The Broadband Manifestos

With the impending general election, I thought it might be instructive to see what the various parties were offering with respect to broadband in the UK, which might influence your vote one way or another. Or not, as the case may be. 

Labour

We will deliver universal superfast broadband availability by 2022. Labour will improve mobile internet coverage and expand provision of free public wi-fi in city centres and on public transport. We will improve 4G coverage and invest to ensure all urban areas, as well as major roads and railways, have uninterrupted 5G coverage. On day one we will instruct the National Infrastructure Commission to report on how to roll out ‘ultrafast’ 300Mbps across the within the next decade. 

My Views On Labour's Broadband Proposals

In my opinion this is vague and woolly. It's not inspiring. There's nothing super nor fast about "superfast broadband", which is a made up marketing term anyway, and what does "availability" mean? Uninterrupted 5G coverage - what does "uninterrupted" mean? 

The promise to instruct yet another report to be written on how to roll out fibre to the home (when we already know how to do this), with such a low target of 300Mbps (is this symmetrical or asymmetric? What's the upload speed, Jeremy?) misses the mark and, based on what the rest of the EU is doing (read my post here), isn't competitive enough.

The 300Mbps makes me think this is an allusion to BT's GPON-based optical infrastructure, so this is simply a "more of the same" proposal.

Marks out of 10: 2, as they really haven't tried very hard

Conservatives

We will ensure that consumers and businesses have access to the digital infrastructure they need to succeed. By the end of this year, 19 out of 20 premises will have access to superfast broadband and our Universal Service Obligation will ensure that by 2020 every home and every business in Britain has access to high speed broadband. We will work to provide gigaspeed connectivity to as many businesses and homes as possible. We will introduce a full-fibre connection voucher for companies across the country by 2018 and by 2022 we will have major fibre spines in over a hundred towns and cities, with ten million premises connected to full-fibre and a clear path to national coverage over the next decade. 

We have similar ambitions for mobile phone coverage. By 2022 we will extend mobile coverage further to 95 per cent geographic coverage of the UK. By the same date, all major roads and main line trains will enjoy full and uninterrupted mobile phone signal, alongside guaranteed WiFi internet service on all such trains. We will continue to release more spectrum from public sector use to allow greater private sector access and begin the roll-out of a new 5G network, providing gigaspeed connection to your smart phone. We plan to have the majority of the population covered by a 5G signal by 2027.

My Views On The Conservative Party's Broadband Proposals

"We will ensure that consumers and businesses have access to the digital infrastructure they need to succeed" is an encouraging start... but then it runs out of puff as quickly as a superfast broadband connection does. 

The pledge "19 out of 20 premises will have access to superfast broadband" is pretty meaningless as "access" isn't defined and no service performance parameters are mentioned. As "superfast broadband" is electrical signalling over copper wire, this isn't surprising.

The USO is for an underwhelming 10Mbps download speed only - this is not "high speed". This is barely adequate now, let alone by 2020. It might be irksome to the pro-Brexit faction of the Tories, but the EU is lightyears ahead already.

A voucher to be introduced for full-fibre connection for businesses means they are promising a voucher, and not the connection - is this weasely words? Again, nothing about speed of connection or what will actually be delivered. And this doesn't apply to the consumers referred to in the opening sentence - remember this: "We will ensure that consumers and businesses have access to the digital infrastructure they need to succeed"?

Towns and cities already have fibre optic "spines", so I don't think this is anything new or startling.

5G "providing "gigaspeeds" to your smartphone". According to the recently published technical specification by the ITU, 5G will deliver in dense urban areas, TARGET experienced data rates of:

  • downlink data rate of 100Mbps and 
  • uplink at 50Mbps 

“Experienced” means real world data flows in terms of bits delivered over Layer 3. These are "megabit" speeds, not "gigabit" speeds, or "gigaspeeds" as the Tories refer to it.

Unless they are referring to the somewhat theoretical, under ideal conditions etc, "peak data rates*", the minimum requirements for which are:

  • Downlink peak data rate of 20Gbps
  • Uplink peak data rate of 10Gbps

If they are referring to this, then there's a distinct whiff of "smoke and mirrors" here. But then it's a manifesto, after all... 

Unlike manifestos, technical specs are full of details and the ITU document I'm referring to can be found here but before you rush off to read it, here's an extract: "Peak data rate is the maximum achievable data rate under ideal conditions (in bit/s), which is the received data bits assuming error-free conditions assignable to a single mobile station, when all assignable radio resources for the corresponding link direction are utilized (i.e., excluding radio resources that are used for physical layer synchronization, reference signals or pilots, guard bands and guard times)."

Marks out of 10: 4 as they made a bit of an effort, but it's basically the status quo

Liberal  Democrats

Invest to ensure that broadband connections and services to be provided before 2020 have a speed of 2Gbps or more, with fibre to the premises (FTTP) as standard and unlimited usage by 2020 across the whole of the UK. SMEs should be prioritised in the roll-out of hyperfast broadband. 

Ensure that every property in the UK is provided, by 2022, with a superfast broadband connection with a download speed of 30Mbps, an upload speed of 6Mbps, and an unlimited usage cap. 

Invest £2 billion in innovative solutions to ensure the provision of high-speed broadband across the rural UK, working with local authorities and providing grants to help areas replicate the success of existing community-led projects. 

My Views On The LibDem's Broadband Proposals

This floats my boat as it's the real deal - they actually seem to get it. The marketing term "Hyperfast" is often over-hyped, but is usually regarded as 1000Mbps (1Gbps) symmetrical. If this proposal sounds familiar, it's because it's the same as the House of Lords' proposed amendments to the recent Digital Economy Bill which I wrote about here.

The insistence on 2Gbps speeds forces through the infrastructure switch from electrical signalling over copper wires to optical signalling through glass fibres all the way through to our houses a.k.a fibre optic broadband or "full-fibre" or fibre to the home (FTTH). The 30Mbps/6Mbps USO is smart too, because that's really hard to deliver in rural areas using electrical signalling which would need to also be upgraded.

They are the only party that's referenced the special case of rural broadband "working with local authorities and providing grants to help areas replicate the success of existing community-led projects". This reference to "existing community-led projects" must be the remarkable B4RN project which you can read about here, but other funding options exist for rural broadband such as Gigaclear here.

Rural areas are only "special" because those pesky laws of physics of electrical signalling over copper wires simply don't allow for decent service provision where the population is geographically dispersed i.e. where the lengths of copper wires are longest, the effect of impedance is greatest and the end user experience the worstest.

However the LibDems don't mention cellular or mobile broadband using 4G or 5G, they don't mention the poor coverage we all experience on trains and how this really needs to improve.

Marks out of 10: 7 as they've used their imagination, would have been a higher score if they'd mentioned mobile.

The Green Party

I rummaged around on their website but couldn't find a 2017 manifesto, probably my bad. They do however have 10 pledges, but they don't mention broadband. This is disappointing as a 2Gbps fibre optic broadband network (which uses less energy than a copper+electrical network) such as proposed by the LibDems would make working from home a practical proposition for a lot of people, and would help with rural regeneration. Plenty of bandwidth for hi-def multi-party video conferencing and services we can barely imagine today, all of which would obviate the need to travel by (electric) car.

Marks out of 10: 0

Conclusion

If the only thing that matters to you is broadband internet access, then the LibDems are the party of choice. Of course you might say they're unelectable so they can say anything they like, but at least they've come up with an imaginative proposal. 

Broadly speaking, there really isn't much difference between Tory and Labour on broadband, as they both seem to be saying "plus ça change", so you'll have to make your voting decision between these two on something different

House of Commons ushers in a new Dark Age

Digital Economy Bill 

Laser light through optical fibres provides high speed broadband that's largely unaffected by distance. This is why this technology is used for the ocean-straddling networks that joins us all together.

Yesterday in the House of Commons, UKplc got short changed. At the moment of leaving the EU, when we need every competitive advantage over our soon-to-be-former colleagues in the world's largest trading block, the House voted down amendments proposed by the Lords which would have meant we'd have had "full fibre" broadband delivering target speeds of AT LEAST Two Gigabits per second (2000Mbps) by 2020.

This of course would necessitate Fibre to the Home (FTTH), replacing the old and unfit for purpose copper network that was deployed by the GPO under the last Universal Service Obligation (USO) for low bandwidth analogue telephone services.

The House of Lords proposed this time around that there should be a USO of 30Mbps download with 6Mbps upload. This may sound pretty feeble compared to 2000Mbps, but given the incontrovertible laws of physics, to deliver it on copper wires would require significant investment, especially as the minimum COMMITTED information rate would be 10Mbps.

Ying tong ping pong iddle I po*

After a 90 minute discussion, the changes that the Lords proposed were killed off in the interests of saving time as no one appeared to have the heart for a game of Parliamentary ping pong on this important national infrastructure issue.

So what have we ended up with?

Quite possibly the worst result possible.

An utterly unambitious and pretty useless minimum 10Mbps download, nothing about upload, and no Universal Service Obligation.

In other words, nothing changes. We're now stuck for the foreseeable future with electrical signalling for our broadband.

The European Enlightenment

Meanwhile, the rest of the EU is zooming ahead with the lighting up of what we call "full-fibre" broadband (to distinguish it from the copper-based "fibre broadband" so prevalent here).

Full-fibre broadband is where the optical fibres terminate at your house, which is why the rest of the world calls it FTTH, Fibre to the Home. It's this technology that delivers 1000Mbps+ speeds and, over the short distances involved in delivering to your home, there's practically no drop in speed caused by signal loss. Which means:

  • You get pretty much the speed as promised
  • Everyone in the country gets the same speeds irrespective of where they live

The FTTH Council of Europe regularly updates and publishes data on how member states are doing. Here's the latest update from earlier this year:

As you can see, despite the valiant efforts of Gigaclear, Hyperoptic and B4RN, with less than 1% fibre optic broadband penetration we're not even on the chart.

And the 2017 Digital Economy Bill does nothing to change this.

Maybe the Commons should rename this bill to "Digital Bill - Economy class"?

What we could have had - the Lords' prayer

COMMONS REASONS, AMENDMENTS IN LIEU AND AMENDMENT TO AMENDMENT 

“(2B) The universal service order must specify that the target for broadband connections and services to be provided before 2020 must have— 

  1. (a) speeds of 2 gigabits or more; 
  2. (b) fibre to the premises (FTTP) as a minimum standard; 
  3. (c) appropriate measures to ensure that internet speed levels are not affected by high contention ratios; 
  4. (d) appropriate measures to ensure service providers run low latency networks. 
  5. (2BA) The universal service order must specify as soon as reasonably practicable that, by 2020, the following will be available in every household in the United Kingdom— 
  6. (a) download speeds of 30 megabits per second; 
  7. (b) upload speeds of 6 megabits per second; 
  8. (c) fast response times; 
  9. (d) committed information rates of 10 megabits per second; 
  10. (e) an unlimited usage cap. 
  11. (2BB) In meeting the obligations set out in subsection (1), internet service providers have a duty to ensure that their networks offer at least the minimum standards specified in subsection (2BA) to every household in areas of low population density, before deploying their networks in urban areas. 

Life in the slow lane

A short while ago PM David Cameron put in place a Universal Service Obligation (USO) whereby UK citizens had the "legal right to request a broadband connection capable of delivering a minimum speed of 10Mbps by 2020."

Note that this isn't the same as the right to RECEIVE such a service, and in any case 10Mbps is already too little too late. And this refers only to the download speed, the upload speed is generally 1/10th the download speed based on the DSL technology widely deployed, and 1Mbps at best is pretty feeble.

Meanwhile, this is what's proposed in the rest of the EU: 

"The Commission hopes that the ECC will help Europe meet its target of providing 1Gbps (1000Mbps) broadband to schools, hospitals and large businesses, and a minimum of 100Mbps for all households – which need to be upgradeable to 1Gbps – by 2025."

Where's Wally? The UK is conspicuous by its absence... From FTTH Council Europe FTTH Panorama webinar 6.4.2017

As we are leaving, we won't be subject to this, and Ofcom don't seem to be on the same page as the European Commission when it comes to broadband, preferring instead to tinker with organisational change, rather than infrastructure change.

Because those pesky laws of physics means that to deliver a "minimum of 100Mbps to ALL households" requires swapping copper wires for optical fibres (the case of VirginMedia is different as, where they have their own infrastructure, they already use a different tech).

So our continental competitors and former EU colleagues will soon be in the optical fibre fast lane, with all the competitive benefits that provides, while the UK, or potentially what's left of the UK, will be limping along on copper wires.

If you're not into telecoms, this would be like Europe having motorways and the UK having only leafy country lanes.

Which would be somewhat... slow, don't you think?

http://www.totaltele.com/496694/Next-10-20-months-will-reshape-European-telecoms-ETNO?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=facebook

ASA to (finally) review the marketing of broadband services

One of my bugbears is the way that copper-based broadband has been marketed as fibre optic broadband.

There's a massive difference between the two, but when I raised this with the ASA over a decade ago, I was told by them that the amount of copper in the network compared to the amount of fibre is so small it makes no difference.

However - the laws of physics of an alternating current over copper wire (BT and BT's resellers) or over copper coaxial cable (VirginMedia) are quite different from the laws of physics of a laser beam through glass fibre (Gigaclear, Hyperoptic, B4RN).

Which is why fibre optics are used for undersea trans-ocean cables... 

The common starting point for broadband offered on "full-fibre" services is 1000Mbps symmetrical i.e. the same speed uploading or downloading, but is future proofed and much faster speeds can be offered by a simple upgrade.

A typical BRN customer's Speed test

A typical BRN customer's Speed test

But more importantly, this also means that you get pretty much the same speed irrespective of where you live - on top of a mountain or in the middle of London.

In my view there should be a clear distinction in the marketing of services based on copper and those that are pure or "full" fibre and this review is long overdue.

https://www.asa.org.uk/news/asa-to-review-advertising-of-fibre-broadband-services.html

2017 Spring Budget - fibre optic broadband & 5G

Budget day!

So, the two key areas for telecoms in this budget are:

  • "Full-fibre" broadband, aka fibre to the home (FTTH) or premises (FTTP)
  • 5G, the next big thing in cell phone technology

The Government says it wants to "support the market roll out of fast and reliable full-fibre communications for consumers and businesses", which is on one hand excellent news as it's now on the national agenda, but on the other hand.. what does "support the market rollout" actually mean?

The budget statement refers to making "£200m available to fund a programme of local projects to test ways to accelerate market delivery of new full-fibre broadband networks." Full-fibre broadband is where the optical fibres terminate at the customer's premises - which means much faster speeds can be delivered on a more consistent basis to everyone, regardless of where they live.

So who should get this £200m? Should BT? Well, they've just spent £1.2Bn on football instead of investing in their network, so maybe they shouldn't qualify. In any case, their fibre to the home technology, where they provide it, is quite different and slower (300Mbps/30Mbps) than other companies' services but I believe they have plans to change this.

The remarkable community broadband project B4RN could do an awful lot with just £1m, as they quietly go about delivering 1000Mbps or 10,000Mbps (count the zeros - there's no typo) symmetrical services in the rural North West of England. Similar groups such as B4YS and B4RDS using a cookie-cutter style model could also benefit.

Of the more traditional service providers there's Gigaclear, that focusses on rural fibre optic broadband, Gigler based in Portsmouth, and Hyperoptic that focusses on upmarket MDUs, and Cityfibre that's not so much of a service provider but more of an "open access" infrastructure provider for other service providers.

All of these have skin in the game and would be deserving of assistance.

Instead, the budget is suggesting building on public sector assets to reduce risk and costs - shared infrastructure. It's not immediately clear how this will help national rollout of fibre to the home, and we've been in the shared infrastructure space before with PIA (Physical Infrastructure Access) which didn't work out too well.

5G is often touted as the panacea for all telecoms ills. It promises much, but so did 4G and we haven't really got 4G yet either. 5G uses higher frequencies to deliver faster bandwidth but those pesky laws of physics mean that the signals go less distance and have less building penetration capability. So more towers have to be built with more base stations so the signalling system has a chance to deliver its asymmetric 100Mbps/50Mbps service.

This will require a lot more fibre optic "backhaul" to cope with the increase in bandwidth, and all of this won't come cheap as there will need to be tens of thousands of more base stations around the country. Given that our "4G" services already deliver 30Mbps to 50Mbps speeds - is the cost really worth it?

The budget refers to investing up to £16m (why is everything to do with broadband always described as "up to"?) in "a cutting edge 5G facility with the technology to run the trials, delivered through cooperation between leading 5G research institutions." We already have one of these at a research institution, at Surrey University, and it's well worth visiting.

Personally I'd have liked to see something much more adventurous - assistance to deliver Universal Service Obligation (USO) of say 100Mbps symmetrical and inducement to base broadband tariffs not on a hypothetical speed at the exchange or cabinet, but on real world speeds as they are delivered and experienced by the customer. Oh - and something about fibre tax too - there's a playing playing field that definitely needs levelling.

Anyway, the relevant bits (see what I did there?) from the budget are below - draw your own conclusions.

National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF)

4.15 At Autumn Statement 2016, the government established the NPIF to provide over £23 billion of high-value investment between 2017-18 and 2021-22, with a focus on priority areas that are critical for improving productivity: economic infrastructure, housing and R&D. This built on existing plans for major investment over this Parliament, including resurfacing 80% of the strategic road network and the largest investment in the railways since Victorian times.

4.16 The NPIF provides the financial backbone to the government’s Industrial Strategy, and will:

  • support market roll-out of the fast and reliable full-fibre connections that will help businesses to grow
  • tackle congestion and ensure the UK’s transport networks are fit for the future
  • enhance the UK’s position at the forefront of technological progress globally
  • accelerate new housing supply

4.17 This will provide a signifcant boost to the UK’s productivity in the long term. The Budget sets out further detail of how NPIF funds will be invested in priority transport, digital communications and R&D programmes.

4.18 Digital infrastructure – The NPIF will invest £740 million in digital infrastructure by 2020-21, to support the next generation of fast and reliable mobile and broadband communications for consumers and businesses. The Budget announces the first steps towards this ambition.

4.19 5G – The government’s 5G Strategy, published today, sets out steps for the UK to become a world leader in the next wave of mobile technology and services. This includes:

  • a new National 5G Innovation Network to trial and demonstrate 5G applications. The first phase will invest up to £16 million in a cutting edge 5G facility with the technology to run the trials, delivered through cooperation between leading 5G research institutions. A new centre of 5G expertise within government will oversee this programme, working with public and private sector partners. Funding for future trials will be awarded on a competitive basis
  • the government’s response to the National Infrastructure Commission’s Connected Future report and recommendations on 5G. This will include developing commercial options for improving coverage on roads and rail, and working with Ofcom to ensure the UK has a regulatory environment fit for 5G

4.20 Full-fibre broadband – Starting in 2017, the government will invest £200 million to fund a programme of local projects to test ways to accelerate market delivery of new full-fibre broadband networks. These will combine the following approaches:

  • bringing together local public sector customers, to create enough broadband demand to reduce the financial risk of building new full-fibre networks
  • offering full-fibre broadband connection vouchers for businesses, to increase take-up of services where new networks are built through the programme
  • directly connecting public sector buildings, such as schools and hospitals. This will bring fibre closer to more homes and businesses, allowing them to be connected
  • opening up public sector assets, such as existing ducts, to allow fibre to be laid more cheaply

4.21 Complementing the NPIF programmes, the new Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund will be launched in spring 2017. Government investment of £400 million will be at least matched by private sector investors, and will accelerate the deployment of full- bre networks by providing developers with greater access to commercial finance.