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Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Answers for TSB and others #nd11

Today, our "annual" (!) conversation with @nick_appleyard of TSB (Technology Strategy Board) was held on Twitter. It happened because @raceOnline_2012 were busy promoting the helppassiton initiative to get the digitally reluctant (9-10M people) online, and via a marginal rant by two of the most vociferous and long-term female broadband campaigners about it being little use to rural folk with impoverished broadband, went on to include the lovely @MarthaLaneFox, as #nd11 began. This is about who should be connected, when, and how.

This blog post can be read at

It is unlikely that anyone can win this argument, if such it is, because both sides are correct. And the noisy side (that's us!) have been shouting about the need to connect people and stop being held hostage to telcos for the last 15 years and more. So, it's good to see so many at the conference who have finally realised the value of IT to the fabric and economy of Britain's society.

However, in order to bring Britain up to speed with the ROW (our competitors and peers in particular), we need two things:

  1. An infrastructure that provides the necessary connectivity for people to live, work and play online in 2011 and far beyond. 
  2. And people who know how to use that connectivity.

As ABC (Access to Broadband Campaign) said years ago, access to the internet must be "affordable, accessible and ubiquitous". It must also be functional. Getting cheap kit to people helps achieve the second part, but it's not much good if, having got that kit (thanks to the partners Martha has brought on line) and been taught to use it, the first part is unavailable.

Race Online 2012 is endeavouring to teach people how to use t'interweb and there is nowt wrong with that. However, because the vast majority of "teachers" from the 100k volunteers being roped in to show their neighbours what is possible online have never ever used a symmetrical fat pipe, few are probably aware of what is possible. I'm sure few have been to Neunen, Utopia, a Hong Kong gigabit cybercafe, Korea, Estonia, Latvia, Andorra etc to meet consumers of superfat pipes, suppliers of services only possible over those connections, or to talk to public sector workers and academics about the changes that have occurred once symmetry and superfast are made available.

After all, if you have never ever seen telehealth at work, how on earth can you explain the potential of it to someone? So our first gripe is 'blind leading the blind'.

Our second issue is that a huge number of homes and businesses are unable to get a broadband connection. You can define broadband in a number of ways, but we'll use two to fulfill our purpose. The first is 2Mbps (symmetrical or otherwise, but it ought to be symmetrical by the 1984 onwards definition that was dumbed down in the early 00s because a certain telco didn't want to have to invest in solving the symmetrical problem - and claimed lack of demand for the lack of investment. How very short-sighted, since video conferencing, which requires symmetry, was hardly a novel idea even then.). The second definition is non-speed related - "a connection capable of transmitting and receiving voice, video and data simultaneously".

What a large percentage have in this day and age is the 2011 equivalent to dial up. In fact, dial up for some (not a very large proportion, admittedly, but for some) would actually be better than the connection they are getting. ISDN definitely would, but this is unaffordable for many. So, what many get, and which is called "broadband", isn't. And many like to conveniently ignore that fact. Especially those selling them the product at broadband prices.

Enter a baseline called the Universal Service Obligation (hastily renamed to a Universal Service Commitment when a telco, regulator and government realised that it would be bordering on impossible to achieve by 2012 - affordable, accessible and ubiquitous 2Mbps - ahem! No. Let's slip it to 2015 too). At least 11% according to this Intellect report (p7, penultimate paragraphs) will not be able to achieve that USC, except (potentially) by satellite, wireless (inc. mobile) or some other means - moles holding hands, who knows?

However, that precise figure of network issues (rather than in-home problems) can only be shared by BT who could run port-to-port sampling from the DSLAMs to discover what nearly every phone line in the country is capable of over the POTS network. This has undoubtedly been done, or BT's next gen business model would be built on the tiny particles that go into fibre optic manufacture. But BT won't share this data. Not even with the government.

Various companies, such as Point Topic, have endeavoured to reverse engineer data from line lengths to guestimate the likely scenarios for both USC and next gen. It never looks as rosy as the telco (and hence media, govt, quangos etc) make out. The figures for USC in particular - let's say 11% - are as unlikely, and probably as untrue, as the "more than 98% of the country has broadband" is true. (The actual 'quote' which is so often mis-quoted is that more than 98% of the country is connected to a broadband-enabled exchange, NOT that they can get broadband, however low you attempt to drop the bar to define it.)

So, we have a problem. Someone has to fund what is required to overcome the reluctance of the telcos to invest, the lack of inspiration in the investment and VC markets to invest, (although this is changing rapidly judging by the bankers in Milan, and recent meetings I and others have been party to). Then, we can cater for the obvious demand for connectivity from the populace, which every single study globally has shown can and will positively impact on much more than the GDP of the country. Massive savings for the public sector, personal savings, a thriving and innovative British economy (oh how we miss that), increase in social capital, impact on well-being etc.

Or else we stand to continue being left in the (literally) online dark ages.

Nick is from the Technology Strategy Board. For some of us, either the name of this "quango" is wrong, or they need to get to grips with what needs doing with infrastructure in this country. Sorry, Nick. The name would suggest they are ideally placed. However, it would seem not.

Nick asked:

We (TSB) can't help with BB infrastructure using cash. We don't have enough. I know, I think that's wrong too, but there it is.

Central Govt is unlikely to pay for it, as the public has no appetite to pay that much extra tax for this purpose. No point arguing.

Therefore who's going to pay. Either it's local or corporate. Either way, they have to know what they're buying.

The instant response from John Popham was that there are examples out there which have not required public funding. There is at least one such here in the UK, Ashby de la Launde, and there are MANY others abroad.

In addition, this is not a tax. This is a bloody investment in our future. Other countries have seen that inescapable fact. It seems the powers that be here have not. The ROI will come in spades. And far faster than the bailout of the banks will pay the taxpayer back.

The comment about knowing what is being bought proves what I have been saying for years. Far more British people in decision-making positions need to attend the FTTH Council Conferences. Go on, have a jolly to either the European, Asian, Middle East or USA events. I suggest that what many would hear at these events would turn their worlds upside down.

FTTH and rural broadband for the next generation have been done. It's a mature technology. The business model stacks. We are not the first, by a very long piece of fibre.

What are we buying? Well, as long as the issues of backhaul pricing, VOA tax, open access, ducts, poles and masts access, and several other issues that the incumbent, regulators, Treasury , all stakeholders, and a little joined up thinking could resolve fairly quickly if shareholder greed was put to one side for a year or two, what we are buying should be pretty damned obvious from what is working elsewhere in the world.

Or are we really that parochial that we have got blinkers on about the achievements elsewhere?

Nick goes on to say:

Therefore we (TSB) concentrate mostly on the demand side: how does the presence of the internet (and of BB) generate money?

The hard evidence in GDPs, in public sector budgets, in business, in homes, from around the world should mean that this is a complete no brainer. Even BT will not say that there is no financially viable reason for them to connect even the most rural and remote areas of the county. Exactly as happened in 2002-4, what BT et al are saying is that is not financially interesting for them AT THIS TIME. Of course, it becomes extremely interesting to them AT THIS TIME if someone else plans on giving them some money to subsidise their lacklustre investment plans. (Nothing to do with pension deficits, oh no.)

We help build supply chains to return £ to investors: (and new tech too:

And as @johnpopham says, there are solutions that don't need public money! Love them.

Plus we do a lot of stuff about web and mobile applications, including public services, because that's why people want the networks.

So, come on then, let's have some joined up thinking. That is what is most missing from today. From many quarters. You cannot connect people without the required infrastructure. WHICH WE DO NOT HAVE.

All you will do is give them half the tools and fail to provide the workshop. It's like Martha teaching people the most incredible recipe, giving them all the freshest, quality ingredients, and then depriving them of pans and cooking facilities.

(Sorry this is long and I hope it makes sense as I am actually watching and tweeting on the event at the same time!!)


chris said...

My comment to Martha and Nick is that their jobs would be so much easier, and so much more could be achieved if they would join forces with us to campaign for internet access for all. Ignoring the fact that a third of the country can't get a decent connection is not going to make it go away. The fact that councils are handing over public money to bt for cabinets is only going to give those who already have a connection a slightly faster one. It WILL NOT help those who haven't. And if public money is used for BET then that is a scandal waiting to happen.

Its time this country realised that Next Generation Access cannot happen through copper. We need fibre.
The way to do it is to get fibre to the hardest to reach areas, then let local businesses and communities use that feed to build their own networks. Digital parish pumps. They would soon take the opportunity to get a connection, whereas people in cities just accept what is handed to them. Its the rural people who are desperate. Once the NGA rural networks start to grow in a patchwork the urban areas will be jealous and will want to join them. This will make the incumbent pull its socks up and in order to keep its customers it will stop trying to milk the obsolete phone lines and replace them with fibre. Otherwise it would lose its cash cow. Market forces will come into play, and no government money will be needed.
The way it is all going now all that will happen is a few cabinets, bet and satellite. And it will all be to do again in a few years, and Martha will still be trying to get people online, and helen will still be holding out her hand for more money for online centres, and thousands of demoralised unpaid volunteers will have given up hope... I can see we still have to keep up with our campaign until somebody gets it...
fight the good fight.
power to the people.

Somerset said...

And what services (detail please) will roll out with faster access? Which ones will not be possible with VM or BT FTTC?

With 50% having access to VM, if they choose, what services and applications are waiting?

Somerset said...

chris - if copper is a 'cash cow', why is BT rolling out FTTC and FTTP to 66%?

Anything to do with the Government and the USO where they are stuck with providing a phone service that keeps going when the power goes off?

Cybersavvy UK said...

I am very pleased that JANET responded to my questions on ZDNet. P'raps, Somerset, you may find some of your answers there?

PhilT said...

Why are there not 10 Ashby type projects underway now ?

This to me is the fundamental question.

Setting aside all the distractions about rates, ducts & poles etc, for they are just distractions and things to argue about in preference to doing something.

chris said...

think the answer Phil is that everyone thinks the job will be done for them with no effort on their part... that's the trouble when funding is mentioned. Also lots of the notspots are too small for nextgenus to focus on, they have to do places with at least 100 customers in a fairly tight area. Those places are the ones with half the people usually able to get basic adsl... It isn't easy to engage the folk, because most think they have broadband... well they do, but not a fraction as good as they could have. Its 2003 all over again, when folk would say 'I don't need broadband, I can get my emails on dial up'. Soon they realised they did need broadband because sites wouldn't load.
Currently people think they have 'broadband' but they don't realise the potential NGA is going to bring.

Somerset said...

Why are there not more Ashby de la Laundes? Either visit or look on Google Maps. The village is a single road with properties on both sides backing onto fields so easy for installation. Unfortunately most other places are not like this and have roads and pavements to cross.

Can someone please explain how Ashby was funded.

Chris may think that locals may build their own networks in her area but is this likely across the UK?

I'm still hoping for an answer about bandwidth. While fibre into every property is ideal we all know this will not happen. So what services and applications (or part of), such as telehealth, will be unavailable to those who are part of the 25M by 2015? Cybersavvy points to a document by the FTTH Council which does does answer this question, not that we would expect them to.

Chris continues to talk about obsolete phone lines and this cash cow. If FTTC meets customer needs what's the issue and why isn't 50% of the population signing up for 100M from VM?

The 2/98% figure probably comes from an Ofcom report that states that 2% of broadband users use dial up.

So is 90% with 25M by 2015 sufficient? Please reply looking at the whole of the UK and not just your own area. The problem, as Chris says, is that the 10% are scattered on the periphery of exchange areas and in isolated areas and it costs to install cables.

Chris says people want broadband with no effort of their part, most will just want to pay for a service.

Anonymous said...

The third factor to include, i.e. in addition to symmetry of upload and download & a connection capable of transmitting and receiving voice, video and data simultaneously is -

contention aka time sharing

in other words a minimum commitment of speed that enables services to operate at the busiest times.

Spencer Kelly from BBC Click describes this really well from 09:11 here Small Beer

Somerset said...

Kelly says contention is due to copper connections.


Any reason why reverse direction ADSL can't be provided?

Somerset said...

Ashby is 47 properties, >£100k investment, £125 connection, £360pa.

PhilT said...

Reverse ADSL would have crosstalk problems, as for example my modem using more frequencies upstream would potentially drown out the DSLAM signal downstream for next door trying to use the same frequencies downstream.

I don't view symmetry as a requirement - enough bandwidth each way is important and the reality is that most of us consume more than we produce.

PhilT said...

I've been to Ashby several times, I even got ADSL to work there at 160k downstream for one property for 6 months.

It isn't unique, pan your Google map over to Braceby in Lincs which is an ADSL notspot, or Newton off the A52 which is 2M at best. Or my own village PE8 6PS. Besides, Guy's fibre from new poles cost isn't that high and we know from the US that it's cheaper than digging so issues like pavements and roads aren't that decisive.

That spencer kelly thing is just shit.