Category Archives: Interviews

Current alternatives won’t light up Britain’s broadband blackspots

Despite the British government’s boasts of the steady roll-out of superfast broadband to more than four out of five homes and businesses, you needn’t be a statistician to realise that this means one out of five are still unconnected. In fact, the recent story about a farmer who was so incensed by his slow broadband that he built his own 4G mast in a field to replace it shows that for much of the country, little has improved.

The government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme claims that it will provide internet access of at least 24 Mbps (megabits per second) to 95% of the country by 2017 through fibre to the cabinet, where fast fibre optic networks connect BT’s exchanges to street cabinets dotted around towns and villages. The final connection to the home comes via traditional (slower) copper cables.

Those in rural communities are understandably sceptical of the government’s “huge achievement”, arguing that only a fraction of the properties included in the government’s running total can achieve reasonable broadband speeds, as signals drop off quickly with distance from BT’s street cabinets. Millions of people are still struggling to achieve even basic broadband, and not necessarily just in the remote countryside, but in urban areas such as Redditch, Lancaster and even Pimlico in central London.

Four problems to solve

This cabinet is a problem, not a solution. mikecattell, CC BY

Our research found four recurring problems: connection speeds, latency, contention ratios, and reliability.

Getting high-speed ADSL broadband delivered over existing copper cables is not possible in many areas, as the distance from the exchange or the street cabinet is so far that the broadband signal degrades and speeds drop. Minimum speed requirements are rising as the volume of data we use increases, so such slow connections will become more and more frustrating.

But speed is not the only limiting factor. Network delay, known as latency, can be as frustrating as it forces the user to wait for data to arrive or to be assembled into the right order to be processed. Most of our interviewees had high latency connections.

Many home users also suffer from high contention, where a connection slows as more users in the vicinity log on – for example, during evenings after work and at weekends. One respondent pointed out that the two or three large companies in the neighbouring village carried out their daily company backups between 6.30pm-8.30pm. This was obvious, he said, because during that time internet speeds “drop off the end of a cliff”.

Connection reliability is also a problem, with connections failing randomly for no clear reason, or due to weather such as heavy rain, snow or wind – not very helpful in Britain.

Three band-aid solutions

With delivery by copper cable proving inadequate for many, other alternatives have been suggested to fill the gaps.

Mobile phones are now ubiquitous devices, and mobile phone networks cover a huge proportion of the country. A 4G mobile network connection could potentially provide 100Mbps speeds. Unfortunately, the areas failed by poor fixed line broadband provision are often the same areas with poor mobile phone networks – particularly rural areas. While 2G/3G network coverage is better, it is far slower. Without unlimited data plans, users will also face monthly caps on use as part of their contract. Weather conditions can also adversely affect the service.

Satellite broadband could be the answer and can provide reasonably high speeds of up to around 20 Mbps. But despite the decent bandwidth available, satellite connections have high latency from the slow speed of transferring data to and from satellites, due to the far larger distances involved between satellites and the ground. High latency connections make it very difficult or impossible to use internet telephony such as Skype, to stream films, video or music, or play online games. It’s not really an option in mountainous regions, and is a more expensive option.

A third alternative is to use fixed wireless, relaying broadband signals over radio transmitters to cover the distance from where BT’s fixed-line fibre optic network ends. These services generally provide 20Mbps, low latency connections. However, radio towers require line-of-sight access which could be a problem given obstructions from hills or woods – factors that, again, limit use where it’s most needed.

The only one that fits

All these alternatives tend to be more expensive to set up and run, come with more strict data limits, and can be affected by atmospheric conditions such as rain, wind or fog. The only true superior alternative to fibre to the cabinet is to provide fibre to the home (FTTH), in which the last vestiges of the original copper telephone network are replaced with high-speed fibre optic right to the door of the home or business premises. Fibre optic is faster, can carry signals without loss over greater distances, and is more upgradable than copper. A true fibre optic solution would future-proof Britain’s internet access network for decades to come.

Despite its expense, it is the only solution for many rural communities, which is why some have organised to provide it for themselves, such as B4RN and B4YS in the north of England, and B4RDS in the southwest. But this requires a group of volunteers with knowledge, financial means, and the necessary dedication to lay the infrastructure that could offer a 1,000 Mbps service regardless of line distance and location – which won’t be an option for all.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Fieldwork in North-Wales

Last month we had a very productive week in North-Wales, talking to a variety of people who all struggled with slow and unreliable Internet access, both at home and at work. Of course the lack of fast Internet impacts differently on different people, but the main message is that it hinders people in achieving the things they need to accomplish on a daily basis. We found that a slow and unreliable connection can have serious implications not only financially, but also for health, social life, and family connections.

Twenty babies and toddlers are hiding under the parachute.

Twenty babies and toddlers are hiding under the parachute.

While we had a few interviewees lined up before we headed to Gwynedd, we still needed to find other people willing to talk to us. We used the snowball method, by which researchers find new participants through referrals from people they have already spoken to. But we also joined a baby and toddler singing group, where we met the parents and found some more willing respondents. We ended up humming along to Welsh children’s songs and waving a massive parachute. The things we do for our research!

During our fieldwork in N-Wales, the UK chancellor George Osborne came out with his Budget 2015 statement in which he pledged that Internet speeds of 100Mbps “should” be available to “nearly all homes” in the UK. In addition, the government’s digital communications infrastructure strategy has outlined an idea that will give customers the “right” to a broadband connection of at least 5Mbps in their homes at an affordable price. In reaction to this promise we wrote an article for The Conversation asking whether Osborne’s broadband promises will indeed bring about much needed change [spoiler:  5 Mbps is too little, too late].

This week the transcripts of our Welsh interviews have come back. This means that we can start analysing our data, compare it to our English data, and write up the results for academic publications. There are still some expert interviews to be conducted with FTTH advocates, representatives from local broadband providers, county councils, Ofcom, and other stakeholders to inform us on public policy and governmental interventions, but the bulk of the data has been collected. Newspaper and magazine articles, conference papers, and journal articles resulting from our research will always be uploaded to our project website, so do check regularly for the latest updates on our study!

Fieldwork in B4RN land

On the 9th and 10th of July we travelled up North to meet the people of B4RN, a community-owned fibre network in Lancashire providing future-proof full fibre connections to rural villages. The B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North) network is totally inclusive: every property – no matter how remote – will have an opportunity to get a Fibre To The Home (FTTH) connection. However, it does depend completely on active involvement from the community to implement the infrastructure and reduce the costs. A core group of incredibly enthusiastic volunteers has done a tremendous job in setting this up. They have combined (technical) knowledge, dedication, and hard graft to make B4RN a success. Their parish-by-parish approach started in 2011 with the plan to deliver fibre to 8 communities, and has since been rolled out to 23 parishes, with more queuing up to also be included.

Our interviews with members from the B4RN management team show that an initiative like theirs needs to overcome a multitude of obstacles. One of the major obstacles is of course the financing of such an initiative (e.g. equipment, dark fibre lease, third party insurance). But the physical landscape also comes with plenty of challenges such as rocks, bogs, bridges, roads, and train tracks, while bad weather can make access with equipment into muddy fields almost impossible. However, all the effort does pay off. The villages that have gone live are now enjoying upload speeds unimaginable to most of us – rural or urban!

B4RN Current Internet speed at the Bridge House Tearooms in Wray

Village BYOD Evening
Besides interviewing experts we also visited the village of Dolphinholme where the fibre connection has just been introduced.  Both the BBC and the Telegraph report  how the villagers have taken matters into their own hands. Coincidently, an information evening was organised on the same day we were doing our fieldwork. The community had been invited to bring their own devices to the Village Hall to see what a superfast connection can do. Information was also given about how to set up VoIP phone service (using existing telephones), TV, and cameras for rural security applications. A second similar information meeting was scheduled for Saturday the 12th just before the Sheep Racing (we kid you not!)

sheep racing Poster on the door of Dolphinholme Village Hall

Show and Tell Day
When a community project is as successful as B4RN, it is only to be expected that other rural communities are keen to follow suit. To help them accomplish this, B4RN regularly organizes ‘Show and Tell’ workshops together with Emtelle to share knowledge and experience.

The meeting we attended attracted participants from all over the country eager to copy B4RN’s best practice.  Different speakers provided information about the financing of community-led projects, customer relations, product selection, and a hands-on product demonstration.  ‘Fibre blowing’, ‘splicing’, ‘fusion’, ‘ducts’, and ‘access chambers’ are all part of the vocabulary of B4RN volunteers and these words had cropped up throughout our interviews. The product demonstration helped us to better understand the actual meaning of these terms.

To illustrate everything that had been discussed during the workshop, we were taken on a field trip into the wilds of Lancashire to see the active B4RN installation (approx. 300 km of fibre has been laid so far). This field visit emphasized the scale of the operation and the enormous accomplishment of all the volunteers.

B4RNcollage

From top left – clockwise: 1. Fibre cables are covered with caution tape to stop anybody digging them up by mistake (e.g. while fencing or ploughing); 2. The workshop participants are shown B4RN installations; 3. The moveable maintenance ‘shed’ that allows people to work on the fibre distribution cabinets in all kinds of weather; and 4. Drums of duct waiting to be put in the ground.