Communications (Voice and Data)

Introduction

The invention of the telephone was a milestone in communications technology.  Even though the first prototypes were developed in the 1870s, 100 years later, many people still did not own one and those that did, had limited use for it since there were hardly anyone to call.  As the infrastructure rolled out and prices came down, telephony became more affordable.

In 1991 when Tim Berners-Lee developed the WorldWideWeb, the pace of change started to accelerate.  Within a few years, the commercial web browser Netscape brought the Internet to the masses and mass communication was no longer limited to voice.

During the 1980’s advances were being made in mobile telephony, but since the phones were large and not very mobile, ownership was mostly restricted to business users.  However, during the 1990s a Norwegian company, Nokia developed a range of very portable handsets.  .  The pace of change moved up a gear.

Technological advances saw the convergence of voice and data when by the turn of the millennium it became possible to make voice calls over the Internet (VoIP).  Arguably, the competition introduced by VoIP, which was in effect delivering free phone calls, caused landline telephony call charges to be drastically reduced.

Today in 2021, fixed and mobile broadband are able to provide very similar services, however mobile tariffs are less affordable for many.

Broadband, the fourth utility

In 2016, I wrote that Broadband is no longer considered a luxury item and is the fourth utility.  Much has changed since I wrote that piece, and then nothing has changed.

Let me explain; Technology has moved on leaps and bounds, mobile Broadband in the shape of 5G is now a serious alternative to the fibre networks, as is satellite Broadband, but our needs have arguably increased at a faster rate.  The pandemic has accentuated that, with more people making video calls, searching the internet for COVID related information, shopping, watching, and listening to streaming services and much more.  What has not changed is Government’s inability to provide the infrastructure for us to make use of the technology.  As you can see by my 2016 comments, Government were even then making promises that it has not made good on.

My renewed interest in the national broadband infrastructure was driven by residents telling me their Broadband speeds were too slow to cope with modern demands.  During my research, I discovered that that the Prime Minister had visited Openreach’s Training Centre in Bolton in December to announce that the 2020 Spending Review contains a new £5bn UK Gigabit Broadband Programme.  In the 2019 Tory manifesto, they had said that “every home” would be able to access a 1Gbps capable connection by the end of 2025, but that pledge is being revised down, to a “minimum” of 85% coverage by that date.

Strategic Oversight

Clearly, the present Government are spending the money to improve the Broadband infrastructure, but why then after more than a decade of Conservative governments, is much of the nation still suffering from low bandwidth or some with no Internet access at all?  Nevertheless, it is understood that the demand for Internet access has to be continually growing, so what may be acceptable in 2010, will not be acceptable in 2020.

If Government has a strategy, it is not obvious.  I have been a councillor since 2006 and yet it was only after undertaking in–depth research that I realised that Government has given over some resources to Broadband rollout.  That said I have not yet discovered what their strategy is other than to believe that they are focusing their efforts on rural locations rather than everywhere.

I would suggest that one of the reasons for a lacking integrated communications infrastructure is lack of public oversight.  It is of little use making a pledge if details are not given as to how this will be achieved along with providing evidence of what has been achieved.  The public would at least expect to see an on-line Gigabit Broadband accessibility map showing areas of coverage, which by implication show the areas not yet covered, along with dates when coverage will be expected.

Building Digital UK

I have discovered that Building Digital UK is an offshoot of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.  My view is that a public sector company needs to be responsible for installing and maintaining the Broadband infrastructure, whatever the technology.  Maybe Building Digital UK is that organisation.  In any case, the national Broadband infrastructure strategy should be devolved down to local authorities.

Local authorities can then ensure that the different Gigabit Broadband technologies complement each other, recognising that mobile broadband can fill in the gaps where fibre optic cable has not been laid.  Those technologies are fibre optic cable, 5G mobile Broadband and DOCSIS® 3 cable.  Openreach are responsible for the fibre optic cable and arguably have largest share of the voice and data infrastructure.  Until the excellent news at the end of January 2021 that mobile Broadband providers, Three, O2 and Vodafone have formed a partnership (the Shared Rural Network), there were many voices for this particular technology.  That only leaves the other big player in this sector, Virgin Media who have their own voice and data solution, the DOCSIS® 3-cable infrastructure.

The Policy & Resources scrutiny committee of Hampshire County Council have invited Openreach and may invite SRN and Virgin Media.  Hampshire County Council already have a large contract with O2 so inviting them to attend the next Policy & Resources meeting representing SRN should be possible.

 By speaking to Government and these three groups, a way may be developed to ensure 100% Gigabit coverage for Hampshire by 2025.

Technology

As with all technology, the language is specific and needs to be understood.  Here are some of the basics;-

  • Broadband bandwidth is measured in bits per second (bps).  Less than 1Mbps is enough to run a web browser.  More than 1Mbps will permit video calling, but as the bandwidth is never static (because of the Contention ratio), anything less than 10Mbps does not ensure an interruption-free session.
  • FTTC or Fibre to the Cabinet is now regarded as the minimum network connection standard.  The Cabinets are to be found on roadside verges and will have an identifying number marked on them.  Copper cable is used to make the connection from the Cabinet to the premises.
  • FTTP or Fibre to the Premises is the ultimate landline standard where fibre optic cable connects the Cabinet to the premises.
  • Virgin Media has a rollout of FTTP and DOCSIS 3.1 technology (Cable).
  • 5G mobile Broadband is the fifth generation mobile communications standard and provides superior bandwidth to anything else commercially available.

Fixed Broadband (Fibre Optic Infrastructure)

Since 2006, BTOpenreach managed the nation’s wired communications infrastructure as well as interfacing directly with it residential customers.  Realising that this state of affairs was unsatisfactory, in 2016, the regulator Ofcom forced BT to create a wholly independent subsidiary, Openreach.  Although Openreach is a private company with shareholders, much of its income derives from Government grants.  One of the Ofcom requirements of Openreach is that it is forbidden to communicate directly with telecoms’ customers.

Although I do not as yet know Government’s strategy, I do have a reasonable idea what Openreach would like to see.  In late January 2021, they declared their intentions via The UK Digital Upgrade

They have produced a series of videos that are well worth watching.  I have included one of them below.  It is quite long at an hour, but very informative.

So, that is one landline technology taken care of.  Openreach install and maintain the bulk of the land based telecoms infrastructure that is increasingly becoming fibre optic cable and Internet Service Providers such as Sky, BT, Plusnet, etc., lease access to it.

Mobile Telecoms Infrastructure

However, the Internet can be accessed in other ways.  One of which is via the ether, broadcast from a network of communication masts.  Openreach does not have an equivalent mobile Broadband infrastructure supplier; instead, all the mobile telecoms operators act independently of each other.  That is until very recently when Three, O2 and Vodafone formed a partnership they are calling the Shared Rural Network (SRN).  Their strategy is to work with Government to fill in the so called “Not spots”.

https://srn.org.uk

http://www.three.co.uk/hub/the-shared-rural-network/

https://www.computerweekly.com/news/252495438/O2-Three-Vodafone-team-to-enhance-rural-mobile-coverage

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/shared-rural-network

An alternative to Fibre Optic Infrastructure

Virgin Media use the DOCSIS® 3 technology and a unique thicker insulated cable that runs from the cabinet to the premises and retains the speed regardless of the distance and represents a viable alternative to fibre optic cable.  Click on the following link to view their strategy https://www.virginmedia.com/corporate/sustainability/our-approach/our-approach-strategy

Government Policy

Utility companies play such an important part of our economy and indeed our society that public strategic oversight is a necessity.  Following the wholesale selling-off of previously nationalised industries in the 1980s, successive Governments have rather dropped the ball on this.  A very good example was Railtrack who were tasked with managing the nation’s rail infrastructure and which is now an arm’s length publicly owned organisation, Network Rail, because running it as a private enterprise failed due to the conflict of national good and the private investor.  At the same time, when public transport was privatised, at a stroke it became disintegrated.  What I mean by that is when you arrive at the destination of your rail journey, you would expect a bus to be waiting there to take you on the last leg of your journey home, but if public transport services are not integrated then rail to bus connections might only happen through happenstance.

It is a similar story for the national telecoms infrastructure.  Who is the organization tasked with integrating the various technologies used by disparate companies?  Currently, it can only be the Government Department of Digital, Communication, Media and Sports.  As its title suggests, this department is tasked with a number of subjects not directly related to the telecoms national infrastructure technologies.  As you have read in a preceding paragraph on technology, there are a number of different ways to access the Internet.

Policy paper Spending Review 2020 (SR20)

In December 2020, the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave his first spending review since 2018.  The following relates to promised spending on UK Broadband infrastructure with the spending review;-

4.1 Building a stronger future

£1.2 billion to subsidise the rollout of gigabit-capable broadband, as part of the government’s £5 billion commitment to support rollout to the hardest to reach areas of the UK

4.2 Levelling up and the Union

Through SR20, the government is investing to ensure that each place, whether rural or urban, is well connected, including:

  • Investing in local infrastructure, local transport and digital connectivity to ensure that the services people use most often are well maintained and accessible in all places.  This investment will transform bus services and cycling infrastructure, provide high-quality 4G mobile coverage and rollout gigabit-capable broadband across the UK

7.28 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

This includes a major investment in digital, making the UK economy more innovative and supporting levelling up across the UK:

  • £1.2 billion from 2021-22 to 2024-25 to support the rollout of gigabit-capable broadband across the UK, essential in an increasingly digital age for supporting the UK economy.  This is part of the government’s £5 billion commitment to support gigabit-capable broadband rollout to the hardest to reach areas of the UK
  • £50 million next year, as part of a £250 million commitment to building a secure and resilient 5G network
  • over £200 million UK-wide to continue flagship digital infrastructure programmes, including the Shared Rural Network for 4G coverage, Local Full Fibre Networks, and the 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme

Source:

Policy paper – Spending Review 2020

Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review

Questions

The good news is that £5bn is earmarked to improve UK wide internet connectivity, but the policy paper will drive many questions with respect to the detail.  Such as;-

  • How is the new £5bn UK Gigabit Broadband Programme funding to be distributed?
  • Will it be via local authorities and if so what is the bidding process?
  • Is the intention to provide Gigabit access to all, irrespective of technology or is the intention for a fibre optic cable only solution?
  • Considering that 5G mobile broadband is currently being rolled out around the UK, will this technology be used to compliment the fibre optic cable rollout?
  • In addition to wired and mobile solutions, is Satellite Internet access being considered as part of the programme?
  • What is the percentage UK coverage of each of the Broadband technologies?
  • It would seem logical to prioritise those areas that do not have any access to the internet, but exactly what is Government’s strategy and where are those areas?
  • The name of the initiative, the UK Gigabit Broadband Programme presupposes that the target is to give access to every UK household of Broadband speeds of 1Gigabit as a minimum.  How will that target be measured?
  • How many households currently have access to Gigabit internet, measured as a percentage?
  • Is there a webpage link accessible to the public that provides these statistics?
  • A previous Broadband scheme targeted rural communities, is the UK Gigabit Broadband Programme intended for urban communities as well and does that mean that FTTC households will be upgraded to FTTP?
  • Will copper networks be decommissioned and if so when?

Wireless Broadband

Once an Internet connection to the premises has been made, the next problem is connecting to your device.  By far the easiest way to do this is using Wi-Fi.  However, since the 1990s the technology has greatly changed.  Initially, the concern was mainly one of encryption.  The early versions were easy to access by a neighbour or by anybody passing by the premises.  Until recently, the different versions of the original IEEE standard were only denoted by a letter after 802.11, such as 802.11a for example.  The latest standard has seen a change of nomenclature and is known simply as Wi-Fi 6.  It is dual band, transmits up to 10Gbps, uses less power and is more reliable in congested environments, but most importantly supports better security.

It would be logical to buy a Wi-Fi router to the latest standard, but most ISPs insist that their own routers are used.  The problem with that is that they are always playing catch-up with technology.

Another common problem is coverage within the premises.  Often there are areas of poor wireless reception, too distant from the router.  If the ISP permits the choice of router, it is easy to configure a mesh system.  Otherwise, the ISPs often lease the extender units, racking up the cost over time.  When purchasing an extender, it is important that it has AES encryption and that it can be configured to either stay connected to the same SSID or network name as the router throughout the premises or for the extended coverage to have a different SSID via an access point.