BT and Virgin Media challenge Birmingham’s Broadband deployment

BBC News are reporting that incumbent high speed broadband providers BT and Virgin Media have launched a legal challenge to Birmingham City Council’s proposed independant Superfast Broadband Network.

The city has successfully applied for EU state aid to build network into underserved areas of the city, aligned with the Council’s regeneration plans for those areas. Virgin contest that it is “overbuilding” on their existing network footprint, and as such is unnecessary, effectively using EU subsidy to attack their revenue stream.

Broadband campaigner Chris Conder, one of the people behind the B4RN project, says that this is a case of VM and BT trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted.

It’s going to be an interesting and important test case.

DSL Diary – 18/10/12

You may have read my post regarding a spell of degradation on my home internet access – Interleaves on the Line?

The other recent addition to my home network is a RIPE Atlas probe – this is part of a large scale internet measurement project being run by the RIPE NCC. One of the advantages of hosting a probe is that you get access to the measurements running from your probe, and you can also get the collection platform to email you if your probe becomes unreachable for a long period.

As it turned out, my probe appeared to be down for half an hour last night, but I know I was using the internet connection just fine at that time, so maybe I’ll put that down to interruption between the probe and the collection apparatus?

Well, the current status is that the line has been up for seven days now, at just over 3Mb/sec, Interleaving off.

Still not the fastest connection, but at least it now seems to be more stable.

One thing I’ll keep my eye open for is if the line goes back to Interleaved, as the Atlas probe should show up the difference in latency that you get with Interleaving enabled.

Seasonal ADSL retraining: Interleaves on the line?

While I was away at the RIPE 65 meeting in Amsterdam last week, my home DSL went down. I suspected that the router and the exchange equipment had got into some crazy state where packets are massively errored, but sync isn’t lost, so there’s no retraining. The only way of recovering is to bounce the adsl interface on the router, either in software, or unplugging from the phone line. Occasionally, since moving, this happens, and seems to be related to the weather, which had been very wet and windy at the start of the week.

Since moving, I live toward the edge of the coverage of my exchange, the line length is estimated to be about 4km, and it has to get across a EM noise ridden town centre and an electrified railway line or two to get here. Both of which are potential factors that influence one’s line speed. It’s delivered overhead from the nearby pole on a dropwire, while the rest is UG, though that shouldn’t have any significant issue.

Initially, syncing at around 5Mb with Interleaving, but retraining several times a day the line eventually settled down to run stable without Interleave at around the 3Mbit mark, which is okay for most things other than TV streaming, but we’re not a Netflix kind of household, so don’t really mind.

My unfailingly patient girlfriend (who also needed to use the internet connection) reset the line, things retrained, and we were off again.

However, when I got home, I found the performance seemed a bit slow, so I checked the router. The line speed had dropped to sub 2.5Mb/sec, with Interleave on.

After a couple of retrains over the last few days, the speed has crept back up and following an “invasive line test” via, which forces a drop and regotiate it’s now syncing again at 3M, but still with Interleave – which is no great loss to me as I’m not a huge online gamer these days.

(Now realising that’s a way of forcing a remote reset when it’s got into a heavily errored state but hasn’t lost sync. Handy when I’m away and there’s no-one in to pull the plug.)

So, this is not the first time I’ve had fun with the line since moving. During the recent spell of hot weather, things would run fine until there was a sudden cooling, such as rapid cloud cover or a heavy shower, at which point the connection would drop and need to be nudged to renegotiate.

It’s got me wondering if the line is affected by a dry joint or degraded cable somewhere along the way.

Doing a ‘17070’ and quiet line test, it’s got a faint “shushing” noise, rather than total silence, and I did just notice what seemed to be “crosstalk” of ringing current (a faint “click-click, click-click”) for a few seconds.

Not sure whether to argue the toss with BT to get them out to give the line the once over (but risk having an indifferent BTO engineer make it worse rather than better), or just give in and go FTTC, despite the fact I’m 3 months into a 1 yr tenancy and FTTC has 1 yr minimum term and can’t cope with you moving house (yet!).

Update, 5/10/12:

Had a chat with my old man about this. He’s a retired BT engineer, so generally knows his stuff about copper plant. Agreed with the likelihood of it being a dry joint and/or the possibility of their being other dry joints in the same cab/DP with a shared earth, given that the “click-click” of ringing current is sometimes audible over a quiet line test.

His suggestion: Phone BT until they are sick to death of you and keep asking for either the joints on your existing routing to be re-made, or a new routing to be provided.

Superfast Broadband Roundup – 19th September

Surrey County Council have advised that they have awarded their “final third” superfast broadband deployment to BT. The contract is worth around £33m.

It’s worth noting that the SCC deployment is being done seperately from the BDUK umbrella, and it’s been revealed BT were bidding against two other independant contractors, as opposed to their usual BDUK bidding rivals Fujitsu.

If you fancy being the person who manages the BT deployment in Surrey, they are currently seeking a Programme Director to run the show. I’m not sure what happened to the last occupant of the role, if there was one?

Of course, one advantage of going with BT for this deployment is that assuming BT in the main use their existing FTTC/FTTP service models, it shouldn’t be a problem for any ISP to deliver “superfast” service to homes and businesses on the Surrey deployment. It will be done using the same interconnects and some provisioning.

Compare that to more “bespoke” superfast networks such as Digital Region, which had been viewed as unattractive to work with because of the additional overheads for a consumer ISP of dealing with their processess and provisioning systems, in addition to the “defacto” wholesale broadband providers such as Be/O2 and the ubiquitous BT.

So, while I was at the IX Leeds meeting last week, I was interested to hear of a new service from Fluidata, which aims to solve the problems commonly associated with delivering service over multiple local access wholesalers, which they are calling “Stop@Nothing”.

Their plan is to offer a wholesale “middleman” service, interconnecting to various local access networks, both national (such as BT and O2) and regional (such as Digital Region), among others, and being able to deliver these over an inter-regional backhaul network to the ISP on a common pipe (or pipes), and provide a common API to the ISP for provisioning, regardless of which last mile network is delivering service to the customer premises.

I can see this helping the ISPs in two ways – potentially doing away with the time and cost implications of integrating a new wholesale broadband provider platform into your own provisioning processes and systems, and in giving ISPs who don’t have any local presence cheaper access to regional projects (such as Digital Region), without the risk of building into the area – maybe this becomes something can be done later if volume warrants it. It potentally also gets around issues such as minimum order commitments from individual ISPs, as these are aggregated behind the Fluidata service.

I haven’t got a clue how cost effective Fluidata’s product will be, as I’ve not seen any pricing for it. I can only assume that it’s competitive or they wouldn’t be doing it.

Meanwhile, the group of determined farmers and country-dwelling folk behind B4RN in the North West continue doing their own thing, their own way, and have recently been digging into a local church hall in Abbeystead:

There’s a whole series of videos on their YouTube channel about how they are progressing and details on the physical elements of their infrastructure such as digs and fibre installs.

The Importance of Transparent Internet Access

Those of you following the UK tech press, or are affected Virgin Media customers, will be aware of an issue that had been affecting some VM users’ access to the Internet.

There was no apparent rhyme or reason to the websites which failed, and in some cases, the site itself may have been working, but made very slow because other collateral hosted on third-party sites (e.g. performance measurement and marketing tools) were unreachable, or very slow.

One of the most memorable articles is the one which contained the comment “The people in the call centre are extremely dumb and it’s like talking to a tree.” (ISP Review).

Much speculation has been directed at some new or changed traffic management, traffic shaping, filtering, or deep-packet inspection (DPI) going awry inside Virgin Media’s network. It’s well known that Virgin Media apply traffic management in their network, such as “clamping” the bandwidth available to super-heavy users who use more than what VM consider a fair share of the bandwidth.

The concern many (especially the various public rights’ groups) have is that the desire some authorities have to increase the amount of monitoring, blocking access to “undesirable sites”, and logging and retaining things such as email conversations, will only serve to increase the amount of unusual, irregular, and hard to trace, service problems such as these.

One thing to bear in mind is that the technology being used in DPI is still an evolving science. This means it has warts and all. I’ve seen DPI devices mangle packets in transit – including packets which shouldn’t have been touched by the DPI, but allowed to pass unhindered – so badly that they were undeliverable to their intended destination.

It seems likely that this is what’s happened here, so it’s not a load of arm-waving about a hollow concern that’s being raised by those who don’t believe in DPI. There’s a real threat here – of unreliability and incorrectly filtered traffic – to legitimate Internet use.

Which brings me on to every cloud having a silver lining, as they say.

In this case, privately owned North West-based provider Zen Internet decided it was time to highlight the Zen approach to Traffic Management – No Throttling, No Squeezing – issuing a news release explaining how they operate a transparent network, with no DPI, and an open, fair and easy to understand pricing policy for internet access, with no complex rules or hidden gotchas.

Good for them.

Disclosure: I am a (happy) Zen Internet customer, they keep my folks’ home online, and do a very good job of it. It just works. I’m also potentially moving to an area where it seems the only high-speed broadband available might be Virgin Media. I spent about half-an-hour trying to work out how their obtuse and opaque pricing structure worked and which was the right “bundle” for me before giving up and hitting the bottle. I’d rather know that what I’m paying for is reliable and unfettered, if slower.

DR still in the doldrums – An Open Letter to Digital Region

A few months ago, I wrote about what I percieved to be going wrong with Digital Region, the local-authority backed superfast broadband wholesale network in South Yorkshire.

It seems that matters have not improved since then: a Sheffield-based hosting company, KDA, has written an Open Letter to Digital Region, which pretty much confirms that everything which was true several months ago is still true today, and goes on to suggest that there’s enough experience and skill in the tech community in South Yorkshire to turn this around, if only those in charge were willing (able?) to change tack and allow the community to steer the organisation.

It’s also alluded that a cut-price disposal of the network assets, which should rightly be the South Yorkshire taxpayer’s, for a cut-price may already be in hand, and that a failure of DR will be associated generally with the South Yorkshire tech industry, tarring it’s (generally good) reputation.

DR shouldn’t be the way it is – DR should be more agile than the large telcos, and find it easier to be more focused on the needs of the local userbase, but it isn’t. It seems to be strangled by inflexibility and bureaucratic behaviour, which needs to change if it’s to survive, and deliver the promise that the local authorities set out to achieve. But, at the moment, I’m doubtful that this will happen. The peppercorn sell-off probably feels like an easy way out, however much it’s short-changing South Yorks residents and business in the process.

You can read the full text of the Open Letter here.

Regional Broadband, the Lords Select Committee and Google Fibre in the UK

Some of you may be aware of the Google Fibre project which is an experimental project to  build a high-speed FTTH network to the communities in Kansas City. They chose Kansas City from a number of different communities who responded to Google’s “beauty contest” for this pilot, because they had to pick just one and felt that it would have the greatest effect and be the best community to work with.

Like many other Community Broadband projects, Google point out that what the large incumbent telcos sell as “high speed internet” is seldom “high speed” at all, and is commonly sub 4Mb/sec. Google estimate that during the pilot, the cost of works for lighting up each subscriber premises may be as much as $8000 – though this is cheaper than the £10000 that it’s rumoured to cost to deploy high speed broadband to a rural subscriber in the UK.

So, this got me thinking, what could Google potentially bring to the UK with a similar sort of project?

It strikes me that one of the ways that Google could help the most is by facilitating the existing community benefit-based FTTC/FTTH groups to build networks in their communities, which right now can be frustrated by lack of access to public money from the super-fast broadband deployment fund (aka BDUK).

A significant amount of BDUK money is going to BT as the incumbent, or needs complex joint-venture constructs (such as Digital Region – though that was not a BDUK-funded project), because these organisations firstly have whole departments dedicated to handling the paperwork required to bid for the public funding, and secondly because they have a sufficiently high turnover to bid for a sufficient amount of public money to deliver the project. These are hurdles to community led companies, who will most likely just drown in the paperwork to bid for the funding, may not have all the necessary expertise either on staff or under contract, and likely don’t have the necessary turnover to support the application for the funding.

Meanwhile, the House of Lords Communications Select Commitee have issued this request for evidence (.pdf) in respect of an inquiry into whether the Government’s Super-fast Broadband strategy (and the BDUK funding) is going to be able to repair “digital divides” (and prevent new ones), deliver enough bandwidth where it’s needed, provide enough of a competitive market place in broadband delivery (such as a competitive wholesale fibre market), and generally “do enough”.

Could this be where Google enters stage left? As opposed to running the project in it’s entirety, they partner up – managing things such as the funding bid process on behalf of the communities, possibly acting as some sort of guarantor in place of turnover, as well as providing technical knowhow and leveraging their buying power and contacts?

This would at least give an alternative route to super-fast broadband. Right now, BT are winning a lot of the County Council led regional/rural fast broadband deployment projects, sometimes because they are the only organisation able to submit a compliant bid.

It remains to be seen if the money will benefit the real not-spots, or just prop-up otherwise marginal BT FTTC roll outs. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve no axe to grind with BT, but is the current situation, with little or no competition, ultimately beneficial to the communities that the awarded funding is purporting to benefit?

This is certainly one of the questions the House of Lords enquiry is looking to answer.

Regional Broadband – The Hidden Danger of Uber-projects

It was revealed this week that Digital Region, the centrally funded (to the tune of £90m – mostly public money) superfast broadband initiative in South Yorkshire is facing tough times, in particular a £9.2m loss on a revenue of only £167k (which only just pays the last CEO’s £100k salary – they are currently seeking a new CEO, one assumes to manage a turnaround).

The Yorkshire Post article goes on to explain another £4m of public funds have been ringfenced as a “security”, and that the four participating councils, already under budget pressure from Central Government austerity, may need to as much as £500k per year to secure the operations of Digital Region if the loan can’t be repaid. Is that throwing good money after bad, or is the situation redeemable?

This highlights my belief that these large centrally funded uber-projects contain a more significant risk of failure, and not of delivering the right product. The larger organisations that are able to bid and win such projects can come with higher overheads compared to the smaller community projects such as those serving areas with poor existing broadband service, who have a relatively captive and supportive market, and benefit from a tighter focus – for instance Rutland Telecom’s pioneering FTTC with unbundled sub-loop in Lyddington, which is using the same basic FTTC tech as DR is using, but on a smaller scale and in relative isolation.

The larger scale of the Digital Region deployment obviously needed a much bigger income to support the aggressive build and provisioning costs, along with what looks like a complex structure, and now that revenue hasn’t been realised. As can be seen on the DR website, and highlighted on the ThinkBroadband article, very few ISPs use the DR infrastructure to deliver service and is maybe one of the reasons they aren’t making their targets.

You have to ask yourself why this is? Continue reading “Regional Broadband – The Hidden Danger of Uber-projects”

Broadband Blindness in North America

B4RN‘s Chris Conder tweeted this interesting ~30 minute video from a producer in Sacramento, CA, on the limitations experienced on broadband in the US, and how the large telcos appear to be failing rural communities, and that deployments of their fastest products tend to be only available in “boutique” (usually high income) areas.

It highlighted how the large telcos found it hard to invest in deploying high speed broadband to sparse communities because of the conflict between affordably delivering a service and paying a shareholder dividend.

The video also spoke to some local community broadband companies in the US who, like B4RN are going their own way, and investing in their own future.

Good quality internet access is starting to become as essential to modern life as a stable electrical supply or safe, drinkable tap water. It’s becoming more of a utility and less of a consumer product.

Rural DIY Broadband: B4RN Launches

A few months ago, I’d blogged about B4RN, a community-led rural ultra-fast broadband project in my home county of Lancashire.

Today, they are holding a launch event in Lancaster to signify that they have reached their target number of interested parties who have committed to sign up for the service, and to announce they will be issuing shares in the organisation. I know the folks from ThinkBroadband are at the launch today, so expect to see some reporting from them shortly.

It’s heartening to look at this sea of raised hands from the community meeting – so many people putting their faith in their own community’s ability to organise and do this for themselves, rather than waiting for a centrally funded project that might not help them.

This is great news. I’d said before that DIY was the most realistic option for some of these regional communities. Fantastic stuff.