When IT Meets Politics

Nov 12 2015   3:45PM GMT

If barely half UK FTTC lines meet definition for Superfast, how can BDUK be on track?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo

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B4RN
Broadband
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Virgin

I recently became embroiled in a dispute as to whether UK Broadband performance should be measured by “speed” supposedly “available” or by that actually experienced by customers. This led me to look at the Think Broadband Figures for October 2015 and compare these with the publicly announced targets and performance measures, e.g. 90% superfast by the end of 2015 or early 2016, as per the latest briefing from the House of Commons Library .

If the median speed of existing “fibre to the cabinet” is only 26 Mbps and if FTTC is the main delivery channel for “superfast” – how can BT/BDUK be on track for 90% availability of either 24 or 30 Mbps by the end of the year?  The only way of achieving this would be for the roll-out plans of Virgin and players like City Fibre, Gigaclear, ITS and Hyperoptic to be very much more more ambitious and advanced than has been said publicly. Or is BT is in a position to upgrade the speeds deliverable over existing FTTC before its GFast field trials are complete? Or am I missing something profound? 

The October figures also help explain why BT wanted the UK to define “Superfast” as “over 24 Mbps”, not “over 30 Mbps”: The median speed for BT’s own FTTC services is below 30. The figures also help explain why Sky, in particular, is so concerned over the quality of services it gets from Openreach. The lines it takes from Openreach have a median speed of barely 22 Mbps. There may be many explanations, but the difference in average speed between the lines supplied by Openreach to BT retail and those supplied to its competitors deserves explanation.

I was also struck by the comment that tiny B4RN would have topped the performance table, with a median speed of almost double anyone else, but was too small to count. Councillor Ian Thompson, a very happy B4RN customer, has done me a thoughtful comment piece (see below) on why the approach would not work for everyone and why such operations should be seen as complementary to those of BT, rather than as competitors.

“After eagerly anticipating the arrival of Superfast service for about two years, we found a house a mile away, just months before the BT fibre cabinet went live in my village. The new house had a broadband speed of 2.3Mbs which was a pleasant surprise considering we only had 2Mbs in the village. However, my new neighbours were only getting 0.4Mbs and were tearing their hair out, so we called BT about Superfast. They had no plan to provide it to as we are just 12 houses on the end of a two mile long cable. It did not make commercial sense even if every house wanted Superfast.

We then heard that a community broadband project (B4RN) was active only two miles away over the hill and its business plan included our hamlet. To cut a long story short, four months later, all 12 houses were connected to the world’s fastest domestic broadband service (fibre to the home with 1Gbs download & 1Gbs upload). Some very happy teenagers, home workers and two businesses whose communications had been revolutionised. It also brought the neighbours closer together because they had shared the experience of achieving something momentous through their own efforts.

The project has now become something of an obsession as communities around us ask for help. We still find ourselves at the bottom of trenches or drilling holes through their walls to help them share the benefit.

Is it right for everyone? – in my opinion, No. I have been asked by people in the village when I will take the fibres to them even though they have Superfast. I have declined, because it is much harder to install fibres in a built up area with tarmac between properties (This is probably why BT only offers fibre to the cabinet and not to the home). Community broadband works best in rural areas where it can cross fields and find its way into hamlets through back gardens.

I have worried about BT reacting to B4RN as an upstart competitor that takes away most of their business in the areas where it operates. However if BT thinks about the problem of economically meeting government broadband availability targets, they should be grateful for rural communities which help themselves. If the hardest 5% installs their own broadband then BT can focus on the easier 95% and do so profitably. I have even heard that BT is waking up to the idea of collaborating with community projects but suspect it is just PR – I hope I am wrong!”

I too hope he is wrong – because it makes good commercial sense for BT to support such exercises rather than compete.

There are, however, issues with backhaul if other local networks are also capable of running at over 100 Mbps on average. Faced with problems in getting backhaul from BT, B4RN was able to get use the Zayo service from Glasgow to Manchester to connect direct to the Manchester Telehouse and thence to LINX – bypassing the chokepoints that throttle back the speeds otherwise achievable. How many others could do likewise? Hence my concern about the need to not only open up underused public sector fibre networks and re-light those private sector networks that were switched off in order to avoid business rates, but to stimulate and reward  investment in filling the gaps and bypassing the bottlenecks.  

I do hope the Chancellor will address some of these issues later this month and help unleash the increase in UK productivity that will follow.   
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13  Comments on this Post

 
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  • NGA for ALL
    The notion of 24Mbps or 30Mbps needs to be dispelled.

    The >24Mps, means it is not ADSL, that is all, it brings as many fibre bundles into rural as the money permits or so you would hope. This is a civil engineering project and the precise outcomes needs to be worked up and is a function of the money available, not what the contract or what the politician says.

    Phase 1 looks to be creating c22,000 fibres paths -(with a cheap chinese metal box and electronics attached). This should be achieved for £700m before BT makes a capital contribution and before claw back kicks in.

    Given the public monies available (total £1.7bn) and the BT capital due (£356m), and clawback (also due) building as accruals in BT's accounts (£157m so far); we can actually start again once BT is forced to part with its capital contribution and the clawback.

    The big secret is that it is cheap to do but it is labour intensive, that's 90% of the cost and it is still cheap, so cheap BT need 44 discrete confidentiality agreements to hide the cheapness.

    The single biggest danger is that someone says 'mission accomplished' before the fun even starts.

    BT has received £682m in state aid (Sept 2015) so far for 17,500 cabinets which according to the NAO have costed no more than £437.5m (£25k each)before BT makes its capital contribution. Proxy costs in Wales, NYorks, Lancahsire, milestone zero payments etc,etc inflate the bills but these can be reconciled.

    If we follow the cash, then the entire effort of the last 3 years can be repeated at no extra cost to the taxpayer. We need a 'true up' on the costs and capital!

    How altnets, who can beat BT on FFTP but struggle on FTTC get a slice of what ought to be a £1bn worth of remaining effort should be debated. The top priority is a summary of budget spent, unspent, BT's capital contribution and the clawback.

    This is actually a good story (could be a great story) but it requires our leaders to be informed enough to know they can go much much further than just 22,000 fibre paths. They must ensure BT visibly parts with its £65-£75 of direct capital contribution per premise passed for the 4.1m premises in phase 1. You can then re-set the ambition to being best in Europe.

    There are holes in service everywhere because we are tolerating, the bluffing, the blagging and the bullying. All the numbers are in the public domain so we have no excuses.

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  • stirrup
    Dear Philip,

    The only reason I can think of that BT declines to provide backhaul to smaller

    Broadband projects or to network builders acting on their behalf is that it has a longer game plan to extract even more taxpayers' money from government than it would from the sale of backhaul. Otherwise why would any sensible company suffer such tremendous reputational damage?

    It seems that there is a race on at the moment between BT and government. Government intends to make an announcement in the autumn statement about future policy and funding to complete rural broadband roll-out. This may include advance notice that BDUK's trial approaches will definitely be concluded early in 2016 with some/all approved for use to help local authorities do their best for rural communities. The statement may also say something about subsidised satellite trials for the truly desperate and maybe even a relaunch of the voucher scheme, although I’m less sure of the last of those. The trials include two hybrid schemes that are a mix of fibre and wireless i.e. ideal for many areas that are unprofitable for BT with present levels of subsidy.

    BT is fearful of these trials being opened up for subsidy because it means that competitors will start to pick up business through the alternative approaches which will reduce the monopoly BT originally had planned. BT’s way of sabotaging this may be to offer the millions of pounds of clawback money (from exceeding 20% take-up) to local authorities earlier than planned in return for any additional work. In other words, irrespective of whether a local authority has exceeded 20% or not, it retains the money it would otherwise have handed back plus any additional business. They may also be offering the next tranche of clawback money early – this would not have been available for another two years. Worse, as I am told has happened in Dorset and probably elsewhere, BT may threaten to go slow on existing contracts if they don't get their way, which means that local authorities will miss govt. targets and suffer their own reputational damage. I have been told that that Lincolnshire has accepted BT's claw-back offer but Hampshire has told BT to take a running jump.

    Possible safeguards that could enable a rural community such as ours to have access to all the options without being restricted by a Council that wishes to sew things up quickly are (1) a relaunch of the voucher scheme because aggregation of vouchers to build a local network can by-pass a local authority if the same rules apply as before (2) the new set of EU state aid regulations are not yet approved which prevents any local authority from letting further contracts at the moment. Regarding the latter, I wonder if BDUK is deliberately dragging its feet on that in order to permit their trials to get a look-in.

    I have taken the advice from your previous blog by writing to my local MP, Philip Dunne. I have asked him to let me know if it is within a local authority’s power to deny communities access to the trial approaches by letting additional contracting between now and the time their outcomes are announced, or even after then.

    You are right. Mr Osborne has a lot of issues to sort out with regard to broadband on 25th November, with Mr Vaizey's willing support, I hope.

    I hope that following these mattets for three years had not made me utterly paranoid.

    Kind regards

    Patrick

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  • Philip Virgo
    Another reader has raised the impact of the new Investigatory Powers Bill on both speed and cost. How much traffic has to be recorded and stored, by whom, at what points in the network, and who is expected to pay for this? The allegation is that cost of compliance to those who do not trunk their traffic through BT's bottlenecks (for recording) will be prohibitive. I would very much welcome feedback as to whether this is a serious issue or a red herring.

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  • NGA for ALL
    As if DPI does not already exist? It is best not to ask as you cannot expect people to answer the question. What is important is the workings of the bill. Who gets to look at what and under what circumstances.

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  • chris conder
    It wouldn't actually be that difficult to do urban areas if the councils gave their full support instead of blocking altnet requests to cut road surfaces and pavements. The problem seems to be that the councils will only work with the monopoly and regard innovation as suspicious and shy away from anything that doesn't tick their boxes. We would all be living in caves if someone hadn't thought out of the box.

    Regarding communities working with openreach, it just boils down to communities raising all the money and getting funding then ending up with FTTC and still many of them left on too long a line to get anything. It is another bit of the superfarce.

    What we need is access to a fibre feed, and let new businesses start up to provide what the monopoly won't. True open access to the internet. Currently all we have are multiple ISPs reselling the same product from the same supplier. Its a monopoly, and it is holding back this country by keeping it on copper and telling everyone they have fibre broadband.

    Dial up is fed from fibre from the exchanges. It doesn't make it fibre dial up does it?

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  • stirrup
    Further to my comment above, I've now been informed that the BT carrot to local authorities is to offer whatever contractual amount they'd get for 30% takeup long before 30% takeup is actually achieved, and to then have 100% of that available to spend immediately, it is spent with BT. So although I was right, the amount was more than I'd realized. As this appears to apply to all local authorities, responsibility for permitting such an obvious loophole must be passed right back to BDUK who devised the model contract.

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  • Somerset1
    Chris - who says councils are blocking requests, any examples?

    'The Electronic Communications Code ('the Code') enables electronic communications network providers to construct electronic communications networks. The Code enables these providers to construct infrastructure on public land (streets), to take rights over private land, either with the agreement with the landowner or applying to the County Court or the Sheriff in Scotland. It also conveys certain immunities from the Town and Country Planning legislation in the form of Permitted Development.'

    VM and others don't sell 'the same product'.

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  • Philip Virgo
    There are rather a lot of examples, both urban and rural and using "code powers" tends to be much slower and more expensive than active co-operation in finding ways of avoiding the need for road works.

    Hence the reason a number of councils, particularly in London, are working collectively with property owners and network providers to agree a new generation of access and wayleave arrangements (using the BSI PAS process to reach and test agreement). Some are also considering working with the relevant professional bodies (from IET to RICS) to develop cross-cutting and evolving guidance to reflect current and future network technologies and topologies.

    Those in the lead are likely to get much better (cheaper, faster and more reliable) connectivity for local residents and businesses (with less disruption on the way) - than by waiting for the electronic communications code to be updated in line which that on which all parties can agree.

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  • Somerset1
    'the difference in average speed between the lines supplied by Openreach to BT retail and those supplied to its competitors deserves explanation.'

    Are they, and what could the reasons be?

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  • Philip Virgo
    The October average speeds in the "Think Broadband" article to which I link are

    FTTC lines supplied by Openreach:

    - to BT: Median 29.1 Mbps, Mean 29.9

    - to Plusnet: Median 29.7, Mean 31.1

    - to Sky: Median 22 Mbps, Mean 22.3

    - to Talk Talk: Median 25.9 Mbps, Mean 26.1

    Average: Median 26 Mbps, Mean 27.2

    There are many possible explanations but I have never seen the question asked, let alone any analysis of the possible answers.

    However, unless the data is seriously wrong, or the vast majority of speeds are close to the median, the clear implication is that fewer than 70% of those currently receiving FTTC services currently experience speeds of over 24Mbps (the UK definition of Superfast) and well under 50% experience over 30 Mbps (the EU definition).

    Hence my question.

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  • Somerset1
    These numbers are complicated by many people only paying for the 40M option, even though they could receive nearer 80M.

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  • Philip Virgo
    All the more reason for unpacking quality of service data and not using nonsense measures of performance.

    My service ran at about 18 -19M after an engineer spent a day fixing the faults that had caused it to drift down to between 2 and 5 while the central database showed it running at 19 - 20. When I switched to Infinity (and as a business user I had to find out how to ask for this, no one offered it to me), I got a little over 70. This had dropped to about 45 after I came back from holiday. I installed "Actual Experience" in September. When I next checked it was back the mid-70s. It is now running at just under 80, with the dashboard telling me that the performance problems I see are in the "Internet" - alias the backhaul to Facebook etc and neither the line nor my system.

    In our holiday home the local service, from a mobile phone mast on the other side of the Loch, is the same as it was before Y2K, But I could then download e-mails most days, albeit those with attachments could take a long long time. Today I cannot get Internet access at all most days, When I can, I tend to be able to read only the headings. The reason is a mix of bloated modern communications protocols and far greater traffic loads on the route back to Glasgow - rather than locally.

    Nominal "available" is only really "available" if there is the necessary backhaul. One of the recent debates in the House of Commons was given examples of how speeds dropped when the neighbouring community was upgraded to FTTC - i.e. the shared backhaul bercame overloaded. The B4RN speeds would be much lower if they were not able to use Zaya to link direct to the Manchester Internet Exchange. Two days ago I was looking at a community fibre project in Central London whose speeds relied on being able to use a similar service to connect direct to LINX.

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  • Philip Virgo
    I spoke too soon. Gypsy Hill (my local exchange) appears to have been among the exchanges that went off air early this morning (21st November) with an estimated recovery time, according to the status reports, of 5 days !!!!!

    Luckily i decided to switch from an unbundled service to mobile for my broadband back-up.

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