It’s the connection, stupid

Currently I’m sitting in a conference room in Hawaii waiting for the start of the APECTEL roundtable on cyber-security.

I’m here representing INTUG (the International Telecommunications User Group) of which TUANZ is a part (and in case Mr Oil is reading, they paid for the trip) and hopefully will learn something useful about both telco regulation and issues throughout our region.

Telecommunications will play a huge role in the development of countries throughout the region as we jostle to take up space in the digital economy – but in some countries the role is a lot more basic. Simple infrastructure is what’s needed – they just don’t have the pipes (physical or wireless) to connect the population either to each other or to the rest of the world.

Which brings me to the topic of the UFB. By now you’ll have seen the campaign we’re running to get the government to rethink its $600m tax on copper connections.

It’s important to me that we build the UFB but that we build it the right way. Setting it up as a cash cow for Chorus is not going to be in the best interests of competition or users in the foreseeable future and such backroom deals should have no place in the shiny new fibre world we’re building.

That’s not to say I think the UFB is a white elephant or is failing to deliver on its promise. Far from it – we’re very early in the project and deployment rates are on track or slightly ahead in most areas. Sure, uptake is still woeful but there’s a practical reason for that – most households won’t be connected until after 2016 so the ones who are able to connect today are at the leading edge of the adoption curve.

Picture the bell curve. We are still very much at the leading edge of that curve. Uptake rates in single figures aren’t at all surprising because the deployment is still in its infancy and the number of users who are willing to subject themselves to the torturous installation process are few and far between.

But in a year or so we’ll start to see that process get better as installers learn their trade (I can feel a column about training coming on as well) and as more customers find more things to do online with ultra fast broadband.

But two things have to happen to get to that point. Firstly, we need to actually have ultra fast broadband, not this piddling “it’s a bit quicker than copper” we have on offer today. Secondly, we need to have more content legally available online in order to satisfy customer needs.

Having a UFB that is capable of 1Gbit/s is tremendous. Cutting the entry level speed down to 30/10Mbit/s is quite woeful.

TUANZ backs Vodafone’s suggestion of increasing that base speed to 100/50 or more for the same price in order to really give users the speed bump that will jumpstart uptake. It gets users over the line far more pointedly than a 30/10 proposition does.

Content is another area entirely and that’s something we’d like to see government get involved in. Rights issues cloud the waters and nobody is really sure where the problem lies. It’s high time we sorted that out and got to the bottom of where the bottleneck is, what’s stopping uptake and what would help get a Netflix, Hulu or similar up and running in New Zealand.

Sure, we’re a small island nation at the bottom of the world but frankly if we let that stop us we’d be in big trouble. High time we start talking to content providers and see what could be done to bump us up the waiting list.

When colour TV arrived the selling point wasn’t that it’s the same price as a black and white TV but rather that the customer experience was better. Nothing’s changed – UFB’s selling point is that it’s better than copper, not that it’s priced at the same rate.

All together now

Last week InternetNZ organised a forum to discuss the Telecommunications Act discussion document. The document proposes setting the price that Chorus charges for access to the copper network above the Commerce Commission’s recommendation; meaning we all pay more.

The discussion was held under Chatham House rules, and TUANZ CEO Paul Brislen described it as “a remarkable meeting”. He provides his take on the issues confronting the industry as discussed at the meeting.

NOTE: This piece first appeared in the TUANZ This Week newsletter and in IITP’s Newsline

It takes quite a bit to get every telco, ISP and user group to agree on something and while I’m sure there are a couple of businesses that don’t mind the ICT Minister’s copper tax, for the most part there was outrage.

Outrage that after building a regulatory system that provides certainty and incentives to invest the government will override it for such a flimsy reason.

The upshot is that the only reason that the Minister has directed the ministry to come up with these prices is because Chorus’s share price will be affected.

That’s it.

If we give Chorus an extra $100 million a year (the amount its estimated Chorus will earn if the higher copper price, as suggested in the discussion document, is approved) it won’t result in a faster network build. It won’t result in a better network. It won’t result in a larger network – it will simply result in Chorus meeting its contractual obligations to build the Ultra Fast Broadband network (Chorus has argued it needs higher copper prices to fund the fibre rollout).

In the meantime, investment in unbundling is not only stranded, but actively penalised with an increase in the costs for unbundled lines in one of the “options” put forward, and the risk to the Local Fibre Companies (LFCs) is increased because Chorus will be allowed to aggressively lower its prices for copper broadband in those areas where someone else is building the fibre network (Chorus has about 70% of the UFB build).

The incentives to invest are removed, the ability to compete by differentiating is removed and everyone in the industry aside from Chorus is left wondering just what the rationale is for this decision.

One thing we did learn is that the discussion document’s three options are not the only options. TUANZ will be submitting that the status quo should be restored, that the Commerce Commission should hold sway over telco regulation and the Minister should stick to policy work.

There’s another reason why this should happen – the World Trade Organisation.

New Zealand is a signatory to the WTO and its “telecommunications annex” clearly says that governments should have an independent regulator so as to avoid conflicts around government investments. It should also avoid cross-subsidisation like the plague.

The good news is, there’s an enforcement arm in Brussels. Perhaps it’s time we wrote them a letter.

On Monday Chorus reported a higher than expected net profit of $171 million on revenues of $1.057 billion in its first full financial year. In commentary posted on the NZX website, Chorus pointed out that the outcome of the regulatory review will result in a reduction in future earnings.

“While these regulatory headwinds remain, management is pleased with the principled approach the Crown is taking to the regulatory review”, said CEO Mark Ratcliffe.

“We’re seeking a clearer, more aligned regulatory environment that delivers the right incentives to encourage the transition to our fibre network, and help New Zealand realise the productivity and economic benefits UFB and RBI can deliver.”


Broadband is an adjective

Dylan Reeve and I were arguing about fibre uptake and the
role of television content as driver. Dylan doesn’t believe IPTV will drive
uptake of fibre as there are too few customers to drive a provider to deliver
and there’s a problem with our retail ISP market – too many resellers of
connectivity to make a fist out of offering a service. There’s also the small problem
of our content market and the limited choice in that market.

I don’t disagree with him on those points. There are only a
handful of customers using fibre today so anyone setting up in business
offering service to those customers will have a pitiful return on investment
for year one. The ISP market is fragmented and most do, indeed, resell Chorus
wholesale so unlikely to have the margin to buy content. And as we’ve noted
elsewhere, Sky dominates the pay TV market in New Zealand and the deals it has
with ISPs are under review by the Commerce Commission for potentially breaching
the Fair Trading Act.

All of which really tells me that IPTV is vital for a
successful fibre rollout and for the future of paid content in New Zealand.

Let me explain.

I’ve just been to Kuala Lumpur courtesy of Huawei to have a
look at its fibre to the home rollout (we also talked LTE in Hong Kong but I’ll
cover that elsewhere). Uptake of FttH services has been good – around the 30%
mark, which is among the best in the world, and customers get free national
calling, relatively fast internet access and 100 channels of television (many
in HD) for around NZ$100 a month.

The competition has come in with the same deal but has 250 channels
of TV.

Malaysia is very damp – it rains a lot every day – and because
of that, rain fade on satellite TV is a real problem. Moving TV on to a fibre
makes perfect sense, and the way it’s provisioned by Malaysia Telekom,  a 10Mbit/s channel is allocated for TV and
nothing else. The picture is crystal clear and there’s no hesitation or
buffering, even when changing the channel.

The speeds customers get are relatively low. Entry level is
20Mbit/s and it goes up from there, but that’s after you’ve taken out the
10Mbit/s channel for TV, which changes things somewhat.

What is clear is that customers aren’t signing up for broadband,
they’re signing up for television that is delivered over broadband. Many years
ago I met a chap from Ericsson Australia who talked animatedly about how we
should all stop talking about broadband as if it were a thing and start
treating it as an adjective
– broadband describes something else, so broadband
internet access, broadband television and so on. I suspect he’s right.

A quick Google for “triple play drives uptake” reveals a
wealth of stories and releases from around the world on this subject. BskyB’s
May 2012 financial update
points to the triple play package as delivering
increased customer numbers in the UK:

“The telco noted that the number
of triple-play subscribers on its books had risen to 3.2 million, up 24%
compared to end-March 2011, while adding that triple-play penetration had
reached 31%”.

Dutch telco Ziggo also reports higher growth which it puts
down to offering a triple play package.  Year on year from 2009 to 2010 it saw an
increase of 67.5% in subscriber numbers as a result.

Even our own Commerce Commission has concluded that
differentiated video content will help drive demand for UFB services.

For a customer like me, running a business from home with a
media-bent and a desire for faster access to all things electronic, moving to
UFB is a no brainer. I won’t see it in my street for the next five or six years
but I’ll leap at the chance.

For the average mum and dad sitting at home, there has to be
an incentive, a reason to move. Faster internet access isn’t it – but 250
channels of television and free national calling (for which you need UFB) might
just do it.

DISCLAIMER: I travelled to China and Malaysia courtesy of Huawei

Open networks

Sitting alone on the stage in front of a crowd of about 100, Sir Tim Berners-Lee did what any self respecting geek would – he got out his laptop and disappeared behind the screen.

For some reason, this made me irrationally happy and despite promising the assembled crowd that I wouldn’t, I had to tweet about it.

Sir Tim was in town (albeit briefly) to talk about openness and what it means and while clearly he had enough material to conduct a lecture on each of his various aspects of “open” (source, network, data and government among others), he managed to condense the whole lot down into an hour-long session of windmilling arms, anecdotes, side tracks and sudden bursts of enthusiasm, not to mention Maori.

It was his final point, on open networks, that struck me as most important. In effect it’s the net neutrality debate in which Berners-Lee says we must stand firm against telcos and ISPs that want to degrade or promote service to one part of the net based on commercial relationships. All telcos shape traffic and do a myriad of other things to keep the data flowing but when it comes to providing a better grade of service to one provider over another (he spoke of Netflix, as an example, being slowed to a crawl because of a commercial relationship with another movie provider) then we must demand an end to such nonsense. The power of the web, says Berners-Lee, comes from its agnostic approach to all bits on the network – prioritise voice or video or email as you will, but do it equally for all voice, video or email services. Do not promote one service over any other.

Which raises some interesting questions in the New Zealand context because of course our ISPs already do this. We’ve seen Sky content “zero rated” by some ISPs which means users don’t pay for traffic to and from that site.

Strictly speaking that’s at the very extreme end of the net neutrality debate. It’s not an inhibition on any other service, it’s not a prioritisation of Sky content over and above Quickflix (for example) but nonetheless it sits on the spectrum of net neutrality issues and must be considered as such.

Telcos will, naturally, follow the money when it comes to such things. If I had content I wanted to share as widely as possible I’d go in with a big cheque to make sure mine was top of the search terms, promoted on the broadest possible platforms and of course the easiest to access. What is needed in this space is clear guidance as to what’s acceptable to users and what’s got a longer-term prospect for skewing the market (the network itself) for future use.

The last thing I want is an internet where I have to buy service off multiple providers because ISP A has BBC content but ISP B has access to the movies I want.

Thanks to InternetNZ, Department of Internal Affairs, Chorus, Google and Catalyst for sponsoring and making it all happen and to Sir Tim for a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging evening.

Guest Post: UFB for Dummies

Steve Biddle likes to describe himself as a former trolley boy but nobody believes him about that (it’s true, I swear) so we’ll just call him a network engineer with a passion for explaining things simply.

Steve posted this to his blog over on Geekzone but kindly allowed me to republish it here.

Unless you’ve been living on another planet you’ll be aware that New Zealand is currently in the process of deploying a nationwide Fibre To The Home (FTTH) network. This network is being supported by the New Zealand Government to the tune of roughly NZ$1.5 billion over the next 10 years and is being managed by Crown Fibre Holdings (CFH). Work is presently underway deploying fibre nationwide, with several thousand homes now connected to this new network.

Much has been made of UFB retail pricing, and for many individuals and businesses the price they will pay for a UFB fibre connection could be significantly cheaper than existing copper or fibre connections. What does need to be understood however is the differences between fibre connection types, and pricing structures for these different services. There have been a number of public discussions in recent months (including at Nethui in July) where a number of comments made by people show a level of ignorance, both at a business and technical level, of exactly how fibre services are delivered, dimensioned, and the actual costs of providing a service.

So why is UFB pricing significantly cheaper than some current fibre pricing? The answer is pretty simple – it’s all about the network architecture, bandwidth requirements and the Committed Information Rate (CIR). CIR is a figure representing the actual guaranteed bandwidth per customer, something we’ll a talk lot about later. First however, we need a quick lesson on network architecture.

Current large scale fibre networks from the likes of Chorus, FX Networks, Citylink and Vector (just to name a few) are typically all Point-to-Point networks. This means the physical fibre connection to the Optical Network Terminal (ONT) on your premises is a dedicated fibre optic cable connected directly back to a single fibre port in an aggregation switch. Point-to-point architecture is similar to existing copper phone networks throughout the world, where the copper pair running to your house is dedicated connection between your premises and the local cabinet or exchange, and is used only by you. Because the fibre is only used by a single customer the speed can be guaranteed and will typically be dimensioned for a fixed speed, ie if you pay for a 100Mbps connection your connection will be provisioned with a 100Mbps CIR and this speed will be achieved 24/7 over the physical fibre connection (but once it leaves the fibre access network it is of course up to your ISP to guarantee speeds). Speeds of up to 10 Gb/s can easily be delivered over a Point-to-Point fibre connection.

The core architecture of the UFB project is Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON). Rather than a fibre port in the Optical Line Terminal (OLT) being dedicated to a single customer, the single fibre from the port is split using a passive optical splitter so it’s capable of serving multiple customers . GPON architecture typically involves the use of 12, 24 or 32 way splitters between the OLT and the customers ONT on their premises. GPON delivers aggregate bandwidth of 2.488Gb/s downstream and 1.244 Gb/s upstream shared between all the customers who are connected to it. 24 way splitters will typically be used in New Zealand, meaning that 100Mbps downstream and 50Mbps upstream can be delivered uncontended to each customer. The difference is architecture is immediately clear – rather than the expensive cost of the fibre port having to be recovered by a single customer as is the case with a Point-to-Point network, the cost is now recovered from multiple customers. The real world result of this is an immediate drop in the wholesale port cost, meaning wholesale access can now be offered at significantly cheaper price points than is possible with a Point-to-Point architecture. GPON’s shared architecture also means that costs can be lowered even further since the architecture of a shared network means dedicated bandwidth isn’t required for every customer like is is with a Point-to-Point connection. The 2.488Gbps downstream and 1.244Gbps upstream capacity of the GPON network instantly becomes a shared resource meaning lower costs, but it can also mean a lower quality connection compared to a Point-to-Point fibre connection.

Now that we’ve covered the basics of architecture we now need to learn the basics of bandwidth dimensioning. Above we learnt that a CIR is a guaranteed amount of bandwidth available over a connection. Bandwidth that isn’t guaranteed is known as an Excess Information Rate (EIR). EIR is a term to describe traffic that is best effort, with no real  world guarantee of performance. The 30Mbps, 50Mbps or 100Mbps service bandwidth speeds referred to in UFB residential GPON pricing are all EIR figures, as is the norm with residential grade broadband services virtually everywhere in the world. There are is no guarantee that you will receive this EIR speed, or that the speed will not vary depending on the time of the day, or with network congestion caused by other users. With Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) replacing analogue phone lines in the fibre world, guaranteed bandwidth needs to also be available to ensure that VoIP services can deliver a quality fixed line replacement. To deliver this UFB GPON residential plans also include a high priority CIR of between 2.5Mbps and 10Mbps which can be used by tagged traffic. In the real world this means that a residential GPON 100Mbps connection with a 10Mbps CIR would deliver an EIR of 100Mbps, and a guaranteed 10Mbps of bandwidth for the high priority CIR path.

Those of you paying attention would have noticed a new word in the paragraph above – tagged. If you understand very little about computer networking or the internet you probably just assume that the CIR applies to the EIR figure, and that you are guaranteed 10Mbps on your 100Mbps connection. This isn’t quite the case, as maintaining a CIR and delivering a guaranteed service for high priority applications such as voice can only be done by policing traffic classes either by 801.2p tags or VLAN’s The 802.1p standard defines 8 different classes of service ranging from 0 (lowest) to 7 (highest). For traffic to use the CIR rather than EIR bandwidth it needs to be tagged with a 802.1p value within the Ethernet header so the network knows what class the traffic belongs to. Traffic with the correct high priority 802.1p tag will travel along the high priority CIR path, and traffic that either isn’t tagged, or tagged with a value other than that specified value for the high priority path will travel along the low priority EIR path. Traffic in excess of the EIR is queued, and traffic tagged with a 802.1p high priority tag that is in excess of the CIR is discarded.

For those that aren’t technically savvy an analogy (which is similar but not entirely correct in every aspect) is to compare your connection to a motorway. Traffic volumes at different times of the day will result in varying speeds as all traffic on the motorway is best effort, in the same way EIR traffic is best effort. To deliver guaranteed throughput without delays a high priority lane exists on the motorway that delivers guaranteed speed 24/7 to those drivers who have specially marked vehicles that are permitted to use this lane.

There are probably some of you right now that are confused by the requirement for tagged traffic and two different traffic classes. The simple reality is that different Class of Service (CoS) traffic profiles are the best way to deliver a high quality end user experience and to guarantee Quality of Service (QoS) to sensitive traffic such as voice. Packet loss and jitter cause havoc for VoIP traffic, so dimensioning of a network to separate high and low priority traffic is quite simply best practice. Performance specifications exist for both traffic classes, with high priority traffic being subject to very low figures for frame delay, frame delay variation and frame loss.

UFB users on business plans also have a number of different plan options that differ quite considerably to residential plans. All plans have the ability to have Priority Code Point (PCP) transparency enabled or disabled. With PCP Transparency disabled, traffic is dimensioned based on the 802.1p tag value in the same way as residential connections are. With PCP Transparency enabled, all traffic, regardless of the 802.1p tag, will be regarded as high priority and your maximum speed will be your CIR rate. As the CIR on business plans can be upgraded right up to 100Mbps, GPON can deliver a service equivalent to the performance of a Point-to-Point fibre connection. Business users also have the option of opting for a CIR on their EIR (confused yet?). This means that a 100Mbps business connection can opt for a service bandwidth of 100Mbps featuring a 2.5Mbps high priority CIR, a 95Mbps low priority EIR, and a 2.5Mbps low priority CIR. This means that at any time 2.5Mbps will be the guaranteed CIR of the combined low priority traffic. The high priority CIR can be upgraded right up to 90Mbps, with such an offering delivering a 90Mbps high priority CIR, 7.5Mbps low priority EIR, and 2.5Mbps low priority CIR.

You’re now probably wondering about 802.p tagging of traffic. For upstream traffic this tagging can be done either by your router, or any network device or software application that supports this feature. Most VoIP hardware for example already comes preconfigured with 802.1p settings, however these will need to be configured with the required 802.1p value for the network. Downstream tagging of traffic introduces whole new set of challenges – while ISP’s can tag their own VoIP traffic for example, Skype traffic that may have travelled from the other side of the world is highly unlikely to contain a 802.1p tag that will place it in the high priority CIR path, so it will be treated as low priority EIR traffic. ISP’s aren’t going to necessarily have the ability to tag traffic as high priority unless it either originates within their network, or steps are taken to identify and tag specific external traffic, meaning that the uses of the CIR for downstream will be controlled by your ISP.

It is also worth noting that all of the speeds mentioned in this post refer only to the physical fibre connection. Once traffic leaves the handover point, known as an Ethernet Aggregation Switch (EAS) it’s up to the individual ISP to dimension backhaul and their own upstream bandwidth to support their users.

As part of their agreement with CFH, Chorus dropped their Point-to-Point fibre pricing in fibre existing areas in August 2011 to match UFB Point-to-Point pricing, which means customers currently in non UFB areas will pay exactly the same price for a Point-to-Point fibre access as they will do in a UFB area if they choose a Point-to-Point UFB connection. UFB GPON fibre plans won’t be available in existing fibre however areas until the GPON network has been deployed, either by Chorus or the LFC responsible for that area. In all UFB areas both GPON and Point-to-Point connections will ultimately be available.

I hope that this explains the architecture of the UFB network, and how connection bandwidth is dimensioned. It’s not necessarily a simple concept to grasp, but with the misinformation that exists I felt it was important to attempt to write something that can hopefully be understood by the average internet user. The varying plan options and pricing options means that end users have the option of choosing the most appropriate connection type to suit their needs, whether this be a high quality business plan with a high CIR, or a lower priced residential offering that will still deliver performance vastly superior to the ADSL2+ offerings most users have today.

And last but not least I have one thing to add before one or more troll(s) posts a comment saying fibre is a waste of time and complains about not getting it at their home for another 5 or 6 years. UFB is one of NZ’s largest ever infrastructure projects, and to quote the CFH website:

“The Government’s objective is to accelerate the roll-out of Ultra-Fast Broadband to 75 percent of New Zealanders over ten years, concentrating in the first six years on priority broadband users such as businesses, schools and health services, plus green field developments and certain tranches of residential areas (the UFB Objective).”

Residential is not the initial focus of the UFB rollout, and never has been. Good things take time.