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Ofcom has a two pronged approach to dealing with BT Openreach at present, there is the on-going battle of how far to split Openreach away from BT Group with everyone trying to avoid an expensive protracted legal battle and the second is the Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA) product, or more correctly version 2 of the PIA product as several smaller operators are already using the first version.
Ofcom has announced another consultation on its plans for PIA 2 where the eventual hope is that by making duct and pole access attractive to BT competitors they will make use of it to deploy millions of ultrafast pure fibre connections.
"In July, Ofcom detailed a new strategy to promote large-scale roll-out of ultrafast broadband, based on cable and fibre lines that go all the way to people’s doorsteps. This would provide an alternative to the mostly copper-based technologies currently being planned by BT, and deliver benefits to people and businesses in terms of choice, innovation and affordable prices.
Ofcom believes network competition is the most effective spur for continued investment in high quality, fibre networks. This will also reduce the country’s reliance on Openreach, the network division of BT.
The proposals include changes that mean BT would recover the costs of providing third-party access, such as repairing ducts, in the same way it recovers these costs for its own deployments – for example, by spreading them across all services that make use of the duct.
So Ofcom is consulting on whether to require Openreach to upgrade its drop wires with fibre at the request of any telecoms provider who is offering full-fibre broadband to a customer. Openreach could then charge the provider for using the drop wire.Ofcom on new proposals
It could be said that after a decade of Ofcom sanctioned copper based local loop unbundling the regulator is now trying to get up to speed on getting pure fibre access out to more premises. One interesting snippet is that they seem happy with both coax (called cabled in Ofcom docs) or pure fibre.
One important consideration that Ofcom is seeking input on, is that competitors are asking for a relaxation on the usage rules so that more expensive leased line products can utilise PIA, current rules mean only consumer or SME grade services are allowed. Relaxing this rule would allow the deployment of higher profit margin leased lines which either form the cherry on top of the cake for deploying millions of FTTH lines or form the underlying core revenue with FTTH as the marginal revenue increase on top.
It is going to be interesting to see what happens in the next decade, if PIA 2 works then an independent Openreach might morph into a duct and pole maintenance operation with a gracefully degrading copper network and invest very little in its own pure fibre services. In other words the days of active hardware like VDSL2 and G.fast and their own pure fibre products might only be needed in the less commercially attractive areas, so we might see 80% of the UK served by others, and Openreach picking up the USO type business elsewhere.
If time travel existed we'd request that Ofcom borrowed the machine and re-started its current pure fibre focus around 2007, i.e. just after demand for broadband started to rocket due to the low price bundles from TalkTalk.
One of the problems for cable broadband users in the UK is that you are usually tied to using the broadband hardware they supply and there has been a steady stream of people upgrading and getting new hardware and finding things are not as good as their old Virgin Media product. Well The Register has some information on what might be the cause, and it may not be a case of blaming neighbours from using the Internet too much but some Intel Atom x86 processors which sit at the heart of the Virgin Media Superhub 3.
There has been some evidence of a software related issue with Virgin Media CPE as a number of users have found that restarting their hub improves the state of the Broadband Quality Monitor graph, and the new research suggests that firmware and how the Intel CPU manages what its doing is one of the reasons for poor gaming and a general slug like performance at times.
We have no idea if this is linked to the general single download performance issues our speed test results are showing, which appear to be getting worse, but it is conceivable that a single download is not taxing the CPU enough so it continues its housekeeping that is generating lag and packet loss, but multiple threads override the behaviour.
So what happens now? It seems that a firmware update from Intel may be a core part of the solution, but that upgrade would need to be integrated into the different CPE affected, so its not likely to be something fixed before Christmas.
For now though it looks like we will still see people downgrading from 200 Mbps cable products to much slower VDSL2 services and praising the stability for gaming, streaming and snappier web browsing.
The Fastershire project which covers the roughly 350,000 premises of Herefordshire and Gloucestershire is likely to award a £4.54m contract to Gigaclear to deliver pure fibre to some 2,600 of the hardest to reach premises across the counties.
The contribution level from Gigaclear is unknown, but this may become clearer when an actual contract is signed rather than a recommendation, but the contract value of £4.54m represents £1,730 per premise which is believed to be close to the cap that value for money rules allow under the BDUK contracts.
"Access to a fast and reliable digital connection is becoming more and more important for families and businesses here in Gloucestershire and right across the UK.
We’re making a real difference to peoples’ lives, enabling the fibre network to reach some of the most rural areas where larger suppliers were not prepared to go. Faster broadband connection remain a priority to our economy, education and supporting our communities. The Fastershire project is pushing the boundaries of the technologies available with this next stage a key step in meeting the ambitions of the two counties.
That’s why phase two of our Fastershire project focuses on using new and emerging technology to deliver full fibre solutions to some of the hardest to reach premises across the county.Cllr Mark Hawthorne
The two counties are not too backward with pure fibre coverage Herefordshire has 8.19% availability of FTTP, and Gloucestershire is running at 4.77% (1.64% via Openreach). The footprints this represents are shown below and at first glance you would expect the coverage to be much higher based on the number of postcodes served, but many of the postcodes only comprise a handful of premises.
2,600 premises represents around 0.7% of the two counties, so while for individuals this will be a massive change in broadband abilities in the bigger picture it is just one small part of the puzzle.
Interestingly the Councillor David Harlow in the press release talks about Herefordshire having 15% coverage of FTTP, which is at odds with our own figure of 8.19%. If one uses the Ofcom 2015 data (coverage as of summer 2015) they claim a coverage figure of 13.6% of premises for faster than 300 Mbps, so we presume this is the data used. The difference with our own figure is some 5,600 premises and based on our analysis of the area we believe that the Ofcom data and the councillor may be including a good chunk of Openreach FTTP that is still in the build stages or just planned, we endeavour to only include premises where GEA-FTTP is available to order (some random checking does support this hypothesis too and an example is HR9 7RT which shows our data for the postcode, along with the Ofcom 2015 data, i.e. we tag premise as connected to a live cabinet but a long distance away and no FTTP and we suggest VDSL2 will be slow or non-existent, but Ofcom claim 92% of postcode can get 300 Mbps or faster and checking the sales checkers reveals no VDSL2 option and no FTTP.
Update 3pm We pushed Herefordshire to the top of the review stack and after a sweep of the county have revised our coverage figure for Openreach native FTTP to 9.13% (our coverage site has updated with the new figures and postcode information). There are a fair number of places where Ofcom claimed ultrafast availability but the build process is still ongoing, and in a good number it seems a VDSL2 cabinet has been put in place, and in others no sign of any work at all.
Okay so its officially time when radio stations start playing the Christmas songs and that means it is time to publish our speed test results for November 2016. We have the dropped two tables that split our the major providers based on the technology used in each connection and have expanded the technology splitting to all the broadband providers. The result is interesting to say the least.
|The 25 Fastest UK Broadband Providers in November 2016
(ordered by median speed)
Smaller providers without enough geographic data samples are not included
|Provider||Download Speed of bottom 10%
|Download Speed of top 10%
|BT Infinity (FTTH)||19.7||46.3||59||10.7||14.1||109.2|
|Zen Internet (FTTC)||16.6||37.4||40.4||9.4||11||70|
|Daisy Wholesale (FTTC)||14.1||36.4||38.2||9.4||11.4||67.1|
|BT Infinity (FTTC)||14.6||34.9||35.9||8.6||8.9||56.4|
|Vodafone Broadband (FTTC)||15.3||32.9||35.2||8.8||10.2||58.8|
The top of the table is dominated by the fibre to the home providers and unlikely to see any major changes in that. Seeing Virgin Media in fifth place is no great surprise as the operator itself already makes sure to say something along the lines of fastest widely available provider in advertising, the question is at what percentage of coverage of FTTH/FTTP services will that caveat cease to be valid?
There are a number of providers who also have median speeds above 50 Mbps, but due to their small size getting a decent sample size is difficult, but there was B4RN (95 Mbps), Venus (82.8 Mbps) Zen Internet (FTTH - 73.5 Mbps) and WarwickNet (54.5 Mbps). For those wondering how BT Infinity (FTTH) beats Gigaclear and Hyperoptic, a lot is down to the product choice people make and how the router provided behaves with regards to wireless performance.
The new table format has meant that no ADSL results feature in the main table, and what we plan to do is cover ADSL speeds in their own table once a quarter, for now KCom tops that table at 6.1 Mbps with speeds dropping all the way down to 3.8 Mbps for the Post Office service.
While not part of the UK, Jersey and Guernsey do make a appearance but with too small a sample to include in the main table, but JT on what looks likely to be their FTTH service records a median download of 45.7 Mbps, Sure had no obvious FTTH tests so reports very ADSL2+ type speed with a median download of 10.5 Mbps.
The peak versus off-peak table makes its regular appearance and is important since broadband testing is not just about the top speed, and comparing time of day speeds helps to give an idea of the overall performance, for example if a provider has a melt-down month in terms of performance it should reveal itself in this data.
|Peak and Off-Peak Download Speed Tests Results November 2016|
|7am-3pm||6pm-midnight||% difference||7am-3pm||6pm-midnight||% difference|
|BT||21.5 Mbps||22.4 Mbps||+4%||24.5 Mbps||24 Mbps||-2%|
|EE||10.1 Mbps||8.9 Mbps||-13.5%||11.4 Mbps||10.4 Mbps||-9.6%|
|Plusnet||16.7 Mbps||14.9 Mbps||-12%||18.3 Mbps||18.3 Mbps||0%|
|Sky||11.6 Mbps||10.1 Mbps||-14.8%||14 Mbps||13.2 Mbps||-6%|
|TalkTalk||10 Mbps||9.4 Mbps||-6.4%||11.2 Mbps||12.1 Mbps||+7.5%|
|Virgin Media||40.9 Mbps||28 Mbps||-46%||55.1 Mbps||44.7 Mbps||-23%|
The peak versus off-peak table always causes some angst, and illustrates very nicely why providers are so keen to recommend testers that don't do any quality comparisons at all, and throw increasing numbers of threads at issues to try and ensure the connection speed is reported rather than the actual user experience. Of course with any median or mean speed reporting for a provider, an individuals experience is likely to vary but the table does give a quick comparator among the larger providers. We also track a stability metric which is based on an analysis of every speed test and interestingly Virgin Media is down towards the mobile and Wi-Fi based operators, hopefully in coming months we will share this comparison too.
With the broadband USO going through the slow process to law it seems a good time to review things like the pricing of phone lines for those that don't have a broadband service and particularly the elderly and vulnerable.
Ofcom has announced a consultation on a landline price review, regular readers will know that in the past when line rental pricing was visible we would often highlight when it rose in price that the wholesale element had remained steady or had dropped. An additional point is that some operators have reduced the care level applicable (in this case it means repairs may be a day slower) to phone lines they rent, thus saving a small amount of money per line while in many cases the retail line rental price still increased.
The email sent out at 7am today contained the paragraph 'The consultation relates to wholesale prices that BT can charge other telecoms providers to offer homes and businesses a telephone service over its copper network. We are seeking views on our proposed wholesale regulations by 28 February 2017' which seems a little odd given the downward trend in wholesale costs, but the full article suggests that an across the board price cut at wholesale or enforced margin rules at retail are not under consideration but rather 'Ofcom’s review will establish whether measures are needed to protect this group of customers. We are now analysing the market in detail and, depending on our findings, we expect to publish a consultation in early 2017.
The existing telephone USO means BT provide a Basic Telephone and broadband product with means testing for those on the lowest incomes, and at £5.10/m (including £1.50 of call allowance) this is below cost (£7.22/m + VAT), so one option may be to extend the group eligible for the product. Though at a time when the telecoms market is undergoing potentially massive upheaval the BT Group may not be keen to shoulder the full responsibility.
On one hand you could say the failure of Openreach and BT to address broadband needs of businesses that cannot afford or don't need all the features of an Ethernet based service has made it easy for CityFibre to corner this segment of the market. The other way is that given the announcement from CityFibre we can expect these 500 parks to rapidly gain native GEA-FTTP competition from Openreach.
CityFibre has a presence in some 40 UK cities and this roll-out to business parks will be extensions of its network giving ultrafast access to services at a fraction of previous options in many cases. The first parks expected to see work are located in Coventry, Bristol and Peterborough and as usual the access will be via the partner ISP who purchase from CityFibre on a wholesale basis.
"In last week's Autumn Statement we committed to investing another £1billion in the UK's digital infrastructure and to support the delivery of full-fibre broadband.
Fibre is the future, so today's announcement by CityFibre is another boost to help achieve our ambitious goals. It will give small businesses across the country access to fast and reliable broadband and encourage other emerging providers to scale up so we remain a world-leading economy.Minister of State for Digital and Culture Matt Hancock
It should be highlighted that this roll-out is nothing to do with the £1 billion mentioned in the autumn statement. The 22,000 SMEs that do business in the 500 business parks if you accept the figure of the UK having some 4.5 million small businesses is thus just a small fraction (0.5%) but still a very welcome additional option and until we know exactly which parks are involved it is impossible to say what proportion only have access at below 10 Mbps currently or any other metric.
CityFibre in its press release is keen to point out that its expansion plans amount to covering 100 cities by 2025, 'which would equate to fibre access for 60% of the UK’s businesses and 40% of the UK’s homes outside of London'. The 40% for homes is not in the usual sense of passing a home with fibre, i.e. pavement/pole based final drop point in place, so fibre just needs dragging across the garden, but is believed to be an aggregate for the cities where CityFibre will have its metro network and business services available.
The Internet may be resilient, but that resilience can often also mean a willingness to put up with the buffer symbol of doom. Residents and businesses whose traffic was reliant on JT in Jersey are experiencing a bad day as traffic is now routed via a single link to France after three fibre cables were severed in the English Channel by a ship that was dragging its anchor.
The break happened overnight and while teams have been dispatched to repair the fibre, this is going to be more complex than the usual sort of fibre splicing.
For business broadband users this is a salient reminder that your Internet access is often only one anchor or JCB digger away from disaster so having a backup solution in place that will allow you to continue working rather than haemorrhaging money is very important.
Disruption has both a power for good and for bad and Ofcom is hoping that the enforced legal separation of Openreach announced today will produce a national local loop operator that can invest MORE in pure fibre infrastructure and also improve customer service.
"Ofcom is pressing ahead with its plans to improve broadband and telephone services for people across the country, pursuing better service quality and encouraging greater investment in networks. Creating a more independent Openreach – which works in the interest of all providers, not just BT – is an important part of achieving this.
We are disappointed that BT has not yet come forward with proposals that meet our competition concerns. Some progress has been made, but this has not been enough, and action is required now to deliver better outcomes for phone and broadband users.
We are now preparing to notify the European Commission of our intention to implement these plans, requiring the legal separation of Openreach to make it more independent. Throughout this process, we remain open to BT bridging the gap between its proposal and what is required to address our strong competition concerns."Ofcom on split
One of the problems with old-school regulation is that it takes so long to make a decision and with the campaigning for Ofcom to carry out a split it feels like this has been going on for a couple of years, alas Ofcom is still holding out a small branch of peace to the BT Group.
Openreach will still be a fully owned subsidiary of BT Group, or put another way Ofcom has not gone for the most difficult option that was likely to be mired in years of legal battles where the only winners would be law firm profit margins. The evening before Ofcom published its decision the first ever Chairman of Openreach was announced, Mike McTighe who will take his seat in January and with eight years experience of Ofcom should be well used to the way the regulator works.
The legal separation does not mean the new Openreach is off the leash, it will remain a heavily regulated operation and possibly even more so, as decisions by the Openreach Board will be watched by Ofcom to ensure no undue influence from the BT Group exists.
The question moving forward now, is as a wholly-owned subsidiary how much new capital will Openreach have access to and with BT Consumer/BT Wholesale still its largest single customer by some margin how this will translate into influence on Openreach decisions.
The campaign by TalkTalk and partners is recognised by Ofcom announcing it received 90,000 identical submissions to the consultation and a further 4,000 non-standard responses with concerns over speeds, fibre availability and quality of service from various providers.
The massive unknown is whether this means a scrapping of G.fast and a pure fibre to the premises roll-out as Openreach adopts a 100% pure fibre future, but even if this was announced today the key would be the delivery timescale and the extra work involved is unlikely to resolve the complaints about service levels in the short to medium term. Alternatively it may be business as usual at the coal face, and existing roll-out plans announced will continue as it will take time to steer the ship down a different course.
Update 9.45am Sky has issued a response:
"Let's not forget why we are here - BT Openreach has continued to fail consumers. This is why we have always said that we want a solution that is clear and executable and in the best interests of consumers and industry. We will now watch closely as to how Ofcom executes its proposals."Sky spokesperson on legal separation
Update 1pm A statement from ITSPA arrived earlier, but was delayed while we ensured broadband package listings were up to date post Black Friday Sale.
"Members of ITSPA are pleased that Ofcom has so far held its ground in relation to both a voluntary plan from BT that didn’t address all their concerns, and the more radical calls for a riskier full separation. Whilst we are aware of the range of opinions across the industry, and indeed amongst some members of ITSPA, in our opinion the proposals have a chance of delivering the fastest and least disruptive reforms to Openreach’s practices. This should result in improvements in Ofcom’s performance, service levels and reduce costs for both individuals and businesses in the UK.
Despite ITSPA’s support and preference for legal separation, the option of full structural separation should not be completely ruled out if the reformed Openreach still suffers from the same issues regarding performance as it did prior to legal separation."Eli Katz, Chair of ITSPA
TalkTalk may not have changed its monthly prices as part of its Black Friday Sale but until the end of 28th November 2016 the fibre setup fee of £25 has been removed. If you are ordering a TV service you also benefit from a free TV box, i.e. the £50 setup fee has vanished for a few days.
The offers continue, with Hyperoptic offering 20% off their normal offers if you add the promo code BLACK9 during checkout.
With the offer it means if you are chasing the broadband only offers, the products are all based around a 12 month contract.