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The other way to provide broadband for everyone
Tuesday 31 July 2012 08:27:50 by Andrew Ferguson

The future of the UK Broadband landscape had its last major change in 2009 when the Digital Britain report was published, and the current BDUK projects are the visible legacy from that report. A House of Lords Select Committee was created in early 2012 to report on the progress of Superfast service roll-outs in the United Kingdom, and a large batch of evidence was released in April 2012. Now the final report entitled Broadband for all - an alternative vision has been published, and we have gone through the report to see what changes are proposed.

"110. We recommend that future broadband policy should not be built around precise speed targets end-users can expect to receive in the short-term, however attractive these may be for sloganeers.

114. We anticipate and recommend that policy should be ultimately directed towards universal, point-to-point FTTP as this is a technology not only able to accommodate current demand, but at current rates of growth, will be able to accommodate the UK’s bandwidth demands for many decades to come.

115. In this sense, we recommend that the Government should set out an even bolder vision for broadband policy than is currently the case.

116. Given the impossibility, with current constraints on resources, of rolling out universal point-to-point FTTP, we recommend that Government policy should, as an intermediate step, aim to bring national fibre-optical connectivity—which would include, as a minimum, fully open access fibre back haul—within the reach of every community. This will provide the platform from which basic levels of service can be provided to all, and an improved service where there is sufficient demand."

Key Points from House of Lords Select Committee on Communications Report

The report backs a different approach to the one that the current Government and the BDUK are taking, but it is one originally mentioned some years ago, and that is the creation of an extensive network of open access fibre optic hubs in each community across the UK. Alas while the report acknowledges figures on the costs for FTTC (fibre-to-the-cabinet)and FTTP (fibre-to-the-premises) across the whole of the UK, no ball-park estimates are given for how many hubs will be built and what their cost will be. The vision is presented as a UK wide one, with talk of over time the fibre hubs reaching deeper into the communities. This suggests that it will create more choice in the cities first before building out to the harder to reach rural communities, which unfortunately is not unlike the failed models that have gone before. Open access to dark fibre is the new key attraction.

So what would this fibre hub provide? Well basically a cabinet in a community, with lots of dark fibre, that can be rented to provide backhaul for local infrastructure projects or a national operator to help connect up their local fibre access. The vision being that this will be significantly cheaper than existing fibre services that are available across the UK, making it more economical to deploy FTTP. This noble cause while extremely attractive does lack any financial analysis, on either the costs to deploy these, who pays for them and any form of guarantee that local networks would be built.

One of the delays with EU State Aid rules and the BDUK projects is the inability to physically unbundle the FTTC and FTTP services from Openreach, whether the same is true with Fujitsu (the other BDUK provider) is unknown. With Openreach, Ofcom imposed a VULA (Virtual Unbundling) requirement, the implementation of which is GEA (Generic Ethernet Access) that TalkTalk and Sky use, thus allowing them to utilise their fibre backhaul networks and provide services that do not rely on the BT Wholesale WBC network.

One area that the House of Lords is highly critical of the BDUK and those behind the process, is the confusion over the labelling of 'Superfast Broadband'. There have been figures of '20 Mbps', '24 Mbps' and '30 Mbps' all being bandied about and various 'up to', 'at least', and 'more than' qualifiers being used. Interestingly rather than recommend a different figure, the committee wants more of the focus to not be on a target speed, but on the minimum speed that a service will deliver and how this compares to the median.

A great many have said in the past that the Universal Service Commitment speed is something they disagree with and instead they believe that the government's 2 Mbps USC should be replaced with a much faster 20 Mbps speed. The House of Lords has looked at the issue of a USO (Universal Service Obligation) versus a USC, but has fallen onto the side of the USC, largely because they can foresee long legal battles over getting any broadband USO passed into law.

Will this report change anything in the UK? It is very unlikely even if adopted now as the correct vision for how broadband should be provided in the 21st Century in the UK that it would have any affect for around five to ten years. Funding a new fibre infrastructure, creating the networks, and once built, physical infrastructure providers actually connecting homes and businesses to it would be a long term project, and would not help those with a desperate need of a better broadband connection. The three largest problems facing the fibre hub idea are:

  1. Getting the big name providers on-board
  2. Whether it will address the needs of those with poor broadband first, or just provide another option to those who already can choose between Virgin Media and Openreach infrastructure.
  3. How many hubs would be needed to cover the UK

Alas the House of Lords, whilst coming to the conclusion that the fibre hub is a good alternative, has not evaluated the scale and costs of doing this. At the crudest level, Openreach already has around 5,500 fibre hubs in communities in the form of telephone exchanges, and has run fibre out to some 20,000 street cabinets. There are another 65,000 Openreach street cabinets that currently only provide copper services. Estimates emerging on the cost per cabinet suggest for Openreach it is around £30,000 to £40,000 for each one. The UK may have over 4,500 villages, but those with the worst broadband often live in settlements that don't count as a village, or live so far away that a hub placed centrally will do little to improve broadband access. Unless thousands of communities can repeat the B4RN model of digging the local network themselves, buying shares and/or donating labour we don't see this alternate vision proceeding very far.


Posted by camieabz over 4 years ago
Say 65,000 at £35,000 each, that's £2.275 billion, which is a drop in the ocean compared to how monies are currently directed. Over four years, that would be £569 million per year, or less than ten quid for each person in the UK per year. Even with 74% take up (2011 stats), that's £15 per broadband user per year, or £1.25 per month. Easy!
Posted by andrew (Favicon staff member) over 4 years ago
Simplez then, and what magically happens when 65,000 new cabinets are installed? Is there no funding for the final mile of connectivity? FTTC still needs another cabinet, so looking at wireless or fibre dig costs.

Nice idea, an old one, but not enough detail to take it seriously.
Posted by camieabz over 4 years ago
I appreciate that. :)

I was suggesting that the broadband punters can easily take the cab costs. The fibre dig costs might be one way for the government to help kick-start the economy. A few hundred thousand previously unemployed young adults, getting fit, and earning a wage can't be bad.

There's a lot of merit in the B4RN model, but I feel the local councils would get in the way of things for many semi-rural areas.

Do I dig holes? Mmm. They're not bad ;)
Posted by andrew (Favicon staff member) over 4 years ago
How much do you bet on this national infrastructure roll-out finishing by 2018? If started now, and would the rural cabinets be done first, though where they would link to no-one knows.
Posted by camieabz over 4 years ago
Perhaps there's scope for using existing pipes and/or sewers where practicable. In fact, given the potential savings, both in cost, and time I wonder why the select committee wasn't aware of that (or made aware of that by others)?
Posted by New_Londoner over 4 years ago
This smack cf something driven with too much input from academics, consultants and other lobbyists, and not enough from the real-world. The reference to point-to-point fibre being a case in point (no pun intended)!

Rather than lots of hand wringing etc, how about looking at the practicalities. For example, lovely though B4RN is, how many premises have been connected to date? How many additional premises now have access to FTTC if required in the meantime?
Posted by New_Londoner over 4 years ago
And as to the nonsensical fibre hubs, what about the back haul? Who will connect the last mile? All very well in the countryside through farmers' fields (assuming the CLA ever get their act together), but what about in towns. I bet the local authorities will be delighted if we all start digging trenches for our individual fibres!

Perhaps their Lordships should have another crack at this, but keep the theorists firmly at arms length next time.
Posted by cyberdoyle over 4 years ago
New Londoner, if B4RN had got funding or support the whole network would be built by now. The drawback to any community project is the time element, as rural people are always very busy. If contractors could have been paid it could have been built in a very short time, but in answer to your question one community is already ducted up, and fibre is being blown. The live date is fast approaching. Also many have access to BT fttc as you say, but the take up is abysmal, because they already have access to a connections sufficient for their present needs.
Posted by cyberdoyle over 4 years ago
The fibre hubs are not nonsense, the backhaul comes from the dark fibre in the hubs. It can and should be made affordable, then other communities could adapt the B4RN model. We need some competition. This isn't for urban areas, the incumbents will take care of their needs as they are profitable. The hubs are for the sparse populations, to give them the means to help themselves. Access to fibre will empower many altnets, and they will soon harvest customers from suburbia. market forces...
Posted by New_Londoner over 4 years ago
So no premises connected yet then? What stopped you bringing in contractors to get it done? Given your comment about market forces, I presume it wasn't the failure to get public funds from your local authority, must have been a lack of backing from private sector investors?
Posted by New_Londoner over 4 years ago

And is the cost per home passed affordable at national level? All very well to cover a thousand or so homes, what about 27 million premises across the UK?
Posted by GMAN99 over 4 years ago
Where do you even start with this "report" :)
Posted by Borisvon over 4 years ago
it just looks like more talking that should have been done 15+ years ago...
Posted by AndrueC over 4 years ago

Posted by New_Londoner over 4 years ago
As posted on ISP Review, applying the current B4RN cost per home nationally comes close to £21bn, and that’s assuming no need to employ contractors, no costs for way leaves to cross private land etc!

I’m much happier with the BDUK contribution for now thanks, let individuals pay to upgrade from FTTC to FTTP if they want it, can justify the cost.
Posted by fibrebunny over 4 years ago
Hubs, again? Given the bulk of costs and complications are in the last mile. I should have thought a reverse approach with aggregation points would have made more sense. Not that I can see much point in either. If you want an alternative network then construct an alternative local loop too. I suspect we shall just stick with what we have and the rather silly report shall be forgotten.
Posted by Somerset over 4 years ago
Who are the Engineers on the HoL committee?
Posted by jumpmum over 4 years ago
Fibre already exists at practically every exchange, how many have tried to set up a hub. It still costs to backhaul and then connect to the Internet at a peering point. Pointless having dark fibre available, you need to light it both ends and have the connectivity, every 1Ge ( or 10Ge) port costs.
Posted by herdwick over 4 years ago
The HoL were comprehensively taken in by Dr Peter Cochrane, peddling his uncosted unjustified academic vision of "how it should be". BT didn't listen to him when they employed him, and he hasn't delivered a demonstration solution in over 8 years.

This report comes after the BDUK horse has bolted.
Posted by Somerset over 4 years ago
'Access to fibre will empower many altnets, and they will soon harvest customers from suburbia. market forces...'

Do you mean access to connectivity (you still confuse service with media) at near zero cost?
Posted by GMAN99 over 4 years ago
I love CD's soundbites, just wish I understood what they actually mean. You should move into politics Chris
Posted by phildodd over 4 years ago
In rural locations we could do with fibre ( or radio ) for reliability. Lightning is the great destroyer via rural phone lines. Sensible people unplug everything when they go out for any length of time from a country premises. Installing fibre rurally is actually very easy, as the poles are already there, and no drilling up city streets is needed....
Posted by GMAN99 over 4 years ago
We already have poles in cities as well, I guess for obvious reasons its best to keep as much fibre underground as possible.
Posted by Somerset over 4 years ago
'lots of dark fibre'. How much and how it going to be funded?
Posted by asjonesmcguire over 4 years ago
Sigh @ New_Londoner - who is completely missing the point - rural areas tend not to have street cabinets and so cannot have FTTC, FFTP is the only available option.... in another 40 years or so....
Posted by New_Londoner over 4 years ago
No need to sigh. If there are no cabinets in rural areas, please explain how 90% of the population live within 1Km of one? It's not correct to say only 10% of the population live outside urban areas, so cannot be true that there are no cabinets either.
Posted by andrew (Favicon staff member) over 4 years ago
I'll go out on a limb and suggest that the report is down to the views of a small but vocal minority, and thus the other 98% of the UK population is expected to wait.

A real danger of the fibre hub for rural, is that if its only rolled out to the final 1 to 2% of households, it will be costly and never stand a chance of paying for itself.
Posted by AndrueC over 4 years ago
@andrew: Sounds like it needs government funds then. They seem to specialise in 'costly' and 'never pays for itself'. They can even turn a cheap and useful project into a white elephant.

Our taxes hard at work :(
Posted by mervl over 4 years ago
Surely, if we replace the telephone network, perhaps the "right" technical option, then all PTSN telephone line rentals need to increase to pay for it, as happens with all the other utility costs/subsidies. We can't increase public borrowing or taxation: one is economic the other political, suicide. I wouldn't accept a 2x or 3x my line rental so how about different local rentals based on cost? No, I thought not; if there were a national referendum I bet most people would vote for the status quo: a piecemeal approach within existing resources. Most people aren't on forums.
Posted by mervl over 4 years ago
There's a thought: your community wants FTTC/P in a non-commercial area, perhaps triggered by a petition to the Council with minimum signatures: BDUK funds support a viability exercise to obtain quotes and the level of rental and any subsidy available to pay for it. Put to a local referendum, and if line rental increase agreed by majority vote (or 75%) everyone's line rental in the relevant community (with appropriate contingency for those who may stop rental) is increased accordingly (+ inflation) to pay for it - net of the subsidy (if any)?
Posted by vicdupreez over 4 years ago
How much is that HS2 link between London and Birmingham costing us? £33 billion right... to shave 10 minutes off the current journey? Give the entire pollution fibre for that cash, and people all over the country would benefit...

Look at that trainey thing they build at Heathrow... what a waste that was too... The Avis driver tells me he has never seen anyone using it... bet that cost a few pounds...
Posted by undecidedadrian over 4 years ago
That's the problem with word of mouth and anecdotal evidence. It is usually wrong.

The Heathrow Express is ALWAYS busy and has taken a lot of pressure of the still busy picadilly line.

So what is a waste of time to some is vital to others and that is the same for this drark fibre project.
Posted by vicdupreez over 4 years ago
Not talking about the Heathrow express... that one is rather useful... I am talking about those stupid pod looking things that run from the rental car facilities to Terminal 5... No-one ever uses those...
Posted by vicdupreez over 4 years ago
My point is that the HS2 link will be useful for maybe 100k people... 200k at best... The amount of journeys per year is also a huge misnomer, since it would be the same people that will be riding back and forth... A national fibre broadband network for the same money would benefit millions... Every day...
Posted by camieabz over 4 years ago

It's arguable that with a massive investment of cash into FTTx instead of HS2, the benefits would be in a fraction of the time, and many who would commute might not need to after fibre is available.

Working from home with fast networks for all could become a thing of future for many. Congestion and rail usage drops, and the economy benefits there too (with the possible exception of rail passenger amounts).

I can never understand the politicians' inability to grasp this. Perhaps the players in both the transport and broadband industries don't want FTTx too soon.
Posted by GMAN99 over 4 years ago
As attractive as homeworking is ( I do it myself sometimes ) its not for everyone and obviously a lot of people simply can't do it as their job does not suit it
Posted by andrew (Favicon staff member) over 4 years ago
@ivdupreez the shuttle service you talk about only opened this year, and is only for those in the business car park. Not aware of any public money being spent on it.

Its not like the coaches from other car parks in area are constantly full either.
Posted by andrew (Favicon staff member) over 4 years ago
On HS2 versus FTTP, perhaps part of it is the heavy industry lobby, knowing they will benefit from the construction.

If the rail link reduced car/airplane travel then it may be worthwhile.

Homeworking while important, as GMAN99 has said is not for everyone. Being productive over a period of years takes dedication.
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