Building Gigabit Britain?

INCA (Independent Network Cooperative Association) has recently published its strategy paper “Building Gigabit Britain”

It can be downloaded at http://www.inca.coop/policy/building-gigabit-britain-report

While it has much to recommend it, it also falls short of identifying some of the underlying problems and solutions.

First the good news. The six key recommendations have merit although it is unclear how government papers actually move things forward. Setting a target of 80% coverage (and we assume actual coverage as opposed to the current BDUK version) is pretty ambitious and feels very similar to the actual coverage achieved by the current government programme. If it merely replicates  that coverage it seems hardly worth it. The challenge is to deliver higher speeds to those currently receiving less than Superfast speeds and herein lies the rub. Getting Gigabit speeds into the rural space is a major challenge.

The strategy identifies Fibre to the Premise as the goal, or dream. This will be very difficult in the final 20% and much easier in Urban areas, which are already better served. The report also underplays the role of Virgin and their likely coverage model for FTTP which we expect to be much higher than suggested

While we completely endorse a review of business rates for fibre, a stronger line on advertising via the ASA and the launch of a Broadband Investment Fund these don’t address some of the weaknesses of the current marketplace.

The number of Altnets who have the balance sheet or business credibility to attract significant funding is extremely limited. This will not only affect investors willingness to part with equity funds but may drive an over reliance on debt based models, where there may be some strain on ROI cycles. This is especially true in the wireless space. Financial credibility will be key in winning public sector support and the creation of anchor tenancies on new (or re-purposed) networks

Wireless is an important bridge from the “core” fibre network to the more remote subscriber. As most actual device level connectivity is now wireless anyway there is little resistance to this as a medium and a blurring of the “line” between fixed and mobile connectivity.

The report plays down the role of public investment, no doubt born out of understandable frustration with the eventual delivery model for the Superfast scheme. The issue here is really one of expertise. If Government would but engage in listening beyond BT and a couple of other sources, we might end up with a meaningful partnership model. Of course, Brexit throws up an interesting conundrum. Much of the money that underpinned current Government Broadband funding was of EU origin but with it came a requirement to fulfil EU State Aid rules. If we leave, this may have the unexpected effect of loosening some of these shackles. Of course, public funding wold probably have to be made available openly, including to BT and that requires something of a reversal of strategy, again raising the spectre of financial credibility. The truth seems to be that BT does not have a strategy for the final 20%. However, the chances of government accepting any responsibility for having made a mistake with the Superfast scheme and digging into shallower pockets for even more funds seems unlikely. And FTTP might cost £25bn.

As far as technical considerations go, there are a couple of quick points to consider. How the figure of 350m for a sub loop length being typical is arrived at is a bit of a mystery. Sounds like something dreamt up near Ipswich to answer a political enquiry. In rural areas average loop lengths are significantly higher making G.Fast and any other improvements on copper based technologies the law of diminishing returns. And Ducts and Poles Access is like chasing a will o’ the wisp. Openreach are probably happy to entertain this fantasy as its a complete distraction from anything meaningful.

Finally the report misses one piece of good news. The SuperFast roll out via FTTC has one overriding benefit for Altnets. It drives the core fibre network closer to the subscriber, thereby reducing delivery costs for FTTP and raises expectations with subscribers which it then fails to deliver.

Many an empire is built on unmet expectations

Establishing world class connectivity?

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmcumeds/147/147.pdf

Another opportunity lost?

DCMS has published its review of where we are up to in Superfast Broadband roll out, the state of the market and a bit of an insight into the future. While there is some good stuff in here (more on that later) it does still rehash much of the same misleading statistics that have been a bugbear for those of us actually interested in rural broadband.

They persist with the same 90% and 95% target calculations that we know will only deliver 80-85% coverage of people actually getting Superfast broadband.

Why does this matter, if we all know the truth?

Firstly it misleads the public as to the performance of the scheme. The tone in the document is congratulatory for “achieving” these milestones. Until we accept this is broken there is no motivation to fix it. But, more importantly, while we persist with this illusion, proper funding for the rural broadband space will fail relative to other demands (which will be huge over the coming period) on budgets

On the good news front, the document is scathing of BT for lack of transparency, vertical integration favouritism and on Openreach specifically for quality of service. The report puts further pressure on Ofcom to consider further separation of the different parts of BT responsible for Broadband delivery but it also goes down some of the more unproductive rat-holes.

The focus on ducts and poles liberalisation is much less productive than government realise. The industry is not that bothered. After years of fighting with BT over LLU and SLU, they realise that getting access to the BT infrastructure in an area which is completely undocumented and poorly maintained is (by and large)  a waste of time. It recently took us 18 months to get a fibre service delivered to a client due to collapsed ducts. BT will want duct sharers to pay for its own lack of maintenance to fix these and will rub its hands with glee. We had another client that was quoted £160k for fibre delivery as many of the poles needed “replacement”.

A similar criticism might be made of the Universal Service Obligation. One of the problems with the 10mb target is that it will relieve pressure on providers to deliver true Superfast services. 30mb will become largely irrelevant within 5 years and if we want 100mb+ services in that timeframe then we have to find a way of getting fibre closer to the subscriber. While we may not get all of the way to the end user with the public purse, extending the backhaul networks will reduce costs for community and rural broadband providers and close that gap.

So what would help? Fibre to the remote node and better transparency on where fibre runs, what the spare capacity is and where the access nodes are would all help and Government should focus on these as being of practical help to network builders

Of course, its not that simple. BT has very poor records of its access network. Fibre is better than copper but is still woefully lacking (or inaccurate) in many cases. This will not get fixed overnight. The best way of making progress on this is for BT to focus on surveying its own engineers. The best information on what runs from where to where is the local engineering force. In many cases (without testing individual lines on an end to end basis) the Openreach engineer is the ONLY decent source of information. Whenever I am trying to find out what’s going on on the ground, I look for a van and have a chat with the engineer. In most cases they are really helpful. They know what the issues are and if approached openly and fairly, will do their best to help

The document spends a lot of time analysing BT’s finances, partly because they want to be able to clawback as much as possible. Interestingly the only “experts” they consulted were academic analysts looking at the financial implications of BT and further functional separation. They did consult with some parts of the industry but I always feel a sense of tokenism when I read these reviews.

The document is about 75 pages long plus appendices. You may (or may not) feels it’s worth a read

Knowledge Infrastructures: connecting research to business

If growing science based businesses is important to the future health of the UK economy our ability to “grow on” or “scale up” these businesses has a disproportionately large effect on growth.

Knowledge infrastructures have three layers of activity:

  1. The physical “place”: buildings, spaces, connectivity
  2. The technical: networks (JANET, Internet, KTN) computing/storage (software tools, data centres) “the glue”
  3. The social: collaboration, relationships, sharing, interdisciplinary cooperation on – “people”

Although much is made of the impact of technology on our ability to expand our people networks and facilitate collaboration, physical “place” still has an important role to play

So, if what goes on in Science Parks is a continuum between academic research at one end and pure business activity at the other, then our infrastructure has to reflect this and support it. The network continuum stretches from JANET at one end to commercial services at the other and many Science Parks should be offering services at both ends of the spectrum and, probably, everywhere in between

What is (a) Knowledge Infrastructure?

Knowledge Infrastructures are “robust networks of people, artifacts and institutions that generate, share and maintain specific knowledge about the human and natural worlds” (Edwards et al)

They are “ecologies or complex adaptive systems; they consist of numerous systems, each with unique origins and goals, which are made to interact by means of standards, socket layers, social practices, norms and individual behaviours that smooth out the connections between them” (Edwards et al)

Why does this matter to Science Parks?

Much of knowledge transfer is sponsored by a “place”, whether a University, a social space (physical or virtual), a “workspace” (however fixed or flexible) or a specific meeting space

As we move towards more long distance collaboration (enabled by technology) doesn’t place become increasingly irrelevant?

Certain types of collaboration that are characterised by relationships are facilitated by face to face communication. “The phrase “distance matters” – because technology-mediated communications makes it more difficult to establish common ground – became a watchword in computer-supported cooperative work. Tacit knowledge and common ground were, and still are, regarded as major stumbling blocks to long-distance collaboration” (Edwards et al)

This has significant resonance for the Science Park movement.

It also becomes clear when studying the challenges facing “scale up” organisations that certain aspects of what science parks do plays strongly into this agenda. Scale ups, interestingly, are much more widely dispersed around the UK and are not an exclusively London-based phenomenon (Sherry Coutu)

The six main challenges facing “scale up” companies are:

  1. Data. Identifying and researching the grow-on companies themselves. Many operate in the science fields and are already tenants.
  2. Talent. Recruiting is a big issue and science parks tend to be quite well plugged in to the different networks that facilitate this
  3. Leadership. Many companies identify coaching and mentoring as important requirements and many science parks facilitate this
  4. Overseas sales. Networks are an important part of this as well
  5. Access to finance. A growing part of what science parks offer
  6. Navigating infrastructure. Clearly availability of grow-on space, lab space, flexible terms and access to Ultrafast fibre Broadband are a key part of this

The importance of networks

When we look at how academia and business communicate at the network level, it sometimes seems as if “never the twain shall meet”.

Academia and the world of “primary” research relies heavily on JANET, a hugely powerful network operating at high speed between major institutions and funded on a cooperative basis. While it is connected to the Internet its relationship with commercial interests (and traffic) has at times been difficult if not actually frosty. JANET has constantly reviewed its rules about how commercial users or “mixed” commercial and academic activities might access the network and is keen to move more towards a truly open relationship with commercial networks

Whilst the Internet might have started out with some of the same goals as JANET maintains, it has become a largely commercial and social network where access is controlled by commercial interests. It still has a huge role in education and research, but seen through a commercial filter.

As many Science Parks have both academic and commercial tenants and are often owned and controlled (to a greater or lesser degree) by academic institutions, these are the natural meeting places for these networks to come together, as much as they are places for collaboration within their own communities, and with similar networks and communities in other places. Bridge Fibre already has clients who access common networks between Science Parks.

Maybe it is time for UKSPA to consider itself a Network of Science Parks?

Creating and managing knowledge

If we have a “place” to collaborate and a network to connect the collaborators and their ideas together, then we also need a place in which data can be turned into information and information processed into knowledge. This place should be also able to hold the knowledge created securely, allow it to be retrieved, and also allow it to be archived. If we need a “digital knowledge library” then we need a data centre. Not every “place” needs a data centre as long as it can access certain expertise and has a network connecting it to that data centre of sufficient capacity but where there is a lot of “big data” activity, software development or other IT intensive activity (and subject to usual provisos of scale, finance and demand) a data centre makes sense in order to promote the kind of growth we are looking to foster

People and collaboration

Barriers between people, institutions and knowledge are breaking down and research and collaboration are changing fundamentally at the same time.

One of the aspects of research and development which is changing is the traditional dividing line between “basic” and “applied” research. A third way, described as “Pasteur’s Quadrant” has emerged where the barrier between “pure” research and R&D (or research for gain) is largely irrelevant. In the world of Mode 2 science people are collaborating across disciplines. Technology has a huge part to play in this, but face-to-face meetings which enable cultural and linguistic differences to be managed will also be important

Conclusion

Science Parks have an important role to play in the growth of the UK economy by facilitating Knowledge Infrastructure. They provide the place and the glue for innovation and knowledge to be exchanged and value created.

Further reading/sources:

“Knowledge Infrastructures: Intellectual Frameworks and Research Challenges” Edwards et al, University of Michigan https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/97552

“The Scale Up report on Economic Growth” by Sherry Coutu (independent report to UK Government) http://www.scaleupreport.org/

This paper and follow ups will be published on:

http://blog.broadbandvantage.co.uk

as well as available through the UKSPA website www.ukspa.org.uk

Broadband Vantage and Bridge Fibre join forces to address the Science Park market

Bridge Fibre and Broadband Vantage have committed to working closer together to better serve the multi-tenanted commercial property market with Broadband and other services.

Bridge Fibre is the leading provider of ISP services to the Science Park and business park/centre market and Broadband Vantage provides a range of Broadband consulting services to leading property owners across a number of markets

Bob Cushing will represent Bridge Fibre as Commercial Director:

“Our paths have crossed repeatedly for over 6 years. Bridge has won more of the tenders we have managed for Science Parks than any other provider. They have consistently outperformed the other operators in the market especially in terms of commercial flexibility and customer service. I am delighted to be committing my activities in this market to Bridge”

Bringing the two activities together will enable Bridge to extend its reach and relationships, and build on its existing reputation, as well as reflecting its growth

Leigh Partin MD Bridge Fibre said:

“The multi-tenanted commercial property market is a specialist sector where you have to deliver a consistent high quality service to both landlord and tenants over an extended period of time. It takes effort and focus to build those trusted relationships and you have to respect the relationship between the landlord and their tenants, as well as addressing their relative needs individually. We are rightly proud of the team we are building and believe our growth and success is a reflection of the commitment we make to our customers”

Andrew Glover, founder and Chief Executive of Bridge said:

“Whilst we have delivered consultancy services to some of our customers, Bob Cushing brings years of experience and the credibility that come from a more strategic orientation and industry leadership. This will enable us to support clients with a complete end-to-end service starting from when the project is at an early planning stage. Getting the strategy and infrastructure right from the start makes a huge difference to occupancy levels and yield for landlords”

Broadband Vantage has developed standards for ICT infrastructure in multi-tenanted property and co-authored the UK Science Park Associations Best Practice Guides. A wide range of technical and commercial strategy papers and case studies are available free of charge from the download area at www.broadbandvantage.co.uk

 

 

BDUK pipeline – Phase X – turning tactics into strategy

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/bduk-new-procurement-pipeline

To London yesterday for a briefing from those lovely people at BDUK and see them buff up the Emperor’s new strategy.

The slides are supposed to be posted to the above link but they hadn’t appeared as I wrote this. Anyway, I took 15 pages of notes so this might be quicker for you

Firstly BDUK have renewed their delegated powers for State Aid approval of Broadband projects which lapsed 12 months ago. This is good news at a practical level. It means if they sign off on a project it is deemed to have State Aid approval.

Next interesting thing is they have now completely abandoned their sniffiness about Fixed Wireless Access as long as it meets the NGA standard. I predicted this in my white paper over a year ago (available as a free download from main web site). It does put a burden of evidence and test data on providers but this is as it should be.

Most importantly £150m has been made available in a number of jurisdictions from Cornwall to the Highlands for new Broadband projects. Of course they are all publishing at the same time so there will be a frenzy of activity from bidders and this will probably create a log jam. Who doesn’t love a bit of chaos?

Of course there are some teeth in the programme.

Firstly they are trying to standardise the process to simplify bidding. Bids must be made on the basis of a wholesale offer. If vertically integrated (i.e. they have an end user offer too) then the terms of the wholesale/retail offers must be non-discriminatory. Networks must be Open Access at active and passive levels. This means that they include infrastructure sharing including antenna sharing. How they are going to make frequency planning work I don’t know but I would love to have someone tell me

The overall bid process (if the local bodies follow it) seems quite logical if a bit onerous. Clearly they have had a number of failed bids because their expectations (especially on the financial planning side) have exceeded the bidders capabilities

Where the rubber hits the road though is on the financials. The value of the “match” against which the grant value is set is based on the Net Present Value (NPV) of future profits. Like DCF (discounted cash flow) these are notoriously difficult and contentious calculations much loved of Venture Capital investors. BDUK have already said that they will take a hawkish view of the discount rate applied.

What this means is that if you set the estimated profits too high then it will cause your bid to be viewed negatively. If you set it too low you have the risk that they will come after you for excess profits at the same ratio as the grant to private funding ratio. In other words if the grant is 40% of the capital value they can come after you for 40% of the profits.

To add more misery if you over-egg the costs in your plan and underspend they want the difference back.

The final useful piece of news is that all coverage calculations are being made at the premise level and the Open Market Reviews which precede procurement should now reflect this. How they have managed to get BT to report this I don’t know but we travel in hope.

All in all an illuminating 4 hours

Separating OpenReach and the myths of ducts and poles

 

Following the recent DCMS review, pressure has been put on Ofcom to consider the separation of OpenReach from the rest of the BT Group (again) and a number of other measures, supposedly to improve competition.

Aside from the question as to whether the separation of OpenReach will actually make any difference or serves merely to feed consumers’ fury, one issue that will have to addressed is who will pay for this and how? Most people do not realise that BT does not maintain an asset register of its fixed assets such as ducts, poles, and cabinets. It has some records relating to its fibre assets but most of the copper network, (predating privatisation as it does) is undocumented. That’s one of the reasons why BT has to do a survey for fibre line installs. Of course the local engineers have a pretty good idea what is connected to what….

 

BT photo

Which brings us on to the question of ducts and poles. “We need an agreement to get access to BT’s assets so we can use them to build our own networks” say community broadband leaders. Well, one already exists. Its been in place for a few years and only two companies have ever signed it: Fujitsu and a company in Kent called CallFlow. Fujitsu signed it when they thought they would bid for the BDUK project and never used it. CallFlow have used it to some effect because Andy Conibere is ex-BT and has put the work in. Of course, like sub loop unbundling it is impenetrable to the point of being almost unusable but its there.

So, will Ofcom force through more unravelling of BT? I doubt it and I doubt whether it would make a difference if they did.

BT and BDUK under fire in DCMS committee

http://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/7a4140f3-f038-45d3-a163-2dfac70213f7

see from 15:17

Both BDUK and BT came under fire in the DCMS Parliamentary committee on the 3rd February

When asked whether BT had been cherry picking easier locations the representative from Devon and Somerset said yes. Remember Devon and Somerset were one of the early counties to start Phase 1 and did relatively well out of the funding round but Keri Denton was also critical of the definition of “homes passed” forced through the framework by BDUK. The definition means that any home connected to an upgraded cabinet is counted irrespective of the speed they receive. This leads to a misleading calculation as to who actually gets Superfast broadband. Our estimate is that Phase 1 did not “reach” 95% of the population but that the true coverage figure is between 80% and 85% of the population actually getting Superfast. This explains why more and more councils are not following through on the clawback or Phase 2 with BT as they realise how bad the value for money they are getting is.

Broadbad – BIG group of MPs says its worse than we thought

http://www.shapps.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Broadbad-FINAL.pdf

Quoting Ofcom’s most recent data back to them, the British Infrastructure Group of MPs call for the formal separation of Openreach.

The data indicates that 2.4m homes (about 10%) do not even get 10mb download speeds never mind Superfast. Of these 1.5m are in rural areas accounting for up to 48% of rural homes.

Our own calculations are that the “miss” on Superfast is about 20% (as opposed to the 5% claimed by BDUKs bizarre definition) overall, so it looks like we may have been conservative in our pessimism, although clearly this is worse in rural areas

Expecting Openreach to close this gap (whether they are part of the BT Group or not) would require them to admit that their calculations are based on sophistry, leaving them open to charges of manipulating the figures. So splitting BT further is the right answer to the wrong question.

What we need to see is business investing in closing that gap for solid commercial reasons, not another state led cock up

Environment Agency publishes high precision LIDAR data

The Environment Agency has just published LIDAR data for 72% of England free of charge.

https://environmentagency.blog.gov.uk/2015/06/16/free-mapping-data-will-elevate-flood-risk-knowledge/

This data is high precision data that should improve the accuracy of wireless mapping and predictive coverage analysis. LIDAR is effectively a laser scan from above and with precision this high comes big file sizes. The one downside is that the data focuses on flood plains, coastal and urban areas. We are trying to find out what percentage of non urban areas this represents but even with these limitations it should prove really useful for feasibility and planning purposes. Our thanks to Adrian Wooster for drawing our attention to it through his blog  http://wooster.org.uk/category/tech_blog/

 

DCMS offer review of the BDUK programme

Poacher turned gamekeeper?

DCMS has announced “an inquiry into the coverage, delivery and performance of superfast broadband” http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/culture-media-and-sport-committee/news-parliament-2015/terms-of-reference-connectivity-15-16/

With phase 2 of the BDUK roll out not complete and, in some cases, contracts not even signed, this seems a bit fast out of the gun.

But then do internal inquiries serve any purpose other than to congratulate the participants on a job well done? Maybe they want to get their defence in early? But then with plenty of councils opting out of Phase 2 there are plenty of hatchets to be buried. Recycling the clawbacks might go some way to appeasing them.

If you wanted to pick on one thing to raise I think it has to be the definition of coverage. Our estimate is that 95% really means 85%. As we started at 65% that, in turn, means we missed the “real” target by 30%.

Will I be submitting my considered opinions? Probably not.