidth flexibility is more challenging but, at marginal cost, few enterprises would choose a cul-de-sac. Come back next year and we’ll probably find that tech-competent extended families will want to create their own software-defined and very private virtual wide area networks – and manage their interconnections with the global web as they wish. And then they’ll not tolerate providers unable to envisage integrated fixed and mobile elements within a shared virtualized infrastructure.

But that’s not all. Even long-standing fibre enthusiasts are finding ‘surprising’ (AKA blindingly obvious) applications that they’d never dared predict. The caution of some investment models has been blown apart by the major service providers – leaving network operators to wonder who will pay for investment in access networks whilst not paying heed to what their customers really need. Do they not realise that once connected (and properly connected) users will use it? No. Provide some half-baked, semi-skimmed, highly asymmetric broadband connection and, surprise, it doesn’t turn them on.

Nowhere demonstrates this as well as Sweden’s 162 local access networks – and wholesale dark fibre opportunities for any enterprise that needs nationwide branch operations. The returns to the investors (often local municipalities) are a godsend to citizens – nobody likes paying taxes. And where did Facebook decide to locate its datacenter? In Lulea, up near the arctic circle, but every bit as well networked as Stockholm and a great deal cheaper. Even their energy bill is reduced in that cold climate. The region also pioneered FTTCP – Fibre to the Car Park – it makes life so much easier for nurses onboard the mobile clinic or library assistants visiting schools. Remote mammography with consultants on demand is way ahead of small UK pilots where (perhaps) a hospital may hook up using Skype for triage work with care-homes and prisons – dramatically reducing the A&E load.

But all that was very evident during our first Study Tour to Sweden in 2013. It takes time for others to hear the messages. If and when they do they’ll probably pronounce themselves ‘”shocked” at the appalling lack of service in, say, rural areas.

The real surprise is that these laggards are, at last, waking up. The truth is out. And the truth is that future optical connectivity is something completely different – with little or no relationship with a past littered with copper wires deployed for some other purpose like analogue telephony.

No wonder the youngsters get annoyed with the ‘so-called’ grandparents. Despite any superficial (or imagined) resemblances, these youngsters were surely born of different stock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Teaching Mama to Suck Gigs

24 Oct

microphone in focus against blurred audienceA recent Telco industry conference listened attentively to a speaker extolling the wonders of Software Defined Networks. The audience was curious. Some delegates wondered why on earth their customers should be handed the keys to the profitable network management business – it could surely lead only to further loss of business. Convenience for customers seemed missing from their agenda.

Other delegates were even more appalled at the SDN turn of events – not only had the speaker broken ranks; it was more troubling than that. Here was an advocate for both SDN and (breathe deep, clasp forehead) Dark Fibre!

A horrified hand shot up at question time. No ordinary delegate and no ordinary question from a Telco senior. And the question spoke volumes for the gulf between Telco industry insiders and Customer expectations. “Surely”, he said after announcing his prestigious rank, “surely the service you seem to be offering . . . does it not require an element of pre-provisioning?” And there, in that moment, the chasm was revealed.  Steady on – let’s not anticipate this digital stuff catching on!

And at an even more recent conference a senior Telco apologist was busy tweeting that there was no need, no demand, no conceivable rationale, for supplying customers with more bandwidth than the Telco deemed necessary. He was not admitting that his technology was in any way inadequate – he was simply continuing the blinkered line that a better service was not needed. Proud he was of their great achievements in supplying a service that (even when stretched) fails to meet customer expectations. ‘Lines, damned lines and statistics’, muttered industry outsiders.

This aversion to demand, ignorance of market realities and imagined fear of investment risk goes deeper. In Telco Land the disbelief of demand is embedded in the very soul of their organisational being. Even if (surely when) they recognise the glimmer of a multi-Gigabit truth those insiders will want to deliver it with new forms of shared service – although most readers will not remember those distant telephonic times.

The consumer optimist may say that those Telco insiders are approaching the end of the line. Some consumers (a few) may already be fortunate to experience, at home or abroad, levels of broadband service that starkly reveal the shortcomings visited on others. Other consumers may ask why? They may ask whether the industry regulator is concerned? They may almost certainly ask why this shambles required so much tax-payer funded investment? And they will be told that it is all very complicated and impossible for ordinary mortals to understand.

It is time to wake up and admit that our experts (even with honest endeavour) made great mistakes. We now know it was a mistake to demand competition at the level of holes and poles. It was a mistake to allow those assets to be monopolised by their owners. It was a mistake to believe that copper phone lines could ever be future-proofed. It was a mistake to assume that Mobile would render fixed-line investment unnecessary. And, above all, it was a mistake to invent that dereliction of regulatory duty – technology neutrality – the ultimate achievement of Telco political lobbying.

But now, at last, we have a government that is minded to make amends.  It may be unwilling to admit to past errors (even though these stretch across many regimes) but it is only realistic to seek a better way forward. Fortunately the cost of doing the job properly has fallen and the previous over-hyped estimates are discredited. Cue rapid repositioning in Telco land – or watch that old guard drift away in a sea of irrelevance. It really is time to teach Mama to suck Gigs.

 

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

 

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.

________

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

 

Sparks of Creativity as Energy and Digital Futures Collide

26 Feb

Digital technologies consume way too much energy and present an environmental and sustainability issue that demands a fresh design approach

Very few commentators link Energy and Digital policy topics. Even fewer policy developers understand how they are intertwined.

Each policy is on a single track but heading towards each other. Both engines of the economy urgently need collision avoidance. Knocking heads together now can circumvent an even greater mess.

Only now are the full consequences of strategic decisions made in separate silos decades ago becoming clear. Attributing blame and short-term attitudes for current and future shortcomings is, alas, too easy.   It doesn’t add up to a plan of where we go from here but first there’s a need for everyone to understand that we have a problem.

Basically the Internet will not scale – meaning that as demand increases, digital infrastructure performance will suffer and energy supply will become more fragile.

Regardless of which growth forecast you believe – and most insiders bet on a doubling of devices over the next decade – without radical overhaul, the predominant current and planned digital access technologies (how you get connected) will consume way too much energy. It is an environmental/sustainability issue that demands a fresh design approach to ensure resilience of these basic utilities.

The solutions are twofold – generate vastly more electricity or waste far less of it on inefficient forms of digital connectivity. No one is suggesting that we put the entire economy into hibernation.

The first option – generate vastly more – is decidedly unattractive and hugely risky in terms of the UK’s energy supply security. But current efforts to reduce demand need rethinking.

The second option – boost connection capacity but at the same time use far less energy – is technologically possible but demands a complete rethink by dominant suppliers – whether they are in fixed line or mobile markets or both.

Digital Management

It is simply not possible to envisage future energy sufficiency (Ref 1) to push signals down copper cables or send mobile signals over great distances – like more than 200 metres – given the sort of high frequency spectrum that is now available.

All mobile services are themselves ultimately dependent on fixed line connectivity to route to and from the wider Internet. Moreover, the implications of using higher frequency radio spectrum are that the much-vaunted low-power 5G designs will be dependent on fibre connections from millions of locations and will look like Wi-Fi on steroids – with demands way beyond the creaking copper connections of yester-year.

How many slightly overlapping 200 metre radius circles fit into the UK’s 65 million acres? That, of course, is a very hypothetical question – we live in a multi-channel landscape – but, as digital applications accelerate, the current lack of any mobile coverage on thousands of miles of UK roads illustrates the challenge.

Enthusiasts for maintaining use of legacy copper networks insist on pointing to technologies that seem to increase their capacity (if only in one direction) but these in turn exacerbate the energy challenges. Their application is misplaced. Sure, run fibre all the way to a building and then use the technology to push the signals a little way further inside the building – but even that local in-building distribution is inefficient compared to low power wireless technologies like WiFi.

Energy Management

At the same time, Energy Management systems have developed to render past infrastructures obsolescent. The top down view of energy – generators, the national grid, local distribution – is being turned on its head. Alternative energy sources – solar, wind, tidal, wave, ground heat pumps – are popping up all over the place.

Soon the complexity of managing demand will be further complicated by new local storage options. One thing that will not help lessen the load is the current and expensively failing UK Smart Meters project.

Collision Avoidance

So what if policy developers for both Energy and Digital better understood each other?

We don’t need to dwell on the past mistakes – but refocus minds on where they go from here.

For around the same investment cost as Smart Meters the Digital camp could reduce Energy demand by between 5-10% – depending on how quickly they buckle down to eliminating copper networks.  But, of course, much of that Smart Meter money has already been spent – some would say, wasted.

On the other hand the costs of fibre have been falling and the investment returns rising – a completely different investment scene to that prevailing 2 decades ago. The cost savings come from all aspects of network deployment.   That could easily be accelerated with liberalization of incumbents’ passive infrastructure – the ducts and poles,

And the net benefit of this silo-fusion?   Accelerated economic growth and greater energy supply security – massively faster connectivity and far fewer power failures.

If only it was that easy to knock government and industry heads together to avoid an unexpected collision. Maybe, in our newfound love of devolution, city mayors will be resolved to point out that the utility emperors are lacking decent underwear.

Brace, Brace.

_______________

Notes/References

  1. Telecoms & Exponential Growth- Cochrane TJV8 Pt4  (PDF download)   Cochrane P, Telecoms and Exponential Growth, ITP Journal Vol. 8/4 Oct/Dec 2014 reproduced with permission of the Institute for Telecoms Professionals www.theitp.org

This article was first published by Computer Weekly 26/Feb/2015

 

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.