DETI (The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment) is having a public consultation on broadband for Northern Ireland. The thesis is the Provision of a 2 Megabit per second Broadband Service across Northern Ireland.
The UK Government’s has proposed that virtually all premises across Northern Ireland should be able to access a broadband service with a speed of at least 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) by 2015 and to provide superfast broadband to at least 90% of premises with speeds in excess of 24 Mbps.
DETI is considering those homes and businesses in Northern Ireland, particularly those in rural areas, where the choice of broadband provision is limited and/or the available speeds are less than 2 Mbps.
It is my contention that this thesis is flawed due to the definition of 2 Megabits per second being described as “broadband” is functionally incorrect. While this figure may have been sufficient in 20085, it was outdated in 2008 (at the time of the publication of the Northern Ireland Digital Content Strategy) and by 2012, this description is utterly unfit for purpose.
The following is a document I wrote in support of the Belfast City Council UltraFast Broadband SuperConnected City bid. I like to think that it, in addition to the other documents we supplied, assisted the council in achieving the £13.7M target they aimed for.
The Broadband Blueprint
Setting the scene:
Since 2003, with the launch of the iTunes Music Store, our bandwidth demands have increased more than 1000-fold. In 2003, we were content to download 3 MB music files. In 2012, we expect to be able to easily download 3 GB high definition movies and maintain multiple streamed internet video sources such as iPlayer, iTV Player, Netflix, Youtube, LoveFilm and 4OD. Broadband speeds have not increased to cope with this demand with most of the province still experiencing sub-1Mbps speeds and only very specific regions able to receive “SuperFast” broadband.
A family of four (2 adults, 2 children) may expect to be able to stream YouTube videos while watching time-shifted television on iPlayer while, at the same time, children are playing networked Internet games hosted on Disney and XBOX Live. A single high-definition (and highly compressed) video stream may demand around 4 Mbps. Each user on a broadband link will therefore need their own bandwidth and their overlapping demands create “contention” for the available bandwidth. When this is combined with ISP-mandated contention, broadband downstream speeds can fall significantly below advertised rates. A modern family therefore requires a minimum of “SuperFast” broadband just to be able to be an active consumer in the current digital content market.
What is SuperFast Broadband?
The definitions of broadband were provided as follows:
|Broadband||Sub 24 Mbps downstream|
|SuperFast Broadband||24-80 Mbps downstream|
|UltraFast Broadband||80 Mbps+ downstream|
This describes only one of four criteria we use for defining broadband.
- Downstream bandwidth
- Upstream bandwidth
It is important that we define what we mean when we refer to “high bandwidth” connections because that is only one of the four criteria and for digital businesses may not be the most important of the four.
Downstream bandwidth – the available bandwidth as advertised by an Internet Service Provider used for receiving files from the Internet. Actual performance will depend on other factors including the upstream bandwidth speed at the content location.
Upstream bandwidth – the bandwidth used for sending files and content requests to the Internet. Sending files will compete for bandwidth with content requests and delivery.
Latency – the time taken for content requests and administration signals to arrive at the desired location on the Internet. This is important for many online games and audio/video communication as well as time-critical operations (such as within bank trading systems). High latency connections can feel slow.
Contention – the number of times an Internet Service Provider has sold a unit of bandwidth across a pool of customers. Consumer broadband in Northern Ireland usually has a contention ratio of 50:1. High contention connections will feel slow as customers compete for bandwidth (upstream and downstream) and latency.
We would suggest a simpler metric for broadband.
In 2001, a connection was described as broadband if it was 512 Kbps downstream and 256 Kbps upstream. Over the last decade, the demands for broadband have increased over 1000-fold. In response we must meet the demand head on.
Northern Ireland describes broadband as any link above 2 Mbps downstream in rural areas and 10 Mbps in urban areas. The region is currently not delivering this access.
In 2012, a broadband connection should have a minimum of 1000 Mbps (1 Gbps) downstream and 1000 Mbps (1 Gbps) upstream. We must consider the demands of the next decade for content consumption and creation.
(1) Are companies currently using existing high bandwidth provision?
Digital Circle counts over 200 digital businesses within its membership and Momentum represents nearly 150 more. Very few of these businesses are currently using high speed broadband due to difficulties in access and, in some cases, differences in the definitions between broadband for consumers and broadband for SMEs.
High speed upstream connections are extremely expensive and in many cases unavailable without considerable infrastructure installation. While the deployment of SuperFast broadband has increased speeds considerably, it still can take over an hour to upload a single high definition movie file or games development project. This can delay the workflow of a small company considerably. To then consider the download speed of the end location, especially in areas where SuperFast broadband is not available, and it is plain that our infrastructure is not delivering on the demands for a modern knowledge-based economy.
This demand is not limited to the digital media sector – for example, engineering and construction projects are often modelled in 3D over multiple iterations before construction begins. These files can easily exceed the size of a high definition movie. Likewise, in the life sciences sector, a copy of the human genome at the lowest resolution (smallest possible encoding) is still nearly 1 GB in size. Video-conferencing (for business, leisure, telemedicine) requires a minimum of 1-3 Mbps upstream and downstream.
(2) If so, what are the main reasons / points of use?
The demand for broadband is constantly increasing and delivery is not meeting the demand currently and will continue to lag for the foreseeable future.
The time taken to transfer data has an immediate impact on the workflows of small companies who may be forced to wait for data transfers to complete before moving onto other projects or for their client or supplier to send them a modified file in return, incurring even more delays.
Companies that are currently using high speed connectivity include a local television/animation company which, in their move to digital production, had to purchase high speed connectivity in order to secure new business commissions. As they are currently not filming (being between commissions), the owner describes the existing line as being an employee-sized cost which is currently not working for it’s keep.
The post-production work for a large international television series headquartered in the Titanic Quarter is currently using taxi services to move footage between their headquarters and a post-production facility in Holywood and another site in Dublin. The current infrastructure is not supporting their business and may prove to be a reason why the business could move away from Northern Ireland.
High speed broadband has become a necessary baseline for business as usual in the digital sector and not a competitive advantage in itself. We risk losing future business by not being able to provide this necessary baseline.
(3) Is it cost effective?
Once broadband lines are installed, there is no additional cost to use them. The broadband lines still operate whether there is user data on the lines or not. If we are not utilising the full capacity of our existing broadband infrastructure (due to ISP imposed costs) then we are wasting money that has been invested to build the infrastructure.
Northern Ireland has an existing multi-fiber ring circling Lough Neagh and providing distribution for internet and voice communications through the province. Not all of this ring is currently being utilised.
Whether or not the light in a fibre-optic cable is carrying data or not, it is still lit. In a dedicated point-to-point network, data use should be high and at extremely low cost. This does not mean that the data will pass through to the internet at low cost; just between nodes on the ring.
(4) Is the current provision adequate to meet the needs of the sector?
The current provision is inhibiting the growth of the local industry and increasing time to market. Additionally, the infrastructure is a liability for new companies in growth regions such as games, post-production, computer graphics, film and television.
The reason why high speed broadband is required is relevant to the workflows of industry. Under the current infrastructure, it is quicker to copy the file to an external data carrier (such as a USB memory stick or hard drive) and send the data in a car to the desired location than it is to use the Internet.
For Northern Ireland to remain competitive, we need to standardise on a much improved definition of broadband. For us to lead, we need to exceed this standard definition.
(5) If businesses in the sector are not currently using high bandwidth, why not?
Peter Cochrane OBE (former BT CTO, Collier Chair for the Public Understanding of Technology at Bristol University) describes broadband as being a minimum of 100 Mbps downstream and 100 Mbps upstream. There are currently no providers in Northern Ireland who can offer this level of service without providing a bespoke and dedicated line.
Price – in some regions, a 1 Gbps symmetrical has become the standard for consumer links. In South Korea, this will be available for less than £20 per month . HyperOptic in London has launched a 1 Gbps service for £50 a month . Jersey in the Channel Islands offers a 1 Gbps link for £59.99 per month.
Access – businesses may not have access to high bandwidth connections due to location or contention. Even Belfast does not have 100 saturation of broadband above 5 Mbps downstream and 0.5 Mbps upstream. Digital businesses in Northern Ireland currently manage to operate on slow links with significant impact to their time to market.
(6) What does the sector require? (Small, medium, large)
SMEs within the sector require high speed connections just as consumers do but in the digital media sector, the requirement for high upstream speeds is notable. Digital media sector companies would request “symmetrical” connections with low latency and reasonable contention.
Larger companies (such as Allstate, Citi, BBC) can afford their own dedicated links (and in many cases would demand them anyway). Small and medium companies are currently disadvantaged due to the low “standards” present in Northern Ireland.
For business process (content creation), the ability to move large data structures (raw data, movies, graphics) between suppliers is vital for our current digital economy and will become more and more important.
For content distribution, the ability to deliver final content (either to distribution channels or direct to customer) is vital. A current business broadband connection cannot cope with even a single HD video stream and even a so-called SuperFast connection can only sustain up to 5 HD streams outbound. For this reason, local providers often site their content in distribution silos in other regions which can support hundreds of simultaneous connections.
(7) Can you assist us in communicating the use of the proposed infrastructure to your company databases / portfolio? If so, how?
Digital Circle has a membership of over 230 local businesses and Momentum represents 150 more, all of whom work within the software and digital content sector. We provide direct mail to these companies for our own internal promotions of our activity and also hold upwards of 30 events a year for our membership as well as becoming involved in strategic initiatives in app development, STEM and next generation tourism projects.
(8) Would you be able to provide a letter of support as part of the bid to show the sector commitment in the utilisation of the infrastructure, once in place?
We would like to see the content of the bid in order to provide an informed letter but in theory, we would be delighted to support this bid.
(9) Is there a skill or training requirement within the sector in relation to utilising high bandwidth broadband / the web.
No. The digital content sector will adapt quickly to new infrastructure. The training requirement would be more to do with the publicity around the service provision and taking advantage of this.
For example, if high speed WiFi is available, then service providers in tourism, catering should be informed to ensure customers (whether local or foreign tourists) are informed to take advantage of it.
(10) Are there any key areas that could benefit from the proposed infrastructure (i.e. sound stage, accelerator etc)
Digital Circle / Momentum would recommend that special consideration be given to the following areas:
a) Major internet connectivity required for existing business clusters (Media Mile – 0.5m radius from Bedford St) and extending between both university campuses in Belfast.
b) Extension of links to the regional television hub in Holywood (location of most major television-related companies) and Titanic Quarter. Even though Holywood is not in Belfast, the inability of production facilities in Belfast to move data freely to post-production facilities in Holywood could prove damaging to Northern Ireland’s nascent global television industry.
c) Metropolitan wifi along major arterial public transport routes (including train lines) and at important tourism sites (City Hall, Lisburn Road, Titanic Quarter, Stormont, Belfast Castle, Ulster Museum, Botanic Gardens, Custom House Square, the Lagan bank, Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park among others).
d) Establishment of “A Digital Road to Belfast” for the province-wide digital sector. By enabling existing dark fibre in the Northern Ireland “Saturn Ring”, points of presence could be established across Northern Ireland with the expressed purpose of increasing rapid telecommunications transport between businesses. This could enable extremely rapid point-to-point transport within the province and provide important (and chargeable) backhaul services for media businesses including SMEs and larger organisations (such as the BBC). This cements Belfast as the “capital” of Northern Ireland with minimal expenditure and supports the Digital Content Strategy aim of cross-province digital hybrid accelerators as well as being a valuable political tool.
BT 1Gbit private circuits are £4k install, £6.5k per annum for 5 year contract. That’s without discount up to 25km. Internet-based circuits are much more expensive.