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Thursday, 22 October 2009

Why FiWi matters in the UK

Read more! There are no two ways about it, and little argument from industry, government or consumers and community. In order to deliver Digital Britain, we need FiWi. That is, fibre as close to every home and business as possible, and wireless in the few places where that is not physically possible.

On such an issue as the fourth utility, finances do not come into it. However, there are always going to be places where fibre is just too difficult to provision and where wireless actually makes far more sense as being the right technology for that job.

There needs to be a Universal Service Obligation that applies to broadband exactly as it does water and electricity. Not "Best effort" depending on what your books look like and your shareholders think, but an OBLIGATION to get that utility to EVERYONE.

And not some half-hearted attempt that suits the world of commerce eg 2Mbps asymmetrical. That is NOT broadband and there is plenty to show now that asymmetry is not what people seek.

Broadband goes way beyond who is making money out of it. It is a UTILITY. There are some who still don't get it. Fine, they will, worry not. You can't escape the pervasive incursion of the internet into our daily lives, and as the public sector eg health and education realise the massive advantages, improved services and cost-savings that can be made by using broadband technology, it will become ever more pervasive and inescapable in every aspect of our world.

FiWi is key to bringing Britain into the digital age, engaging this country into the digital economy, creating 'digital citizens'. It is not some airy fairy pie in the sky notion, although I have been saying FiWi Pie for years to illustrate that there is a piece of this pie for everyone.

However, if we set the bar so low that a huge swathe of the country is reliant on wireless rather than fibre, we are doing ourselves no favours, now or in the future. The reality is that the future is FIBRE, and ignoring that fact, or shoving it under the carpet, won't make it go away.

The FiWi mix needs to be heavily skewed towards fibre, with wireless giving us the opportunity to connect the remaining few, as well as providing a wireless cloud so that everyone everywhere can connect using their wireless device. I'll say it again - wireless should not be the core technology used as the primary connection mechanism, except in a very few and exceptional places in this country.

This country needs to work together to deliver what is required, not just by our generation but by the NEXT GENERATION. It means thinking and working together to find the right solutions. Not allowing commerce to take the lead or set a glass ceiling for its own ends. Not allowing government to stymie innovation whilst it pads out the very depleted coffers. Not allowing communities to suffer at the expense of either of the aforementioned. Not ignoring the very real grassroots and industry expertise available in this country, purely to win votes or cash in.

What we need in this country is CO-OPERATION between all the stakeholders to get on with fibre and JFDI. Anyone who thinks 2Mbps is sufficient now, in 2012 or beyond, will either need to sit on the sidelines and watch, or change their thinking, fast.

Britain needs people who get IT. Who understand the scale of the task we need to undertake to firstly catch up with other countries and then, hopefully, to compete or surpass them. And who realise the time for meetings, quangos and conferences, talking about and extolling the virtues of 'true broadband' but resulting in little action, is over.

Work together and we could have a world class infrastructure our children will be proud of. Ignore the issues and continue with each party selfishly pursuing its own ends and agendas, and we will end up with a nationwide disaster that impacts every single sector of our country.

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Wireless networks to be taxed

Read more! Rumours abound about the fast-tracking and retrospective introduction of property tax for wireless networks in the UK. This can only have disastrous consequences for Digital Britain, and community networks and rural areas in particular.

As regular readers of this blog are aware, property tax on fibre has been a major bugbear, not just for those of us who constantly battle for grassroots' views to be heard and understood, but also within the industry. It has been one of the major contributory factors in the lack of investment in FTTH in this country. Where other countries have scrapped or substantially reduced the tax to aid the deployment of fibre infrastructure, this government has seen fit to continue to treat fibre optics as properties and tax accordingly, thereby hindering the roll-out of fibre for years.

Now, in a seemingly as yet unreported move, it appears the Valuations Office Agency has decided, in its infinite wisdom, to also apply the property tax (rates) to wireless networks, including metronets and in-building networks. Not only could it be introduced before the end of this year, it could also be applied retrospectively to existing wireless networks. As I understand it, it will be £100 per access point per year. And it can be applied back to the inception of a project.

Let us consider the consequences of this decision.

Firstly, whilst much noise has been made about using wireless to cover the shortfall in fibre deployment to ensure ubiquitous broadband is available to all, it would now appear that the soft and fluffy noises about community broadband initiatives delivering on that need, particularly in rural areas, were precisely that - white noise, clouding the reality. The economics of community, rural wireless deployment are always going to be tight, particularly without any central intervention promised yet to those who can actually deliver what consumers need. Adding £100 per year per access point will stretch that business case, potentially to inviability, and discourage many from taking up the challenge to innovate and connect the disconnecteds.

A community network can over-deliver to those within its 'manor', becoming sustainable whilst still offering more than any commercial operator ever can because of knowledge of that community and what it requires. Customisation of the services, bespoke services relevant and unique to that community or region, community ownership, personalised and valuable customer understanding, and so on, often leads to far higher engagement and hence more positive outcomes than a commercial operator can manage. This has been clearly and unequivocably demonstrated in spades, both here and abroad.

Not only that, but the allocation of free spectrum in the 2.4Ghz range has seen some of the most astounding innovation in technology to the masses in the last decade. It is the work of community wireless pioneers across the world that has seen:

* the Everest Base Camp and surrounding areas connected by Dave Hughes and Tsering Gyaltsen Sherpa, which has brought much-needed income into the area, as well as bringing vital education and safety aspects with it.
* Rural and remote communities operating wireless networks in Bolivia, Cambodia, and all corners of the world, including using motorbikes instead of IP transit
* Community networks such as Wray, Wennington, Withernsea, South Witham etc leading the way since 2004 in the UK in reaching the notspots.

I could list thousands more such projects that have all directly impacted communities that had they a) been left to governments or industry or b) been taxed would never have happened. These projects, started by those at grassroots and who care for their communities, have led to fast-track development of wi-fi until it is now included in every laptop and most mobile devices.

Secondly, once again, this seems to be a play into the major operators' hands - in this instance, the mobile operators. One can only wonder who exactly has been lobbying hardest over summer since the Digital Britain report. Much of the mast infrastructure for these operators to supposedly deliver mobile broadband is in place, and is taxed according to the existing property rating system. There will be little requirement for them to take on extra cost, leaving them in a prime position to deliver broadband via wireless in direct competition to the community networks and smaller operators and new entrants without existing infrastructure.

WE HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE and it does NOT work. This is exactly what happened with BT and fibre optics. BT are dealt with in an entirely different manner to new entrants and therefore many, including Vtesse etc, have had to fight (and continue to do so) in the Courts of Law to have the playing field levelled so that we have open and fair competition in the fibre marketplace. This proposal will repeat the mistakes yet again, and further stymie investment.

However, with mobile broadband, the issue that has consistently been raised, and seems to go unheard in Westminster and within the ivory towers of the operators is that mobile broadband is not fit for the purpose that broadband was intended to be used for, not now nor in the future.

It's fab as a cloud, giving ubiquitous access to those on the move, but as the core means of connecting to broadband? Absolutely not. Our aim has to be 1Gbps for everyone as soon as possible and mobile broadband is a very, very long way from that. Rural areas will NOT be happy, thank you very much, with being told that all we can have is what is available over an already patchy and at times non-functional mobile network. It is time some of those in Westminster came out to try and use mobile phones in the sticks. THEY DO NOT WORK. No matter the operators tell you they have 99% coverage. BT tell you precisely the same thing about ADSL. It is not true and you need to listen to the consumers, or get burnt.

Furthermore, and in contrary to everything we in this country know needs to be done to regenerate the economy, this taxation will hit not just commercial operators such as The Cloud and Open Zone, in shopping centres and other commercial spaces eg large business premises, but also educational networks which have been put in specifically to allow kids to access school networks from home. Our schools are already in difficult budgetary times, and retrospectively charging them (or those supplying, operating and maintaining their networks) can only be seen as a stealth tax on our hard-hit and struggling schools. Apparently, hospitals are currently exempt but don't count on that to last long.

Those offering free or low cost wi-fi, which has been acknowledged worldwide as bringing major cost-savings to business travellers as well as opportunities to citizens and communities, will be placed under very major threat. If your Starbucks has 3 or 4 access points, you will now need to make at least £1 a day to cover that cost. In reality, this means generating a revenue of at least £6-10 from sales in your premises to make the set-up worthwhile. Or you start charging, thereby driving customers away from your premises at a time when every business needs them more than ever. Or you cut your losses and it therefore impacts on your bottom line, and hence profitability as a business.

Talk about killing the golden goose.

If this proposal goes ahead, this country will once again have failed its people. Worse, it will have done so to protect private, commercial interests in favour of the citizens. Far worse, it will have taken money in taxes that will actually cause yet further problems to our struggling business, education and rural sectors, when that money could far more easily come from encouraging the build of the essential infrastructure required for the next 20+ years and hence encouraging economic growth and social well-being.

The fact that Stephen Timms MP is in charge of HMRC, of which the Valuations Office Agency is an executive agency, and also in charge of delivering Digital Britain must now surely be looked at carefully. There is a clear conflict of interest between what the Treasury coffers are seeking and what this country needs in the way of true, workable, future-proofed broadband. Taxing the hell out of wireless and fibre is not the way for a Digital Britain and Mr Timms must surely be aware of that. Can he sleep at night? I hope not, because with these constant idiocies going on to the detriment of this nation, I know I can't.

You heard it here first.
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Wednesday, 21 October 2009

UK Broadband speedtest - if only!

Read more! Just been playing around with the broadband speedtest on Top 10 broadband after reading the BBC article and....

I'm sorry but I think these guys need to open up about how they are measuring speed because there are some very major inconsistencies showing up and if this site is used to even approximate what Broadband Britain looks like, there are many who will get completely the wrong idea.

The tech behind speed tests has long been the subject of arguments, as we saw last year when Virgin tried to pre-empt false speedtest data just before the launch of their new 50Mbps service, and the reality is that the only halfway accurate speed test is like that which, for instance, SamKnows used to produce their recent report with Ofcom.

The point is that if false measurements are pinned to a map such as this which is publicly available, there are going to be uninformed journalists, MPs, quangos and who knows who else leaping onto the data saying, "We told you it wasn't as bad as you thought," or individuals, journalists, MPs etc getting lost in pointless discussions and arguments about the inconsistencies between one house and next door/the rest of the street etc. It's a red herring 'cos the stats are wrong and hence misleading.

Unless the Laws of Physics have just become very elastic, there is no way that the figure shown for my connection (4.6Mbps) is possible this far from the exchange (5 km according to BT exchange checker though I'm not sure that even a crow could manage to physically get it to that short a distance!) Whilst I am sure there are few other insomniacs online between myself and the exchange right now, something doesn't quite ring true! In another rural area that I know down in Lincolnshire, one of my friends' neighbours is showing at 56.8Mbps. Ho hum. See the problem?!

The real point here though is that whilst we have numpties in government and elsewhere who believe 2Mbps will be sufficient in 2012, this type of data can only mislead them and lead to aggregated and averaged speeds for the UK which are used to make people feel warm and fluffy. The point is that even if the average speed across the UK was 10Mbps, that would mean that there are a) many people who fall below the median line eg in rural areas where the economy desperately needs better broadband and b) everyone would still be on asymmetric connections. It isn't sufficient for Internet use in the 21st century and the sooner this key message reaches those in charge of purse strings, be they industry or public pursestrings, the better.

Speed tests such as the one on Top 10 broadband do little to help matters if the data they reveal is based on inaccuracies in measurement and then further adds to The Big Lie that we live in a Digitally Enabled Britain.
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Thursday, 15 October 2009

Finland, Twitter, Dead Trees.

Read more! It was interesting to watch this story break on twitter yesterday. Finland to get broadband as a legal right.
Many websites carried the story and tweeted the link throughout the day. It was actually 6 hours down the line before the journos got it on the newspaper sites, (presumably because they would have to check and verify) and a further day would pass before it appeared on dead trees. A month will pass before it appears in a magazine. The power of twitter, the power of the web, and another example of why everyone needs access to this utility, broadband and all its tools. Without reliable internet access how can a rural business keep up with competition? Many are still on dial up. Read more!

UK TV advert

Read more! Apparently, this is what happens when you accidentally hit the broadband network in the UK......

If we could lay a fibre network that worked, that outpouring of squids is probably about right. But for UK Plc rather than some bingo company.
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Monday, 12 October 2009

It is time for the truth (and spades) to out

Read more! BT have announced that re-use of existing ducts, poles and masts means that the cost to FTTH is substantially less than they previously thought. Has this really just dawned on them? What have the guys at Martlesham been doing since Peter left if it didn't even occur to them that existing ducts could have fibre fed through them?!

There needs to be a major press release given to idle journalists announcing that the figure commonly used (from the Analysys Mason report) as the cost to FTTH this whole country has just been officially slashed. It needs to be rammed home to MPs too, as well as RDAs, telcos, citizens and so on.

For far too long, many of us have been saying the figure is wrong, and that it is being used by the telcos as an excuse (the BIG LIE) to prevent work going ahead to get this country on track with fibre. It has been used to mislead government, as well as writers of reports such as the Digital Britain report, who have made false assumptions based purely on commercial "interests".

The economics of deploying fibre (with that £28Bn figure at the core of the argument) have been commonly cited as the reason why this country is lagging behind. "Too big a risk" "Wrong financial climate" "No return on investment" etc are all excuses we hear punted out, time after time.

However, there is now substantial evidence that not only are the costs of deployment far lower than has been published, the maintenance, running and environmental costs of FTTH are far lower than for other technologies such as ADSL. Even more than that though is the hard and irrefutable evidence of the social and economic impact that FTTH offers any nation.

Even if FTTH were to cost £28Bn, which we all now know it won't because BT have openly admitted their 'closer to actuality' costs, then the benefits to the citizens and businesses, to government services, to health, education and so on are undeniable. As are the cost savings for these public services.

In a country struggling to get back to a position of world class business and improve citizens' social and economic well being, we need to work together AS A NATION, to get FTTH rolled out as fast as possible. There is no other single issue or spend which would galvanise this nation, economically and socially, as FTTH will.

BT should be forced to work in partnership with local communities, ISPs, RDAs, businesses and citizens so the UK can roll out a world class FTTH infrastructure nationwide. BT should not be permitted to build 'open networks' where there is limited regulation over how much is charged for access to those networks. We need open networks which are open to ALL, be that a community ISP/CIC or the likes of Virgin et al.

Where BT and other telcos fear to tread eg in rural areas, the first mile needs to be opened up now to those who are prepared to connect the digitally disconnected with FTTH. The digitally reluctant cannot be persuaded to come online until they see that the infrastructure DELIVERS. (Right now, as we saw this weekend with the Ukraine footie match, it isn't designed to)

NextGenUs pushes "Together we are the network" and the truth is that we all need to work together, co-operatively, to get the infrastructure in place and FAST. That has to start in rural areas to revitalise and regenerate the rural economy before that goes entirely and irrecoverably down the tubes.

Stuff getting the 50p levy through parliament before the election. Put through a First Mile Act and open up the ducts to all of us, who undoubtedly can do it cheaper and far sooner than BT. That would see some very serious activity from the JFDI camp at minimum cost to the country. BT would benefit as much of the core network over which data will be transported belongs to BT. New, community-led ISPs would come into being who would be feeding profits back into their local communities. Existing ISPs could offer competitive products. There is a slice of the FiWi Pie for everyone.

This country needs to dig into its coffers, and then start digging in fibre. Not in 2017 and beyond, nor to aim for 2Mbps by 2012, but to get seriously fat pipes to every home in the UK as fast as we possibly can.

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Saturday, 10 October 2009

Prince Charles gets IT

Read more! At last. We are seeing more and more people who realise that broadband is an integral part of life, that rural sustainability is key to much of our economy, and that it is only by removing the digital chasm which has been permitted to evolve in this country by a short-sighted government and greedy corporates that we can save much that is vital to our survival.

Prince Charles' article on rural broadband and farmers today in The Telegraph, states many of the concerns that so many of us have been voicing for over a decade.

It is a relief that some, who do have access to funding that doesn't require acts of parliament or some sense in Westminster to provision for solutions, are now speaking out in public. For those of us who do not have famous names or access to pots of gold, it has been a long uphill struggle to reach today.

And today is when the real truth about the poverty of the UK telecommunications network will be seen for real. The furore over the coming days about 22 blokes kicking a lump of leather and air about a lawn will grow; it is inevitable. Because we have allowed a single company to "lead the way" to a broadband Britain that isn't.

BT's announcement this week that they will be deploying FTTH (or FTTP) was also inevitable. It is round about now when Vtesse and Virgin announce rural broadband developments in Cornwall that BT shareholders must finally be wondering if the company they hold shares in has left it all too late. The investment required to play catch up and keep market share may prove more expensive now having sat on the fence for so long decrying the risk and the unknown economics of FTTH deployment.

What I think we will see now is a rapid game of catch up by a multitude of players, small and large. And for me, and others who have given our all to get to this point, I am hoping and praying that this comes to rural communities such as mine and that we can go back to doing our jobs which pay into the UK economy instead of campaigning to be heard. As a volunteer broadband campaigner, my business has been rundown to a point where it contributes very little into the UK economy, and that helps no-one, in particular my community where I have been unable to spend what I would like to support local economic activity because my money has been spent instead on trying to get the wider picture to the point I feel it may finally have reached today.

All we need now is for the funds from the likes of HRH and BITC to go to those communities where the socio-economic return for those communities will be highest, and not where it lines the pockets of the telcos. The decisions about where to invest in rural FTTH must be made on 'blue pound' lines and regeneration for those communities. It should have nothing to do with profits for private companies and telcos. Here's hoping..............

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Broadband not fit for (Sat)today's needs

Read more! Please excuse the misspelling of "Saturday" but the fact of the matter is that the recent Cisco/Oxford University report stating that the UK has broadband fit for today's needs has just been proved utter rubbish in under a week.
For years we have been saying that the Victorian Phone network cannot cope with the demands broadband access places on it, and many rural areas can't get a connection and are still on dial up or on very impoverished connections that other countries would not call 'broadband'. We have JFDI ourselves and built wifi networks to reach remote areas. We have used microwave links and satellites to provide access to the digitally disadvantaged. Now we are laying and lighting fibre. Everyone has called us yoghurt knitters or fibreheads and believed the quangos and telcos who have assured the country and the government that the infrastructure can cope.

Even now Ofcom tells the press that over 99% of the country is connected to DSL enabled exchanges. The reporters are too lazy to check the facts and believe the media spokesperson or just quote press releases. The may be connected for phone access but it can't deliver broadband over distances greater than 7km.

The tables are now turning thanks to a football game. The first IPtv match between Ukraine and England is to be screened exclusively online. The ISPs and telcos are scared. They know their networks can't possibly cope if too many people watch, nor can the company providing the service deliver decent quality to more than a million subscribers. The sad thing is that many fans will pay to watch the game but it won't work. Unless you have a good connection it will buffer, so it won't be real-time and vital goals will be missed. Not a satisfactory experience, and the failure of the telcos to deliver will be exposed.

This fact has become more apparent these last few days since the announcement, and the tone on blogs, forums and twitter has changed. Whereas before everyone was saying the problems were caused by people choosing cheap ISPs, or having faulty equipment and broadband was capable of delivering Egov, now the realisation is dawning that the network can't even deliver a low definition football game. This isn't even an important match. When we host the Olympics the athletes and their entourages will be expecting the nation to have 'Next Generation Superfast Broadband' which is what Gordon Brown professed at TED, on the news and in the papers. There is no way this will be delivered, as the telcos have little intention of replacing the obsolete copper with fibre except where they can make it pay during the event eg the Olympic Village. Meanwhile the rest of the country will be left to struggle with obsolete and ancient technology.

The telco plans to get a connection to the rural areas are by means of BET. Broadband Enabling Technology. This means bonding two or three copper pairs together to send the adsl further. At the most this will deliver a contended 2 meg service. Totally inadequate for next gen access. It will also mean laying further copper cables, as rural areas often have line sharing technology DACs to share a pair for two phone lines. This is not next gen, it is a telco milking revenue from consumer and government ignorance. It appears they also also expect government funding to pay for this meagre and purposeless upgrade to their network.

It is time for the naysayers to be heard. The current network cannot cope with TODAY's demands, and as more and more sporting events are moved online to seek revenue, the deficiencies in the UK network will become ever more obvious. BT will once again seek to grab the low hanging fruit by upgrading to fibre in places where there are multiple subscribers, leaving rural areas ever further behind. We need a network that can not only cater for today's needs eg a single football match, but for every day's needs far into the future

For me, the saddest part of the furore this game has caused is the fact that it has highlighted how digitally backward this country's citizens are, as many seem unaware that they can plug their PC into the TV. Surely this highlights how important the Internet has become for business, sport, government, leisure, etc and how it is essential to educate Britons in the basics of digital citizenship so they can use the network to its full potential?

I personally don't like football so it had never occurred to me that it might be a football match that breaks the network but this Saturday I will be cheering loudly for football, knowing that at long last those of us who have been campaigning for over a decade for Fibre To Every Home will finally be proven to have been talking sense. Three cheers for football!!
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Thursday, 1 October 2009

Said Business School Report

Read more! Just worked my way through this report about Broadband Quality released yesterday

I wish I hadn't now. It so clearly states how very far behind Britain is, and yet the spin is already beginning to appear on the news about how it shows we are doing just fine in the broadband stakes.

No, we are not. The definition of what today's apps are, and which we are therefore "meeting the needs of" (but not comfortably) are what many of those reading this blog were doing years ago, and are NOT what we would expect to be doing today. Those apps defined as tomorrow's apps are what we would very much like to be able to do today but are unable to.

And THAT is how bad broadband is in Britain.

And once again, the definition of what is required for today's apps eg 3.5Mbps down and 1.5Mbps up shows why the USC (which should be an obligation not a commitment) is utterly out of touch. Wait till the 2010 report shows that the USC is even more of a joke. Our BQS is around the 30% mark, it simply isn't good enough folks.

It is definitely time to start the Broadband Manifesto machine rolling because on this issue alone Labour are completely clueless, and on many more are equally as bad. Grrrr!
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Facebook and BT and Virgin

Read more! For most of yesterday, UK users of Facebook were inundating the Net with howls of despair as the site was almost impossible to log into or use as it went into a unresolvable redirect loop.

Rumour has it that those on Virgin's network were unaffected and that for some reason, Facebook had decided it would block anyone attempting to access the site from BT's network. Whilst this may have been an 'intern cock-up', or the problem actually may have been caused by a rather more fundamental server config issue, it does rather beg the question about (reverse) net neutrality and resilience.

There has been much discussion about ISPs blocking certain sites in favour of their revenue generating partners, and it is quite right that there should be very lengthy discussions about this type of action. However, in this instance, and who knows for what reason, it appears that a site 'decided' to block an ISP! Well, more an incumbent actually, but of course because the majority of telcos are just reselling BTW products, that is a fairly hefty lump of Britain who couldn't access FB.

Now, whilst many are anti-Facebook, there are an extraordinary number of companies who are using FB as an integral part of their online marketing strategy. Should a company take a unilateral decision to block an ISP, those companies who are relying on that site for income generation can wave goodbye to revenue until such time as the problem is resolved.

It does rather make you wonder about DOS attacks on specific servers that could leave a country such as the UK without access to lots of different websites if you just blocked the incumbent's access to those servers.......

All eggs in one basket seems a dangerous manoeuvre if it affects commerce, as well as citizens looking for their daily fix of social networking. In order to operate in the next gen world, we in this country are going to need a redundant and resilient network if we are to avoid such potential disasters.

In other news, much of Virgin Media's network was down in London and the south yesterday following a power hiccup.

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