Thursday, 24 April 2014

Tilting at Windmills - Latest scores

Sometimes setting yourself entirely arbitrary objectives can be useful. There's good evidence it helps marathon runners improve their times, for instance. However, sometimes it can be entirely quixotic.

The pursuit of best national broadband speed is in the latter category. While there's perhaps reasons to worry if you're at the bottom of the league tables for broadband (and here's Phil Dobbie doing exactly that for Australia this week), there's really no evidence at all that you benefit from being at the top.

That hasn't stopped countries such as the UK and Korea setting what we might call 'league table targets'. The UK for example has a goal to 'have the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015'. This is perilously close to 'if you overinvest in broadband, we''ll overinvest more', though happily in practice the UK is being judicious in its superfast broadband.

Of course the people who most love league table targets are equipment vendors, who benefit greatly from that overinvestment. As I've noted before, the FTTH Council love them. They publish annual data on who has rolled out most FTTH (and FTTB- fibre to the building).

Worrying about FTTH league tables is even more perverse than worrying about general broadband league tables. FTTH is a long way removed from actual consumer or societal benefit, in a chain like this:

If any of the steps in this chain are weak, then the societal return on the investment in FTTH will be less. For example, Martin Geddes argues that increased speeds may not lead to improved technical performance (in the sense of reliable and predictable packet delivery), and may in fact sometimes degrade  it.

My focus in this post is narrowly on the second step in the chain - does increased FTTH adoption lead to increased speeds? Of course FTTH will deliver greater speeds in the last mile - but this isn't necessarily the weakest link in any particular flow of traffic. Problems can occur in many places - the users' device, their wifi network, congestion in the backhaul, congestion in peering and transit links, problems at the content server and so on. If one of these is the binding constraint, then more last-mile bandwidth helps very little. And of course even if the underlying connection is FTTH, the consumer might choose a slower (artificially constrained) product if they aren't willing to pay the premium for higher speed.

One way to test the extent of this issue is to compare levels of fibre adoption to measured broadband speeds from the content server to the end user - if FTTH adoption makes a big difference, we might expect to see a good correlation between these two metrics. Akamai, a content delivery network, publishes national data on just such speeds. While they're not perfect for our purposes (a certain amount of mobile network traffic is likely mixed in, for example), they are the best available. Here are the results for Europe:

Sources: FTTH Council (end 2013), Akamai (Q4 2013)

As you can see, not much of a correlation there (R2=0.01), suggesting that FTTH adoption isn't a magic bullet for experienced speed.

Some of the countries which have been least interested in FTTH to date, like the UK (firmly in the FTTH Council's sin bin), are actually doing just fine on measured broadband speed. Conversely, Portugal, which has spent billions to secure 67% coverage for FTTH and 13% penetration, isn't seeing great speeds as a result.

Of course I'm not saying that there's no linkage between FTTH and national broadband speeds (and South Korea with lots of FTTH/B tops Akamai's speed tables), but the linkage is rather weaker than might be assumed.

The fundamental point here is that to begin with infrastructure targets is to start at precisely the wrong end of the problem. The correct starting point is 'what user experiences do we want to enable?' and to work backwards from this to the required bandwidth, latency, mobility and so on. Then from that you can think sensibly about infrastructure needs.

Otherwise we're arguing about who's tilted at most windmills.

[PS: Apologies for the extended absence, I've been busy with clients, not least on figuring out bandwidth requirements - a post for another day]

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Rising mobile offload to Wifi - saviour of the case for FTTH, or warning sign?

The ever-interesting Benoît Felten has a post up about WiFi offload, with some stats from Mobidia. These figures show that between two-thirds and three-quarters of traffic to mobile devices travels by WiFi, not macrocellular.

His conclusion is:

   Take that, “we’ll only need mobile networks in the future” posse…

And in that he's surely right. No matter how exciting the potential of mobile data, its simply not, at a nationwide level, a substitute for fixed broadband. If the traffic off-loaded to WiFi and the fixed network today were to be 'on-loaded' on to the cellular network, the cellular network would fall over. (This is different of course from decisions at an individual consumer level - some households may decide they can get by with mobile broadband and no fixed broadband).

However, while the future of fixed broadband seems secure, I think usage of mobile devices has a more subtle message regarding the prospects for superfast broadband. Sandvine have recently released their fascinating Global Internet Phenomena Report. One finding is that in North America, 25% of streaming audio and video traffic is delivered to a mobile device in the home - up, presumably, from 0% just a few years ago in the era before smartphones and tablets. This is roughly consistent with figures from the BBC regarding usage of their iPlayer on-demand TV service - 30% of requests for programmes are coming from mobiles and tablets (up from 15% a year ago).

What's this got to do with FTTH? Well, one of the supposed drivers of the need for FTTH is 4K TVs -here's NBN Co getting excited about 85" TV screens. However, if usage of on-demand TV is already shifting to small, handheld devices, that suggests usage on mega-TVs may not be quite what the enthusiasts hope. Mobile devices offer the convenience of a personal device that they can watch in any room of the house (or perhaps in bed - iPlayer's peak of requests is after 10pm). Consumers increasingly seem to be choosing this over watching the content on a bigger screen, be that a TV or a PC monitor.

This isn't an absolute, of course. Households may want the huge screen for the big film on a Saturday night. But for day-to-day use, convenience may trump resolution.

[A footnote : I suspect the Mobidia numbers may be somewhat too high. The data is drawn from the users of Mobidia's 'My Data Manager' app, tag-line: "Take control of your mobile data". I suspect this may not be a representative sample, since such users may be a little more inclined than average to ... err ... take control of their mobile data. They perhaps are more diligent than the average in offloading. However, there's no doubt that WiFi offload is very significant, and drives an ongoing need for widespread fixed broadband.]

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Are there any serious analysts still gung-ho for fibre?

Once upon a time it was a lonely path being a fibre sceptic. These days I am in very good company indeed. Here's what leading international telecoms analysts have to say about FTTH:

"The disproportionately high spend on [FTTH] is highly problematic. It may come to be seen as inappropriate use of capital in the emerging competitive environment." [March 2012]

"The time required to roll out and install FTTH is as large a barrier as cost … There are very few plausible combinations of home services that will require over 100Mbps bandwidth by 2017." [April 2012]

"FTTH deployment costs are about five times greater than FTTC costs." [March 2013]

"In the current economic climate, it seems unnecessarily dogmatic to espouse ubiquitous FTTH, particularly when the broader ecosystem and regulatory support is out of step with market realities ... [A]lthough deeper penetration of fiber into the network is a must, universal FTTH is an impractical luxury that telcos cannot really afford. … It is difficult for a significant volume of users to justify paying a premium for higher speeds when the applications that they currently use function sufficiently well over high-speed DSL lines" [February 2013]

"The combination of sunk costs and highly uncertain demand (both in terms of take up and willingness to pay for ultra-fast broadband services) makes [FTTH] investments very risky … services that would make full use of the higher bandwidth of FTTH are not at present available" [Summer 2012]

"The initial focus of the European institutions and of national governments to date has been largely on deployment of fibre-based NGA – [FTTH] – largely to the exclusion of other high speed broadband capable infrastructure. This focus was arguably excessive … More recent statements by the European Commission suggest an increasing recognition of the need for a … strategy that acknowledges the potentially complementary role of other technologies." [September 2012]

"Operators’ interest in pay-as-you-grow strategies is also motivated by a dawning realisation of quite how hard – and expensive – rolling fiber right to the home is. In particular, the challenge of installing fibre in front gardens, buildings and individual homes has been “vastly underestimated”" [November 2012]

"Australia’s current FTTH-led model … is actually going very much against the global trend of operators using existing network assets to avoid the huge costs of FTTH in brown field sites." [March 2013]

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Japan - FTTP with tumbleweeds

Japan is often cited as one of the world leaders for superfast broadband. It has been rolling out fibre-to-the-premises for more than a decade, and now has one of the fastest fixed broadband networks in the world, second only to South Korea in terms of measured speed, with average speeds clocking in at 10.8 Mbps. (The speed of the last mile will be appreciably higher than this).

Of course, we all know that by itself FTTP is just glass in the ground. What matters is what you do with it. How much traffic is travelling across this network? Happily, Japan is one of the countries that tracks and reports this, so we can take a look. [Health warning - what follows is in part based on Google Translate, so there is the possibility I've missed a critical footnote].

Here's Japan's traffic per fixed broadband line since 2004:

A few observations:

  • Bandwidth usage is growing, but not exponentially. The growth rate in the last year was 17%
  • This is despite the fact that there was major adoption of FTTP in this period - as a share of fixed broadband it rose from 36% at the start of 2007 to 67% today (data here)
  • Usage is low relative to the line capacity - 54 Kbps vs the average speed of 10.8 Mbps measured by Akamai, representing a utilisation of 0.5% (though certainly it will periodically spike far higher than this for any given line)
  • It's also not the case that fibre delivered massive growth in per-line upload traffic - this peaked in late 2009, and has fallen almost 30% since then
It seems fair to call this a little underwhelming.  One factor may be that consumers are choosing to use the LTE mobile network rather than fixed connections. Indeed, it seems some consumers are seeing LTE as a complete substitute. According to Informa:
"NTT East and NTT West have been forced to slash their FTTH prices for new subscribers by an eye-watering 34% from ¥5,460 (US$66.70) to ¥3,600 per month to try and re-ignite their subscriber growth and stop the outflow of subscribers to cheaper LTE mobile broadband services."
Be that as it may, given that other countries are spending billions to replicate Japan's superfast fibre-optic infrastructure, presumably Japan is streets ahead of what's typical usage on copper networks? Another country that publishes usage stats is Australia, where the current government is investing massively to build FTTP (though 96% of households are still on cable or DSL).

Here's how Japan and Australia's per line traffic compares:

Source: Australia fixed lines and traffic from ABS. Japan as above
Note: Japan units converted from average kbps to monthly total GB

As of the end of last year, Australia's per-line fixed broadband traffic was roughly 70% higher than that in Japan. Despite a network that is undoubtedly technically inferior to Japan's, Australia is seeing robust growth. Of course all traffic is not created equal, but it seems fair to guess that Australia is getting more value out of the fixed internet than Japan is. By contrast, Japan's very expensive investment in FTTP doesn't seem to have delivered that much.

Network infrastructure is only as valuable as the usage it enables. Is it time for Japan to start envying Australia?

Monday, 11 March 2013

Netflix - bandwidth piglet

Netflix is notorious (at least amongst ISPs) as a bandwidth hog, consuming 1/3 of all North American internet backbone bandwidth. However, what's fascinating is that when you look at their usage from the perspective of an individual user's bandwidth, rather than the network as a whole, it's actually not overwhelming.

Some ISPs have an incentive to degrade Netflix traffic, since they have their own TV offerings they'd rather consumers bought instead. As a way to stop this happening, Netflix reports the performance it measures on different ISPs This data tells us an number of fascinating things.

1. Low bandwidth per stream
The bandwidth used per stream is low. In developed markets, the average stream is generally in the range or 2-2.5 Mbps. This isn't too much of a surprise, given that this is about typical for an SD TV picture. Whatever might fill up 100 Mbps bandwidth, it isn't likely to be standard TV

2. Performance driven by factors other than access speed
Most ISPs experienced a performance drop of approximately 5% in December (see Finland for example). Clearly this isn't because the access networks were downgraded. Rather it's likely because things got busy for the network (and Netflix) in that period, leading to congestion. This is important because it underlines that a poor experience for an end-user is often not caused by a problem in their internet access. There are many other parts of the system that can get congested

3. Access technology has relatively limited impact
While the numbers show a discernible difference between technologies, it isn't huge. In the US Verizon's FTTH-based FiOS service delivers Netflix streams at 2.10 Mbps. AT&T's U-Verse, based on FTTN, runs at 1.91 Mbps, not far behind. (Even the fabled Google fibre is only running at 3.35 Mbps for Netflix). Clearly the FTTH networks are capable of greater speed, and Netflix adapts to the available bandwidth, but in practice FiOS and U-Verse customers were having very similar experiences. This could be because there was a choke point somewhere else in the system, or the user had capped speeds (to husband data allowances) or the content was already playing at maximum resolution. No matter, the extra bandwidth was giving very limited benefit, even with a bandwidth intensive service like Netflix.

4. DSL compares well
Fourthly, the FiOS speed is all the more striking when compared to UK DSL providers. Of these only one (Everything Everywhere) was materially below FiOS' 2.10 Mbps. Of the other three, one exceeded it and two matched it (if we give the benefit of the doubt to Talk Talk, a whisker behind at 2.04 Mbps).

5 Stream speeds low relative to access network capabilities
These levels of usage (in the houses that actually use Netflix) are relatively low compared to the capability of the access network. Akamai measures average peak connection speeds at 29.6 Mbps for the US and 28.1 Mbps for the UK. While this isn't a strict apples-to-apples comparison to the Netflix figures, which are averages and will peak higher, it does suggest there's ample headroom even in today's networks.

Maybe massively higher resolution video and 3D TV will change this picture, and suddenly Netflix will be using much more? Perhaps. But even 3D TV will only require 12 Mbps, and this won't be widely used for a long time to come, not least because there just isn't that much 3D content yet.

Netflix may be a hog when it comes to the internet backbone. However, as we've seen, when it comes to the access network it's just a piglet.


The above post is as originally written, but MikeyB has pointed out something important I'd missed:

The Akamai average peak speeds are not averaged across lines, but but across IP addresses. Because IP addresses are dynamically allocated, one IP address might be applied to several lines in the course of a quarter (Akamai's measurement period), and Akamai's average-peak measure will only count the fastest of these lines. I'm not sure of the magnitude of this issue - it will depend on how frequently IP addresses are reallocated (particularly for fast lines), but there's no question that it means that Akamai's figures are a less good guide to the capacity of the average line than I thought, overstating it to some extent.

The other figure Akamai publishes is the average connection speed, which is undistorted by the 'peak' issues described above. However, it has its own issues. The average will be lowered by congestion at peering points, contention in the backhaul, server overload, interference with the end-user's wifi signal and various other things - none of these have anything to do with the speed of the access network, and thus this metric understates the capacity of the typical last mile connection.

Akamai's average speed will also be affected by simultaneous use in the home - if more than one person is sharing the connection, then the bandwidth 'perceived' by Akamai will also be reduced. Again, this will cause it to understate the speed of the access network, though may accurately reflect the speed available to a given person on a household.

Thus the capacity of the access network is likely lower than the peak speeds 29.6 and 28.1 Mbps for the US and UK respectively, and higher the average measured by Akamai, which is 7.2 and 6.3 Mbps.

Thus, I think the wider point that Netflix's bandwidth needs (at roughly 2 Mbps) are a long way below the capacity of the access network for the typical user stands. But my thanks to MikeyB for pointing out my error.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Fibre lobbyists think you're stupid

I've become acclimatised to some fairly blatant distortions of data and leaps of logic by some fibre lobbyists, but every now and then I'm still taken aback. Yes, I acknowledge it happens on both sides, but I would expect better of a company like Cisco.

I've been reading Cisco's 2012 report Get Up to Speed -How Developed Countries Can Benefit from Deploying Ultrafast Broadband Infrastructures, and came across this gem. The report offers examples of ultrafast broadband services in use today, including (p11):
"French company Erdenet supplies web-based courses that students can study at their own pace using interactive video and online collaboration tools. With an ordinary DSL connection, it is difficult to add rich media such as video, audio, and maps. Such applications require fiber connections."
Video, audio and maps require fiber?  Really?

For video, YouTube specify a minimum bandwidth of 500 Kbps. Of course higher speeds will give you better video resolution, but there's a big gap between 500 Kbps and the bandwidth of even a below average DSL connection. In the UK, less than 2% of ADSL households (roughly) are getting less than 7 Mbps in the evening busy hour (when speeds might be expected to be at their worst).

For audio, the picture is even starker. Even high quality audio streams typically use 320 Kbps or less.

The idea that maps require fibre I won't even dignify with a link. We've had maps online since the days of dial-up.

What's striking about Cisco's claim is that, while I've provided some technical data above, it's absolutely not necessary to know the claim is nonsense. Any DSL user reading that report will be well aware they're able to  use video, audio and maps.

I know Cisco aren't stupid - they can't possibly believe what they wrote. So it seems like the only other option is that they think we are.

Friday, 1 March 2013

'Compelling applications' for fibre - are we there yet?

Every year at about this time, the FTTH Council of Europe have their conference. They are the most enthusiastic proponents of fibre-to-the-home - they're the folks who claimed that it would be useful for remote surgery (see 0:50 of this). That's fibre to the home we're talking about ...

Anyway each year they present various assessments of the state of the European market. Part of the purpose of this (and it's a skilful bit of lobbying) is to create a sense of competition to see which country can rank highest in FTTH roll-out. The presentations have all sorts of rankings by different metrics, so almost every country can get some kind of recognition. It's like a school fête where almost every kid gets a prize. (The UK and Germany are the sulky kids who sit in the corner and won't even participate in the egg-and-spoon race).

The presentations also talk about some of the challenges that FTTH faces. Here's some disarmingly honest quotes from the Council (or their consultants) about FTTH from the last three years:

  2011: "No really compelling application that requires a fiber connection"
  2012: "No really compelling application that requires a fiber connection"
  2013: "No really compelling application yet"

Are you spotting the pattern here?

Now sometimes we're told this is a chicken-and-egg problem, that of course there aren't applications that need FTTH, because there isn't critical mass of FTTH to sustain them yet. However, according to the FTTH Council there are 107m FTTH connections around the world. Give or take, that's roughly the same as the number of basic broadband connections there were in 2003 (103m, according to the ITU).

By 2003 we had the iTunes store, Skype, streaming video, movie downloads, numerous IPTV services and many other broadband-dependent services that are critical features of the market to this day.

If 100m broadband households were more than enough to support the development of a plethora of compelling applications for basic broadband, why is it that 100m FTTH housholds don't seem to have driven any compelling applications at all?

Not only are we not there yet, it may just be the case that there's no 'there' there.