Why we need Fibre to the Premises

Thanks to Lindsey Annison for pointing to this article about some of the work being done to test what Google Fiber’s 1000Mbps internet connectivity might be used for in the USA.

Health applications are definitely one of those areas in which Hyperfast connectivity will come into its own. We are all living longer, and, as we do, society cannot cope with huge numbers of people living in institutions of one form or another. And, it is obvious that the vast majority of people would prefer to stay in their own homes. When large numbers of people are living at home, being monitored for their vital signs 24 hours a day, we will need much better connectivity than most of what is on offer today.

But a particularly key passage in the article is this:

Gigabit speeds allows video and audio quality so sharp that a psychologist or other professional can detect the subtle emotional giveaway a patient may reveal during a remote interview that all is not well. Slower web connections occasionally freeze or get garbled.

“We want to engage the individual through sort of a virtual embrace,” Fitzpatrick said. “We can connect people to meaningful data and robust tele-consultations.”

Gigabit internet connectivity is one of the elements which will allow our future society to forget about the technology and just communicate with each other at a distance as naturally as we do face-to-face. The idea of a virtual embrace is a brilliant metaphor for what this will mean. And it demonstrates how our ambitions for a world made better by technology are being frustrated by lack of ambition among our politicians and decision-makers.

Many Rivers to Cross

I am not sure there can be anybody in the world now who doesn’t know about B4RN, the community-led initiative which is installing 1000Mbps fibre internet connections in North Lancashire, England, particularly after the world-wide publicity generated by its launch day recently (see some of it here).


The farmers and villagers who make up the volunteer membership of B4RN have toiled through wind, rain and snow (and there has been lots of all three over the past 12 months), to lay the fibre cables which have brought hyperfast connectivity to 2 villages so far. It’s been back-breaking, and sometimes soul-destroying, work, as the trenches often fill with water as soon as they are dug. Nevertheless, they have persevered, making much slower progress, than planned, but people are starting to benefit from their remote communities being connected to the 21st Century.

River Lune bridge at Arkholme

Railway bridge over the river Lune at Arkholme
© Copyright Ian Lane and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Now they have hit a major snag. The B4RN area is centred on the Lune Valley. That means there is a river at its heart, and they now need to cross it. On the positive side, there is a clear route across the river, which is right in the path the fibre needs to take to reach the communities on the other side, and that is a railway viaduct (pictured above). The problem is that, Network Rail, which owns the viaduct wants a lot of money and a huge amount of regulation and red tape, for B4RN to run its little cable across to the other side.

Photo by Rory Cellan-Jones

Photo by Rory Cellan-Jones

Now, I think we can all understand that commercial considerations and health and safety regulations have to apply in these kinds of situations, but B4RN is a not-for-profit, community-owned organisation, which is pioneering in a very difficult endeavour. Network Rail describes itself as a ‘not for shareholder dividend’ company, so you would think it might recognise a similar kind of organisation trying to do good for its members. Surely it also ought to be possible for B4RN to come to some mutually beneficial arrangement with Network Rail, in which the latter gets access to B4RN’s hyperfast connectivity for its own purposes and for signalling. We all know about the high cost of cable theft on the railways, which is caused by people stealing copper cables for their scrap value; fibre has no value in this respect.

So, come on Network Rail, surely you can come to an arrangement here. And, if you are reading this and have any influence over Network Rail at all, please do something to help.

Thank you

Media Coverage of B4RN Launch

If you were out of the UK last week you might have missed the media coverage of the official launch of B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North) and its 1Gbps (1000Mbps) DIY rural fibre broadband network. Actually, you might not, as several international media outlets picked up on it too. Any way, if you did miss it, here are some of the highlights:

BBC News

ITV News

BBC Radio Lancashire (audio)

Fibre to the Premises is the future

A quick introduction for the non-initiated.

When you hear people talking about “fibre broadband” they could mean one of two things.

  • Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) takes the fibre optic cable all the way from the exchange (or wherever else the service comes from) to the home or business. If using FTTP, the internet speeds possible (at a cost) are theoretically limitless, and FTTP technology is currently being used to deliver speeds of anywhere between 300 and 10,000 Mbps (Megabits per second) at the moment. FTTP is currently only being deployed in a small minority of instances.
  • Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) takes the fibre optic cable from the initiating point (typically a telephone exchange) and terminates it at a street cabinet. These are those green boxes you see at the side of the road. From the street cabinet the connection to the premises is made using existing copper wires. Currently, FTTC is being used to deliver internet speeds of “up to” something between 80 and 120Mbps. But, there is a big catch with FTTC. As those who have struggled with low speeds under existing networks will know, copper cables were never designed to carry internet data, and, the further away you are from your cabinet, the more the signal degrades. Thus, for some people, particularly, but not exclusively, in rural areas, even if their cabinet is upgraded to fibre, it may make little or no difference to the poor connectivity they currently experience.

Also, there are a fair number of premises in rural areas which are connected directly to the exchange, with no cabinet in between, and these lines are unlikely to be upgraded to fibre in the foreseeable future.

Now, as many readers will know, the parts of the country which have been deemed not to be commercially viable for fibre installations are in the process of being upgraded over the next few years using a mixture of Government, local authority, European Union, and commercial provider resources. That is, apart from those unfortunate enough to be so remote that they are only being promised a “Universal Service” of 2Mbps. In the majority of cases, the preferred technology for these upgrades is FTTC, and, in every case so far the bidder that has won the tenders is BT.

Quite reasonably, you might think, the Government, BT and others, have argued strongly that the country cannot afford universal FTTP. Many also argue that universal FTTP is neither necessary nor popular. Not necessary because people cannot envisage what they might do with speeds of (say) 1Gbps (1000Mbps); and not popular because it would involve digging up everybody’s garden. So far, so logical.

But, increasingly over the past few weeks, BT, the champion of FTTC has started making noises which suggest that it is coming around to the point of view that FTTP is both feasible and potentially popular. There are utterances to this effect from its senior personnel here. And, the company has even connected up an entire village with FTTP as a demonstrator project, see here.

All of which begs a very big question. Why are we spending vast amounts of public resources on a technology (FTTC), which even BT admits may not be future proof. Yes, the technology can be tweaked, and, no doubt in the future it will offer higher speeds, if you are close to a cabinet. And, yes, very few people could now make constant use of FTTP speeds. But, look at how fast the internet has grown. Even now, homes and business premises are full of lots of different connected devices, many of which are not computers; and this phenomenon is growing all the time. Why spend money now on a technology which is going to be obsolete within a few years. Let’s invest in something that has a future.