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Saturday 23 January 2010

The fruits of abundance

Read more! I have to admit to be more taken with the statistical analysis of the sales of music and films which come from the so-called pirates, than from the music industry. After all, if where we are trying to get to is a 'moment of truth', then it is hard to ignore the reality that music and video sales are, against all the supposed odds, UP.

Oh you, in Hollywood, who defend your industry with such vigour and vim. Art thou telling the truth? Or art thou in the same quandary as the telcos? Distorting verity to defend an 'art' whilst benefiting, forsooth, from the private industry, and innovation, you do profess to hate?

Can we finally say, 'Ah woe, methinks you doth protest too much'? All of you.

Stop wingeing and start being open and honest. Sack DRM as it has cost you a fortune for no good reason, and open up the music and films to which everyone wants access. You know that people will pay to watch a film IF REASONABLY PRICED.

For years, you have penalised the consumer for your greed, and cussed and sued when that consumer has sought, on your behalf, to reduce your costs to bring open access to your products, to share them with others who will buy the full product from you, to market your goods - at no cost to you.

Now your takings are up, what do you do? Pah, let's sue the ones who are out there saying, "This is a great film/game/CD etc. I'll bluetooth it to you".


Who will win this battle? The ones who are in the app stores at 79p. The ones who show you, for free, how to plug your HD laptop into your TV so you can enjoy the film on your TV with your family in comfort in the sitting room, not some over-commercialised pigpen of a cinema. The ones who say, "Have the first episode/ series of Heroes for nothing....because we know you will remember us for letting you do it." (That'll be then).

When the music and film industry stop lying about their supposed declining revenues, then I might have some sympathy with them. In the meantime, I am kicking myself for not taking a box full of dongles to the USA and spending 10 days downloading films to watch with my kids.

When the next Ofcom report tells me that the UK uses broadband for email (1), , surfing (2), IM (3) etc, I am going to stand on a plinth in central London (apparently the only place where anyone in Britain can be heard) and shout out why - "We can't download a bloody film to watch on this utterly pathetic infrastructure, you morons".

Sadly those of you I now know in the States will probably be unable to watch it as I am not sure we can unicast, multicast, or any other variety of webcast or streaming from this country without looking like puppets on strings.

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Using existing infrastructure

Read more! This country is littered with ducts, poles and masts. All of them can be shared. There is no reason not to do so. However, there are some bloody stupid games going on to prevent it. It is your turn to tell me why that may be so and how we stop it....

I'll give you a few starters for ten about the games being played.

NB: I could write this post for three days and not cover the half of it. Feel free to comment below, or email me ldotannisonatgmaildotcom, if you wish to see more added. I haven't attributed some of it as a matter of respect. You can guess who said it if you wish...and I'll bet you will be wrong!

BT have left old copper in the ducts to block them.

Really? Why? (Ho hum). Questions were asked and as we pay these guys, I'm not anonymising this response from BIS (formerly known as the Department of Trade and Industry). It doesn't answer the question but it raised plenty more:

It is worth pointing out that duct and pole access on its own would not provide straightforward options to deliver NGA, and there are limitations which will need to be overcome before this option is achievable. For example, in a survey carried out as part of Ofcom’s work on NGA, of 31 paths between the metro node and the exchange, Ofcom found that all had at least one section where there was very little unoccupied space. This means that, even with duct access, communications providers would probably need to build new duct in at least some locations. However, on the other hand, duct and pole access could reduce the cost of market entry, be deployed quickly and make good use of existing infrastructure, which is why Ofcom is currently assessing its viability.

Who assesses what is currently in ducts, or on poles and masts, and, when it belongs to a private company (e.g.BT) but is in a duct/pole/mast laid/installed with public money way back when, who decides whether or not that existing plant is actually a) doing anything e.g. live b) of any value or c) blocking progress? Or do Ofcom just rely on the answers given without looking/digging for the actuality?

For us this last set of questions raised a huge issue. Do Ofcom take everything they are told at face value? Or do our taxes fund decent research and evaluation to generate the required evidence for regulation and decision making? We'll leave you to decide for yourselves, but if you want a clue, visit your local planning office and ask key questions about a 'controversial' planning application.

85% of UK is within 1km of BT fibre.
This was said too many times at our ABC conferences for you not to know that Peter Cochrane said this! PC has never really defined the fibre connectivity available to 85% of the UK - dark, lit - but it makes you wonder how much of the figures 'claimed' for FTTC in the latest BT announcements are based on money spent a long time ago, not recently.

As an example, at the very first broadband event I organised in 2001/2, in Hawes, Wensleydale, we caught BT laying fibre in ducts a few miles away, literally hours before the event where a BT keynote speaker was due. (Bear in mind, this was possibly the very first national broadband event in Britain and our BT speaker was coming from Cornwall - think ActNow etc.)

I phoned the CEO of BT at the time for answers. He was quite nice though utterly fed up with me, I think. A nice chap. Pierre Danon (like the yogurt) I think it was. It was a long time ago, so I will not quote him, but the answer in simple terms was, "Yes, we have been laying fibre to exchanges recently, even in remote places like the Yorkshire Dales e.g Cotterdale, Hawes, and the guys you saw near Bainbridge. I can't imagine why the engineers told you they were cleaning grit from the ducts....."

When I asked for access to that fibre in the middle mile, I received a non-committal answer (i.e "no") which I reported at the event - it is on video, and I have it here. Sadly, in 2010, accessing the middle mile is no easier, though my parents and grandparents paid for it and if the upgrades were viable at the very beginning of this century, well, no-one can tell me that money hasn't already been recouped. Again.

Every switch has a fibre feed and many mobile masts do too.

In 2005, a senior exec from O2, whilst sitting next to someone who became a BT OpenRetch Board member, at one of our DTI events in London, queried my question about whether his network would be interested in sharing excess backhaul from rural masts for community networks. "Do we have fibre backhaul to masts?" I think my look of surprised anguish at his ignorance was the prompt for the BT guy to respond, "Um yes. She is right, you know. You could consider it."

What else is going on in this space? Well, if you really need to know how bad it is, read the BT Pole Dancing info or read the lunacies of the proposed pole sharing agreements from BT for NGA which would permit BT to put any community network using their plant on a 3 month death sentence, even weeks into a 20-50year project.

When people such as Cyberdoyle talk about joined up thinking, solving simple problems such as this is what we mean. Whoever you are, reading this, and I know now just how many and varied are the readers of this blog, then please take 2 mins to contemplate how you could add to the joined up thinking model that will make the UK a digital nation rather than the Digital Grand Canyon.

Please allow me to finish on a high note. There *are* ways to do this right.

I spent quite a lot of time with the Scottish Exec earlier in this decade. Scotland, sadly, hides its light under a bushel much of the time in the tech and broadband arena. This is why, after hearing a SE speaker at the Ally Pally "Need for Speed" event who was onstage just before me, the Scottish ABC Conference in Aviemore happened in 2004, as well as the Dumfries & Galloway events etc.

This is my version of the story I was told all those years ago. For me, it highlights collaboration, co-operation, vision, as well as use of existing infrastructure. Despite it being Burns Night, I will resist writing the following in dialect!

The Highlands & Islands were suffering from a lack of mobile coverage. No-one wanted lots of mobile masts over what is undeniably an amazing and beautiful landscape - I know it well, now. And there are of course only a few people at the end of that particular connection.

HIE (the 'Regional Development Agency' for that area of Scotland) summoned the mobile operators to a round table meeting.

HIE offered assistance to get planning permission etc fast tracked and masts part-funded and installed, as well as adjudicate any issues where there were blackspots if the operators would co-operate and share masts, infrastructure etc in order to deliver choice to those in the Highlands and Islands.

I was never present at those meetings but I was told this story by someone who was. His opinion was along the lines of 'If only it was this bloody simple everywhere.' The operators chatted, site share agreements were dealt with in double fast time, (they all had to get on board or it was a lost market to them), and the HIE watched their community connected with the widest choice of services and providers, at least cost, without destroying the landscape.

It is that bloody simple.

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Friday 22 January 2010

Is there really next gen market failure?

Read more! This bothers not just me, but others too, judging by recent conversations. Before we dish out large lumps of money to telcos/ISPs/corporates etc to deliver into the places precisely those people are saying they will not go, what proof is there of market failure? Only their word. But are they lying?

We have been here before. BT claimed in the first wave of broadband that large swathes of the country were not deemed to be viable for exchange enablement. That was proven, in no uncertain terms, to be untrue. Firstly, the claim was that most of those exchanges were rural and therefore insufficient demand was cited, yet the truth is that demand is now proven to be higher in rural areas. Secondly, when BT's bluff was called in Yorkshire and public money was provided to enable the final 20+ exchanges (and upgrade the middle mile to fibre for future-proofing) on the proviso that it was repaid if the unviable argument was disproven, BT ended up repaying a substantial proportion of the monies (I was told a six zero figure). Thirdly, the profits from ADSL broadband are undeniable. If it wasn't making money, we wouldn't have broadband on offer for £6.99/month etc. It isn't a loss leader, it's profitable.

I was made privy to many FTTH financing figures in the U.S. (actual not hypothetical). The non-viable nature of FTTH was nowhere in sight based on an ARPU lower than that which consumers are currently paying for inferior services.

So, is there market failure for FTTH? Or next gen? (whatever that currently means as the UK govt is ignorantly calling a USO of 2Mbps 'superfast').

I think there is no proof WHATSOEVER that there is or will be market failure for FTTH. However, before someone decides to spend the broadband fund on some other needy cause (of which this country has many), let's just ponder one thing.

Define market failure. If market failure means that the telcos deem that they will make insufficient profit in an area, does that mean that a community project, run as a sustainable commercial concern, can also not make money? Surely, the whole point is that whilst there are slimmer margins available in certain areas, a community project can tread that finer line and still deliver a sustainable (read: profitable) network where a telco cannot or will not because of shareholder interest, higher costs etc.

What we require in the UK are networks which offer best value, especially bearing in mind that a true 'community' network will connect ever single sector in that community, including those who use public funds to pay for their communications eg hospitals, schools, councils, etc etc, thereby passing the savings to the taxpayer (and Treasury).

In order to give best value and foster competition and innovation, these networks need to be:
a) open access - allowing competition to offer a wide variety of CHOICE to the end users, whoever they are, public, private, consumer, health, councils etc
b) community-owned and run - creating local jobs and optimising the blue pound principle not paying out to increasingly foreign-owned businesses or those whoa re investing more outside the UK than within
c) run on a sustainable commercial level to ensure that these networks, which will have a lifespan of at least 50 years, are still sustainable when our next generation takes over running them

However, a community project will struggle to self-fund something which needs to pay back over, for instance, 20 years. Many people do not stay resident in a community now for anywhere near that long in this transitory, socially mobile age. Businesses struggle to see long-term futures now we have lost manufacturing, farming is battling to stay afloat, and so on. Finding internal investment will be difficult.

Yet, it is precisely those projects which will deliver the aims and objectives of Digital Britain and which need to be funded. The so-called Final Third should be the first third to be funded, and the funding should go into recreating what we have managed before so efficiently and effectively - local and regional infrastructure projects, owned and run by those whose direct interest is affected - the community. We did it with water, power, railways - successfully, until we decided in a moment or three of glory to nationalise them.

Market failure? Think again.

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Marketing FTTH to the end user - that's you!

Read more! Recently, I received a personal response from Vivien Reding to my letter about the need to market FTTH honestly and accurately in the coming months and years. It seems that there will now be a working group set up to discuss precisely this issue in Brussels because we are already seeing misleading of the public, MPs, media etc by the telcos/ISPs. This is creating confusion amongst not just consumers, before the UK and others in the EU have even got going with next generation broadband. It needs to be stopped.

And before you switch off and think this does not apply to you, remember one thing: we are ALL consumers. Whatever your day job, hobby, involvement in FTTH or NGA, you too are an end user.

Before and during my trip to the US, we discussed the need for shared resources about marketing fibre (amongst many other aspects of FTTH!). This is now an ongoing project, which I hope that many will get involved in. Selling FTTH and true broadband connectivity is a universal issue with solutions which may only require small tweaks to meet market conditions and consumer needs in different countries.

However, working out how to best apply best practice and lessons learnt to your network, community, region or country can be difficult if you can't discover what others have found out. And found out the hard way, judging by some of the tales I have heard over the past few months!

Travelling around the world and visiting all the networks to discover first hand is of course bordering on impossible (though I am very tempted, and willing to try if anyone wishes to sponsor me!). This is, of course, where the internet comes in, putting us all in touch with other like-minded souls in the first instance. However, I have to say that meeting people in the flesh, so to speak, is unbeatable and once again want to thank everyone across the States who showed me such unbelievable hospitality.

I digress...Interestingly, many of the talks in the US revolved around the lessons learnt by pioneers and how to share this knowledge. Not just in and from the US but across the planet. And the importance of co-operation by all to work in a sustainable, non-profit fashion for the best interests of the consumer and community rather than for shareholders.

Obviously, this means that any such 'helpful' groups need to be non-profit with a clear eye on paying those engaged in doing, rather than relying on the delaying of volunteer fatigue but we are all quite clear that this is a "best network of people", not some new quangos or businesses set up to meet private aspirations. The clear indications are that the will is there to deliver all of this for the communities who are involved in setting up their projects now. Wherever you may find yourself in the world.

The plan is to set up a fiber/fibre marketing social networking group to share best practice, lessons learnt and collateral which community networks can use to best effect, without having to re-invent the wheel and to make the most of what undoubtedly are always going to be tight budgets.

This is now an ongoing project which should be launched shortly.

Anyone who has any info/time/resources/etc they would like to contribute to the project, please contact me on ldotannisonatgmaildotcom and I will forward it to the others involved in setting up this social network which will, I have no doubt, bring together and help out many community and grassroots projects over the coming months.

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Thursday 21 January 2010

Rural broadband fiasco

Read more! The front page article on my local paper, The Cumberland & Westmorland Herald, this week says far too much about the reality of rural broadband in the UK. Broadband? That'll be £45,000 then.

What this rural business is seeking is not what most businesses in the world today would even call broadband. The issues the article (and multiple blog posts here) raise about BT's first mile network beg a heap of questions about where BT is investing its money, e.g. with the recent notices about FTTC to specific areas of the country. Most of the places BT intends to go already have choices about their connectivity. The places that need decent connectivity are stuck on old-fashioned and limited plant that urgently needs upgrading or opening up so others with an interest can access street cabs and first mile copper and replace all of this Victorian plant with modern equivalents eg fibre.

What should anyone in a rural community when faced with this dilemma? What should companies such as The Phone Co-op be advising their customers when this problem arises? How should the media be reporting on these issues?

Firstly, any customer who believes their only choice is to deal with BT Open Reach to solve the problem created by BT (the digital chasm) needs to understand that there are other options. In particular, building your own community-owned network so this incumbent monopoly issue is resolved once and for all for our generation and the next generations.

You do not need to physically construct the network yourself, but it will substantially reduce your costs if you do at least part of it yourself, as has been proven in Sweden, Netherlands and elsewhere. There are companies who can design, build, operate and maintain your network on behalf of your community so the learning curve required by a community does not need to be as steep. It will however mean the network asset belongs to YOU and is open so that any provider can bring you a choice of services over that network. This is key to sustainability and future-proofing.

Every community facing these problems should seek expert advice and luckily this is now available through this blog, and the Fibrevolution forum. We are also creating a set of resources and guides based on real-world practical experience to assist communities. As ever, all of these resources are being created without any assistance from the UK government who have shown an abject failure to understand the importance of community-owned rural FTTH projects and sadly, seem likely to continue to do so in 2010.

If your community has any questions about rural broadband, please do not hesitate to get in touch. We have been helping communities for a decade with broadband issues, and I was the first person in the country to hold a rural broadband event. I and many others in our "fibre gang" are happy to help real people get connected to true broadband.

What should companies such as the Phone Co-op do? Become far more aware of the activity that is now in full swing within rural communities. Start to seek alternatives to the olde schoole thinking of dealing with BT. Broadband does not equal BT. Offer customers links to resources and help on rural broadband.

The Regional Development Agencies need to take a lead in gathering together all those interested in helping communities out, and presenting this information to help rebuild rural areas. There will never be a single organisation capable of offering all the advice required to rural communities (and I say that advisedly) so find all those suppliers, consultants, technicians, and community groups able to help and put them in touch with those in need in your region.

What should the media do? Stop taking the information from a limited number of resources and press releases. Start finding out about how others have solved broadband issues such as these and report accurately on the problems and solutions. Take responsibility for co-ordinating regional efforts by publishing broadband supplements that show the full picture. Highlight the affordable and future-proofed solutions to this problem so people understand the solutions are in their own hands. Do not mention BET as a solution - it never will be. It cannot ever be construed as accurate reporting if BET is mentioned in the same sentence, paragraph or article about Next generation access or FTTH without the word 'NOT' in close proximity!!

And MPs - be warned. This is going to become an election issue so get yourself up to date fast on the latest technologies and FTTH. FTTC is NOT the solution, however many press releases Virgin and BT put out about it. Attend the FTTH Council conference in Lisbon next month, read the news from other countries about FTTH, and protect your constituencies from substandard offerings, now and in the future.

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Thursday 14 January 2010

Lessons from Louisiana

Read more! After three weeks of subzero temperatures, Louisiana makes a very welcome change. I'd forgotten what sun felt like! Am sitting here attached to a 25Mbps symmetrical pipe, boostable to anywhere up to a gig - direct into the vein! I am currently in a data exchange which has a carbon toeprint rather than a footprint, is providing cloud computing services over the community fibre network to local businesses, and is housed within a business centre which survived, only just, Katrina ....

The best bit? It was conceived and is run by an amazing, dynamic lady, the building is owned by another female visionary, it includes a Women's Business Centre, the whole focus is on economic development, and the replicability of this set-up would be simple. Even in the UK. The only reason we can't do it is that the places where this set up is most needed are those places where there is currently insufficient infrastructure to do so.

What should we be doing? Well, firstly, the sooner we resolve the cost issues of backhaul in all areas of UK, rural and urban, the better. The UK Government should spend the first tranche of money from the rural Broadband pot putting in new open fibre, owned by the community networks it has constantly supported in words (DBR, Caio etc) if not in action. It should be a co-operative, not for profit venture, so that from now far into the future, every single person, business and community in the UK has a CHOICE about who to buy backhaul from, and the telcos and incumbents are finally faced with true competition. Yes, the government will say they cannot go directly in competition with the telcos, but there are ways round all of these arguments about anti-competition, as other nations have discovered (EU included). Think Amsterdam, Vasteras, Korea etc etc. Think about who wins and why that in itself makes it essential....

The telcos need to face up to the fact that competition is going to happen. I have in front of me the figures for building a middle mile network in the UK as a co-operative venture, and these figures have been created by a group of fibre legends, and are based on sound and known principles and costs. It isn't actually as expensive as I had thought it would be, and there are undoubtedly investors out there who want to take BT et al on at their own game and take Britain into the 21st century and beyond.

This would level the playing field and bring the data transit costs down to their real value, (cost plus) level, rather than over-inflated corporate greed-need levels. It would boost usage and access to the core network in a way that no other action can. It would immediately encourage innovation and therefore help to stimulate the economy, create new jobs, and support diversification, especially in rural areas. That co-operative needs to be started and run by members of the communities who are already up and running, and then as more communities create their own networks, they too can join the co-op. There should be no telco interest, or equipment supplier interest within that co-op, just consumers and communities, who by the very own end-user self-interest will ensure that the co-op is run for the benefit of all.

I suggest it may well, and should definitely, happen in the UK soon too. If anyone has some spare cash in the bank and wants to be involved, or you are a community network in desperate need of affordable backhaul, please do get in touch.

More from the USA soon - I now have 40+ pages of notes and my head is reeling with facts, figures, ideas and information from the amazing people who I have met and who have been generous and forthcoming in the extreme with their contributions to the discussions and answers to my seemingly never-ending stream of fibre questions. Many of these people are very well-known within our sphere and I am honoured to be invited and welcomed into their world. Thank you all. You know who you are!!

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Tuesday 12 January 2010

Graduation from the school of hard NOCS

Read more! Over the years, Utopia has suffered some ups and downs. Those who know even part of the history will know thie is somewhat of an understatement! I am sitting in the very comfortable lobby right now, having spent the day hearing the Utopia Today story from Todd Marriott and others in Utopia.
It is quite clear that Utopia has had to learn far too much the hard way - it is one of the known problems of being a pioneer. However, what we are seeing here today is a success story, that stands to become yet more so in future and is clearly an example for others to follow.

Whilst the Mobile Command Centre (photos to follow as soon as we get back to the hotel - personally, I'd rather stay here!!) may seem an over-exuberant way of promoting Utopia anywhere in the region, it serves a valid purpose too. Its very existence highlights the benefits of a distributed core network that can be run from anywhere, has multiple failsafes built-in, and is supremely redundant. The Mobile Command Centre is not just a posh camper van converted into meeting and sales rooms; it is a full NOC - you can run the whole network from this vehicle, wherever you choose to park it within the Utopia footprint. It is used 24/7 and therefore the marginal expense required to acquire and kit out such a vehicle can be justified many times over.

The Utopia story is about to take a leap forward as Todd explained to us. I can't go into too much detail but the 30+ pages of notes that I have and the fact my brain is on high speed spin cycle now should be an indication of the amazing things we have heard and discussed here today! The financial modelling of future projects is far more sophisticated than previously in Utopia's history, and there are indeed a deal of lessons learnt in this network that are now being strenuously applied. Not just within Utopia, but in the many other networks who are now benefiting from Utopia's survival of the school of hard NOCs. (Zero apology for the pun)

There are a large number of networks represented here today. Some are at the outset of their journey, whilst others are celebrating 10 years serving their communities. This commitment to providing connectivity to communities is something which governments, regulators and incumbents could learn phenomenal amounts from, if they just opened their ears (and wallets to pay for this invaluable experience).

The story that is clearly coming out of Utah at Geoff Daily's mini conference is that all those who keep saying wireless is the new black have not thought this through. OK, so this is a self-selected group of people who are bound to argue for fibre, but even so, the figures we are seeing today show that, for instance, to build ubiquitous wireless in one network would have required 1000 miles of fibre to support that network and the antenna sites. To FTTH the whole area required 1500 miles of fibre and then the wireless can be overlaid on that for minimum cost. Still think wireless should coem before FTTH?!

There is far more I could write here but I am going to write it in several parts. What I am hearing today merely reinforces much I personally have believed for more than a decade, but this trip to the US has brought me into contact with the hard evidence that sadly seems to be essential to get people to the point they need to be to understand why we need FTTH and we need it NOW - be they regulators, policy makers, investors, consumers, incumbents, RDAs etc.

And if you were sitting directly connected to a backhaul connection that until today you had only ever dreamed of being able to play on, and where the bottleneck throttling is caused by the 100MB ethernet, wouldn't you want to be doing more exciting things on that very fat pipe than writing your blog?!!!!

As far as the fat pipe goes, it is awesome! I knew it would be, and I wish somehow I could bottle this connectivity and bring it home. Oh yes, I can. It just won't be in a bottle, it'll be in a glass tube. For all those who say 2Mbps is fine, or who don't fancy delivering much more than that (50Mbps contended is not much more if all your neighbours are on iplayer when you are) I can absolutely stake my sanity on the fact that it is NOT. And there are those of us who are going to prove, by JFDI, how very wrong you are that 2Mbps is sufficient. Watch your backs!

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Friday 8 January 2010

Govt consultation on NGA Fund & travel plans

Read more! Berr have announced a consultation into the spend of the NGA Fund to be responded to by April 1st 2010.

Is there really likely to be market failure which will require public sector funding? And if so, where should the emphasis be on first spend of the money? In an attempt to find some answers, I am leaving tonight to go and join a group of community, rural Fibrevolutionaries from across the States in Utah for a mini conference.

I hope to discover first hand how the subsidies in the U.S. are throwing up potentially similar problems for rural NGA initiatives, and how the rural fibre difficulties have already been solved by some amazing community projects out there.

There are also plans to see first hand round a couple of fibre projects, including Utopia, which has, for me at least, been a project on the radar for a very long time. I am really looking forward to seeing round it and speaking to people who enjoy first rate NGA connectivity today. I will also be talking to some of the foremost experts who are watching with interest how FTTH develops in the UK, and who, it seems, may have some answers to the questions people like me have about how we JFDI anyway, with or without government intervention.

I hope that I will be able to report back during my trip, so watch this space. I will be happy to talk to anyone interested about what I have learned on my return - the usual exorbitant speaker fees apply!

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