The UK Government has announced that everyone will have access to 'high-speed’ broadband by the end of the decade – by which they mean 10Mbit bandwidth, already considered reasonably geriatric in comparison to many other countries. It is also an objective which still has to be open to a particular question: will they get it at all, let alone reliably?
This is an important question, for its answer may decide the long term future of business and economic development in the UK for many years to come. What is done in terms of core telecoms infrastructure over the next couple of years is going to be crucial, not least because so many businesses already depend on highspeed internet for their existence, but also because the vast majority of those that don’t – yet – will do by the turn of the decade.
Yet recent evidence on the core infrastructure of the telecoms network suggests that it may be not just friable, but being held together by a wing and a prayer. What is worse, because that infrastructure is under the control of individual businesses, its efficacy is geared to their profit margins.
If the Government’s goal is to be achieved then the entire infrastructure of the national communications network needs to become a national project, managed centrally, rather than be left to the short-term whims of bean counters and management accountants.
In fact, something similar to the muscle being put behind the HS2 rail program.
There are, it has to be said, plans afoot that would seem to point to such a development. The Government announced in September the creation of a National Infrastructure Commission. Its ability to assess any infrastructure investment in telecoms or IT infrastructure requirements has to be called into question, however.
Firstly, the Commission is to be led by Lord Adonis, the pioneer of HS2 when Secretary for Transport in Transport in the last Labour Government and recently appointed as a non- Executive Director of HS2.
It is interesting to note that none of the other members of the Commission have any connection or apparent knowledge of or background in telecommunications or IT. The nearest might be Lord Heseltine, who, as a magazine publishing company owner, must be assumed to understand some of the issues with online publishing.
This has to be seen as a significant weakness given that the importance of telecoms and IT to the future development of the UK – both economically and culturally - cannot really be over-stated.
This bias towards HS2 is also to be regretted because its cost – estimated at £43 billion by the Department of Transport, but a whacking £80 billion total cost by the Institute of Economic Affairs – would be unlikely to yield the RoI that investments in digitalisation might bring.
For example, a recent study by Oxford Economics, admittedly for Virgin Media Business with its obvious vested interest in such things, suggested that increased spending on digital capabilities could add up to £27 billion to UK plc’s revenues. The poll suggests that the total benefit could top £90bn, with 1.1 million new jobs added.
Point Topic, which claims to be the primary web source for DSL, FTTx, cable and other broadband supplier and user statistics, suggests that the rest of the world is turning to fibre optic delivery of internet services at a rapid rate, now accounting for 40% of all fixed broadband connections. The company makes the important observation that FTTH (Fibre To The Home) is now the accepted option for emerging nations and command economies.
This gives significant performance advantages over FTTN (Fibre To The Network), which in most countries is already delivering 30G/bit bandwidths to end users. So the aim of delivering just 10G/bits to everyone in four years’ time is set to put the UK at a serious disadvantage to even nations with currently small economies.
With heavily digitalised businesses, such as banking and financial services, the ability to trade fast is far more important than to trade from a geographical location. Such nations and economies could therefore prove to be quite attractive to such companies over the next decade.
Fibre, meet home
Mention of FTTH points to one of the serious weak points in the UK. The last mile – or last few miles in most cases often still consists of ancient, now crumbling aluminium cabling. It is often un-ducted, with no more to protect it than armoured sheathing, buried straight into the ground. The management of this is still largely reactive, with specific repairs only being done as a last ditch response to specific failures.
This is usually conducted by the BT spin-off, Open Reach which, it has to be said, has garnered a reasonably poor reputation for its work. To be fair, that maybe as much down to how much the service providers are prepared to pay to have a service at all, as to any specific failings of Open Reach itself.
The state of the core telecoms infrastructure was highlighted in the recent story by Steve Cassidy in Alphr. The `escape clause’ statement has to be made here that it may just be coincidentally bad luck that what Cassidy discovered on his jaunt into the bowels of telecoms infrastructure are just a one-off and everything else in the garden is rosy. It is, however, likely that such thoughts should be given little credence.
Cassidy tells of poor quality cabling, bare wires showing at connectors and cabling jammed into electrically noisy locations. Couple this with the fact that while much of the last mile wiring is aluminium, the DSL protocols used are designed to work specifically with copper wiring. That combination puts reliability and decent bandwidth at instant threat, especially if the bandwidth is raised:
While walking through the tunnels, we passed BT-owned infrastructure that looked like it had been installed by Alexander Graham Bell. I doubt that many people think about the number of joints in the wire between their DSL wall socket and the hardware in the exchange, but fewer still would expect those joints to be bare wire wrapped around little slotted screws, sitting just beneath a cast iron sewage pipe.
If such descriptions are even remotely typical, the need for a nationwide rebuild of the core telecoms infrastructure is essential if the Government objective of 10G/bit broadband for everyone is to mean anything more than just saying the words.
And it needn’t cost the earth, especially in running costs. Cassidy writes of the company that organised his viewing of such sights, Vision Fibre Media, as using rack systems capable of serving the needs of some 2,000 premises. The key to the technology is the use of a 3M manufactured planar optical splitter, which comes with the key advantage of not requiring an electrical supply to do its work:
This rewrites the budget required to get people connected, and uses connection methods that are likely to have a much longer service life and provide far more easily diagnosed failure modes – more so than the current copper nightmare inflicted by BT.
There, of course, is one of the key advantages of making investment in the telecoms and IT infrastructure: by its very nature it gets both more functionally rich and cheaper to buy/install/manage/update over time. By contrast railways tend towards the opposite.
Meanwhile, HS2 will cost God alone knows how many billions to get a few hundred thousand people a year to Birmingham or Leeds – and in the case of Birmingham then waste the 20 minutes journey time saved by trying to get from a different station in the city to the New Street area where all the businesses are based.
Set that against a proper broadband capability could be servicing the needs of hundreds of thousands every minute. And it could be doing it all around the country, not just between London and a couple of major northern conurbations. That one fact - `all around the country’ – would also do far more for the Government’s aspiration to build a `northern powerhouse’, and do it far cheaper and more quickly than HS2 could ever achieve.
Giving HS2 a decent burial and spending the money elsewhere is such an obvious strategic investment plan that it therefore seems almost logical for the Government to appoint 25% of the National Infrastructure Commission members from within the HS2 camp.
Why is it logical? Well, throughout history, our beloved (and not so beloved) leaders have ordered built imposing buildings, churches, monuments and the rest, many often named after their `creator’. Whatever we think of them - eyesore, folly, or thing of beauty - there they stand forever, reminding us of the name of the individual responsible for it.
The internet, on the other hand, in invisible. Not only that, only a scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, has been able to claim any universal acknowledgement for creating any part of it. So, because the internet cannot be `seen’ – or worshipped and adored – no politicians worth their salt are going to put a moment’s effort into its development, for there is nothing to be left standing, tall and proud, as an obvious, visible testament to their individual glory.
Maybe this is something we should all work at changing. Perhaps there should be a public outcry for the capacity to download 10 Hollywood blockbusters, or one humungous data dataset, in under a minute to be named a `Javid’, after our current Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills & President of the Board of Trade.
It is likely to take recognition of that type to move anyone in power to take the bull by the horns and see that, by comparison to the nationwide benefits which investment in the development of internet infrastructure in the UK can achieve, the planned HS2 railway line is but a flea bite on the backside of a sheep in the Staffordshire countryside. And a bloody expensive flea bite to boot.