Modern Family

This is an illustration of a modern family.

Taking into account that my partner has a 3G device, my son has his own 3G device and I provide tethering to the rest of the family as well (which has used 64 GB this period so far and I’m only 2/3 of the way through that billing period), it seems to me that a family consisting of a mom, pop, two kids and two step-kids could easily use three quarters of a terabyte of data in 30 days. That’s 250 GB in 10 days. 25GB a day. And that’s just during their waking hours.

This comes from nearly everyone but me having a long list of YouTube subscriptions. My usage is mostly Netflix (and an episode or two of Breaking Bad a night isn’t going to break the bank).

It’s also worth saying that the bandwidth we’re using is restricted by the provision. We often see quality issues on YouTube and Netflix. Latency is often high. It would be fair to say that we’re at the top end of the broadband users but that’s what a modern family is.

The demand for this content and the demand for it to be ever higher quality will push our broadband demands though the roof. Is our infrastructure ready for that?

The Broadband Blueprint (re DETI Telecoms Consultation)

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 While this figure may have been sufficient in 20085, it was outdated in 2008 (at the time of the publication of the Northern Ireland Digital Content Strategy) and by 2012, this description is utterly unfit for purpose.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
  • Latency
  • Contention

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.

Continue reading “The Broadband Blueprint (re DETI Telecoms Consultation)”

Belfast to get £13.7M for broadband

The government has announced how it will share the money promised to 10 UK cities to allow them to create superfast broadband networks.

“These 10 cities have produced ambitious and comprehensive plans, which will turn them into digital leaders, and give their local economies a real boost,” she said.

Momentum/Digital Circle gave a good amount of (free) support to the Belfast bid when I wrote a manifesto paper on the definition of broadband and a ten pager on what could be done for local business, for local people and for innovation with a major investment in telecoms infrastructure.

Considering that a third of the population of Northern Ireland lives in the Belfast Metropolitan Area (which includes Lisburn and Bangor), it’s not a large amount of money and it’s important to mention that this level of investment needs to be made across Northern Ireland. And it is equally important for the cities who benefit to remember that they are not just cities, but they are the hubs of their region. Belfast, as the “capital” of Northern Ireland, has a responsibility to all of Northern Ireland.

And, like so many things, you can’t invest outside of Belfast based on per head of population when you are dealing with areas of the country which are remote or rural. It will take more investment to bring them up to 21st Century standards of broadband because they are already so far behind.

Derry is in the next list of cities to be considered for investment by central government. I think it would serve all of us well to consider how we can help them. It won’t arrive in time for City of Culture, but it may help extend the legacy of 2013.

Your definition of broadband is wrong.

A few months ago I had the pleasure of attending a Deloitte paper launch and the guest speaker was Peter Cochrane. I’d not heard of Peter before but he eloquently (and authoritatively) put forward an argument that I have tried to explain to stakeholders across the province. While it’s hard to get the full effect of his persuasive speech, you can view his FTTH @ Last slides at the link above.

His core argument was:

Your definition of broadband is wrong.

© Peter Cochrane

During the talk, he said that if an internet link is not 100 Mbps up and down then it’s not broadband. Many people scoff but they fail to realise several things about the demand for broadband. The demand is there, it’s entirely in the supply that we see the issue.

In 2003, it was exciting to download a 3 Megabyte music file from the newly opened iTunes Store. My broadband was 512 Kbps down, 256Kbps up and it had a reported 20:1 contention. In 2013, my bandwidth demands have increased a thousandfold. I want to download 3.2 Gigabyte movie files from the iTunes Store. But my broadband speeds have increased only by a factor of 10 in a decade. I’m imminently to order BT Infinity but that only can provide 24-80 Mbps (“SuperFast broadband”) and not the 80 Mbps+ (“UltraFast broadband”) that the modern media consumer demands. And that’s just the download speed because idiots have, over the last few years, decreed that download speed is the only important metric.

There are four metrics I measure broadband by:

  • Upload
  • Download
  • Latency
  • Contention

Upload speeds are just as important (and more important for the media industry) and they tend to still be sub-10 Mbps. Contention on BT Infinity is 50:1 – the opposite of contention is a term called “non-blocking” where everyone paying for access gets the access they are paying for. When Telcos promise a certain bandwidth, they’re actually selling that same object fifty times to their customers and you’re all supposed to share. (The logic being that not everyone will be downloading at the same time). Latency is, for most people in our industry, immaterial though you can feel the effect in online games, video-conferencing calls and other time-senstiive operations. In many cases, the latency is not caused at the “broadband” end but due to the series of interactions between you and your content across the Internet. The delicious irony being that if your upload speed is limited, your latency jumps considerably as your “content requests” are competing with your uploads.

One of Peter’s slides regarding the island of Jersey:

© Peter Cochrane

(He goes on to clarify that 3G runs at 14 Mbits, WiFi at 50 Mbps.)


100Mbit for 299kr (£25) a month is the slowest broadband in Sweden. And it goes up to a Gig for £75 a month

Keep this in mind when talking about our “digital platform”. Our broadband needs to improve by a factor of 100 for our consumer markets and for our business markets, probably 100 times that.

Digital Northern Ireland – don’t ignore it

From a discussion on LinkedIn:

For 95% of businesses, connectivity isn’t an issue. It never was – they’re not hamstrung by their slow speeds because the services they use are all located out of country anyway. And so I think its better to focus on these 95% – they’re the business owners in retail, in farming, in small manufacturing. They’re happy to limp along on <2Mbps connections. But the body of knowledge in using their Internet connection for more than the purchase supply chain is incredibly poor and laced with difficulty. Difficulties that are, for the most part, caused by the other 5% and the daft idea that every business needs its own web site, it's own e-commerce space and it's own app. These things are quickly becoming commodities. In the recent Innovation Fund, web sites and shops/e-commerce sites are not considered innovative for a reason. A small manufacturer (we often use the almost-pejorative "craft sector") can easily use online platforms such as eBay, Amazon Marketplace or Etsy or Folksy to sell their wares. And for most of the good ones, the problem is not accessing the Internet to sell, it's in meeting the capacity the Internet has created a demand for. Most small retailers already use the Internet in their supply chain because their suppliers demand it. My own business has been using the Internet for supply chain for 10 years now. It was never speed that was the issue, only connectivity. When moving offices meant losing Internet connectivity in the office for a month, that was the big issue in connectivity. And it still is. For the 5%? The digital businesses? Ones who should be better equipped? I can't even begin to describe where we fail them. From the provision of connectivity to the supply of their raw materials (skilled workers). But there is a reason my content servers are in the USA and that comes down to the cost of providing connectivity per sq ft.