Wednesday, February 02, 2011


County Wide NGA for Lancashire

The Leader of Lancashire County Council has made a decision to "select a strategic partner" in order to "maximise the benefits from the deployment of superfast broadband across Lancashire". Impressive sounding stuff, subject to getting the nod by Cabinet on 3rd February.

In the report from the Chief Exec sets out the benefits of 'superfast broadband' or 'Next Generation Access' and observes that "About 34% of premises across Lancashire will not have superfast broadband by 2015" - hence the decision to proceed with a project to do something about it. The report also identifies key features of the project and potential partners :

  • Partners are expected to invest at least £20m to match the ERDF bid by the council.
  • The private sector partner will own the superfast broadband network
  • The private sector partner will be required to ensure open, equitable and transparent access to the network open to all service and communications providers
  • Partners to identify the extent to which existing technology in Lancashire, e.g. the Cumbria and Lancashire Education Online (CLEO) network, can be utilised
  • The completion of the network within 2.5 years from commencement of deployment
  • Delivers optimum coverage for the available investment funding, aiming for close to 100% coverage in Lancashire, including rural, remote and sparsely populated areas
  • The County Council will not prescribe the technology.
A study by Analysys Mason for the NWDA last year titled "Making NGA a Reality in the Northwest" looked at the costs of providing NGA to areas in the region (not just Lancashire) likely to be left out of a commercial provision and concluded that the cost of providing FTTC to those properties would be about £164m with the cost of FTTH some six times higher and just short of a billion. Given the current state of finances the FTTC solution is somewhat inevitable and it was also the route taken by the South Yorkshire Digital Region project.

I will put money on BT winning this tender, as they did the CLEO operating contract by forming a JV with Lancashire County Council. They even have a JV company up and running to do it. They may be the only company big enough to deliver it in the timescale, and certainly they have a track record of providing a competitive set of retailers unlike other "open access" attempts that have failed to impress.

So what will a BT technical solution offer, and how can a tender document pre-empt some of the likely shortfalls ?

BT will use FTTC fibre to the cabinet to connect a large proportion of the population to NGA. VDSL from the cabinets will deliver the sort of bandwidth seen as necessary in the next 5 years at around 18-20Mbits/s sustained demand for streaming HD video.

Those not connected to a cabinet will not get FTTC, unless BT undertake to re-engineer their copper network to make interconnection points at cabinets available. This I think is unlikely. So a different solution is required for those close to the telephone exchange and for those far away but not connected via a cabinet.

For those close to the exchange without a cabinet a universal upgrade to ADSL2+ services would be a start, but it isn't NGA. This means either fibre from the exchange to the home (FTTH), more "artificial" cabinets to create break-in points, or adoption of exchange based VDSL - currently not practised in the UK but potentially a solution.

Those further from the exchange but cabinet-less could again be addressed by FTTH or by fixed wireless broadband dimensioned to deliver a next generation service, as described in a recent report to the Broadband Stakeholders Group.

The final group of customers will be far from the exchange on long lines, possibly in isolated or sparsely distributed properties, and possibly in a current "not spot". For this group there are the same options - fixed wireless or FTTH. Copper based solutions are ruled out by the line length and consequent signal loss, and there is no concentration point to deploy FTTC.

In odd cases a satellite solution or non-NGA 2 Mbits/s broadband over copper might be used for properties that are otherwise "awkward". Remember we're looking for "close to 100%" not actually 100% with no exclusions. These folks will get the "Universal Service Commitment" rather than "Next Generation Access".

So what should the tender document say ?
  • It should specify a minimum sustained downstream bandwidth for the service, perhaps 18-20 Mbits/s on the basis of future bandwidth needs.
  • The above speed should be achievable for at least 90% of peak hours 8am - 10pm.
  • Upstream speed shall be at least 5 Mbits/s or 25% of the minimum downstream.
  • NGA solutions are required for >97% properties close to and connected directly to telephone exchanges, that are not served by cabinets.
  • NGA solutions are required for >90% of more distant properties that are not served by cabinets.
  • Every single property shall receive at least a 2 Mbits/s downstream / 500 kbits/s upstream service to meet the universal service commitment, by whatever technology.
Such a specification is technology neutral and could be met by BT, by an HFC cable network operator building out or by a brand new FTTH infrastructure provider. The numbers can be adjusted to individual taste, but the above might fit the bill without the invoice being too big.

The biggest risk in my view is that we create "NGA doughnuts" of FTTC around exchanges with nothing in the middle and nothing outside of the ring of cabinets around the exchange.


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