The rise of low-earth-orbit satellite technology to enable decent Internet service for regional, rural and remote parts of the world has gained a bit more traction.
This time, it is the German Federal Government (Bundesregierung) with its Transport ministry who are subsidising Starlink installations across rural Germany. The US’s FCC has engaged in some form of subsidisation for Starlink but this is at a corporate level as part of their US-government-based program for enabling decent rural Internet service there.
The German approach is to provide EUR€500 towards Starlink hardware purchase for installation in Germany’s rural areas. This doesn’t just apply to Starlink but to any satellite or other radio-link-based Internet service provided on a retail level. It is intended to be consumer-focused and provider-agnostic in the same manner as what is expected for the provision of broadcasting and telecommunications in modern Germany.
It doesn’t apply to ongoing service costs that customers pay to keep the service alive. In the case of Starlink, the monthly service costs are EUR€99 / month at the time of writing.
.. to improve access to real broadband in German rural areas
This was just announced as Tesla were about to commence work on building its European Gigafactory near Berlin and was riding on the fact that Tesla and SpaceX Starlink are owned by Elon Musk. The Bundesregierung need to seek approval from all of Germany’s 16 Federal States for this retail-level subsidy to go ahead.
The question that will come up is whether public subsidies for satellite or other radio-based Internet service is the way to go to bring decent broadband Internet to rural areas. This is compared to current efforts by local or regional governments in cohort with local chambers of commerce to bring fibre-optic Internet to rural and regional areas.
There will also be the issue of whether to extend this kind of subsidy to people living in boats along Germany’s inland waterways. Think of retirees who have riverboats on the Rhine, Elbe or Wupper rivers or cabin cruisers on the likes of Lake Constance (Bodensee).
Personally, I would see Starlink and similar technology come in to play for sparse rural areas while fibre or similar deployments are considered for more dense settlements. The long fibre-optic trunk link between towns or to serve a remote employment / industry area should never be forgotten as a way to encourage economic growth along its path.
At least Germany is taking another approach to dealing with the rural Internet deficiency issue by subsidising the installation of Starlink and similar technology in its rural households.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has on the 21 April 2021 made his Project Kuiper low-earth-orbit satellite effort ready to launch. This, like OneWeb, will be in competition to the SpaceX Starlink low-earth-orbit satellite effort driven by Elon Musk of Tesla fame.
This will be about providing affordable reliable credible satellite broadband Internet service primarily to rural and regional areas.
Initially the satellites will be launched using Atlas V rockets owned by the United Launch Alliance that is established by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. But Amazon are wanting to work with other space-tech consortia like Arianespace, Bezos’s own Blue Origin company or Elon Musk’s SpaceX company.
The Kuiper constellation consists of 3236 satellites that work at an orbit of 590-630 km. The customer’s installation for the Kuiper setup will be based around a 12” flat-dish antenna, something equivalent to the size of an LP vinyl record. It will be about making such equipment affordable and portable for most users.
But Musk’s Starlink service has a head start with coverage of the Earth, Earth-station installations and service licensing in a significant number of countries. As well Starlink even has got going with seeking regulatory approval for mobile equipment intended to be installed in road and rail vehicles, maritime vessels and aircraft.
But to achieve the desireable amount of competition for the satellite Internet service, there will be a significant number of hurdles. There will be the launch frequency issue i.e. how frequently Jeff Bezos can get satellites in to space to cover the Earth. There is also the issue of establishing ground stations and licensing end-user device designs and legitimately providing service in many jurisdictions. It also includes the design and licensing of mobile stations for installation on vehicles, vessels and aircraft to allow use of Kuiper on the move.
Both the tech visionaries are in a bitter fight to the end with the FCC regarding licensing of satellites and similar technology. But when in full flight, expect competitive service and low prices for broadband at your bush block.
I do still see a significant number of questions come about regarding low-earth-orbit satellite broadband in its current form. Firstly, there needs to be a wide variety of customer equipment that suits different use cases, such as satellite modems that work with broadband routers that have Ethernet WAN connections,
There will have to be the issue of assuring the legitimacy of satellite-broadband service within peri-urban rural areas. These are the rural areas that form the hinterland of a city or large town and some of these areas do not have access to broadband service of a decent standard due to the settlements being relatively sparse. Here, if there is a requirement to assure “rural-only” service for a satellite-broadband service, the peri-urban areas could be deemed legitimate based on the absence of wired or terrestrial wireless broadband service providing a minimum bandwidth.
Similarly there will be the issue of facilitating mobile and portable satellite broadband services whether to serve campers or to serve airlines offering inflight Wi-Fi. For countries with international land borders or airlines and ships that offer international transport, it will encompass providing mobile satellite broadband on an international form.
But what I see of the Starlink and Kuiper efforts is that they are about providing decent and affordable broadband service to rural and remote areas of the world. This year could effectively be the year of a race for this goal.
A consistent problem associated with bringing broadband Internet to rural and remote places is the cost and time involved in bringing these services there. But there have been various efforts by public and private sector entities to implement satellite broadband to serve this need.
Most of these have distinct disadvantages such as the equipment and service being very costly and a lot of these services not offering great bandwidth and latency. Let’s not forget that the deployment of this technology isn’t all that scaleable.
The COVID-19 coronavirus plague has underscored how dependent we are on Internet connectivity for our business and social lives. The role of rural areas has even been underscored with these areas gaining increased appeal to live or do business within because of the pandemic. A recent Euroconsult report has stated that satellite broadband will gain its value over the next decade as a way to enable access to the Internet from remote areas.
The new low-earth-orbit satellites
… allowing more rural and remote areas to gain real broadband
But a new form of satellite broadband is being pushed out at the moment. This is based on low-earth-orbit satellite technology which uses a very large constellation of satellites that are closer to Earth than traditional satellite technology. This improves on latency and on bandwidth available to the end users.
Silicon Valley visionaries like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have been behind this technology in order to have Internet all over the world, even in the remotest areas thereof.
But Elon Musk has got this idea off the ground with Starlink which is a subsidiary of his SpaceX venture. Most of his constellation of Starlink satellites are in orbit now while he has more being manufactured and set up for launch. The service is in beta testing for the USA, UK, Ireland, New Zealand and Germany at the time of writing but more areas are expected to be covered soon. They have also started establishing their presence in Australia.
Elon Musk’s service isn’t just for rural and remote areas at the moment. He is seeking FCC type approval for equipment that is to be installed on vehicles, ships and aircraft and to be operated while the vehicle, vessel or aircraft is moving. This is to court the provision of Internet service aboard the likes of commercial jets, the merchant navy and long-distance land transport. Who knows when Musk will then have consumer equipment designed to facilitate ad-hoc use of Starlink from caravans, motorhomes or remote camping locations.
Another service being pushed out at the moment is the OneWeb service that is pushed out by a UK and Indian consortium. Let’s not forget that Amazon is working on their Project Kuiper low-earth-orbit satellite service but they want to make sure everything is perfect before a single satellite is launched.
The idea of having many satellites is being made feasible with reuseable rockets like the Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket, which effectively reduces the cost of launching many spacecraft.
What I see of the low-earth-orbit satellite constellations is that they are intended to be viable competition in the satellite-broadband Internet service space. This could allow the idea of cost-effective high-throughput low-latency broadband to be made available to rural and remote areas or long-distance transport applications.
A very common issue affecting multiple-premises buildings like apartment blocks, office blocks and shopping centres is the provision of wireline telecommunications infrastructure through these buildings to serve tenants or lot owners who want to benefit from services offered through the infrastructure. Here, there can be problems regarding the landlord or other powers-that-be who have oversight of the building accepting the installation of such infrastructure.
The United Kingdom are facing this problem with their large multi-premises buildings but in a particular way. There, most of these buildings are owned by a single landlord who leases out each premises i.e. an apartment or retail / office space to a tenant in exchange for monthly rent. But the landlords tend to gain a lot of “clout” when it comes to permitting infrastructure to be deployed through a building.
What has been happening with deployment of next-generation broadband infrastructure in these buildings is that some landlords are not responding to requests regarding this infrastructure existing in their buildings. This is compared to most landlords taking up the offer on next-generation broadband through their building due to this giving the building or the lettable space more marketable value.
It is seen as an aggravating issue as multiple regional broadband infrastructure providers are setting up shop in different villages, towns and cities across the country in order to provide cost-effective Gigabit internet service to its citizens.
A new law, the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Act 2021, has been enacted through the whole of the UK to answer this matter. This allows a telecommunications infrastructure network provider to deploy broadband infrastructure through a multiple-premises building or similar leasehold building.
It facilitates an improved tribunal-based dispute-resolution mechanism as well as an obligation on landlords to facilitate the deployment of digital infrastructure through their buildings. These actions come in to play when the landlord has repeatedly failed to respond to requests from an ISP to install a broadband connection that the tenant has requested.
A lot of the talk of this law was focusing on pure-play residential developments i.e. apartment blocks and towers. But there is effectively the idea to extend the scope of this law to cover commercial-focused developments like office blocks and shopping centres. I also see this encompassing mixed-use developments that have commercial and residential premises, as is increasingly the trend especially with apartment blocks having the ground floor or the first few floors having commercial or retail premises.
Of course, the questions that come up include who assumes responsibility for the installation and maintenance of any infrastructure between the communications room and the individual premises. It also includes whether that infrastructure belongs to the landlord or the network provider.
It will undergo periodic review and refinement processes as what a well-oiled legislative instrument should be doing. But I also see this benefiting network infrastructure operators who serve dense urban areas where many large apartment blocks and high-rise developments exist.
An issue that has to be looked at during this review cycle is situations where multiple network infrastructure providers approach a building’s landlord and seek to arrange connection. Here, it will be about whether unnecessary duplication of “communications-closet to premises” infrastructure should take place especially if such infrastructure is of the same medium like optical fibre, RF coaxial cable or Cat5 Ethernet. It is a situation that will come about as the Internet service becomes more competitive in the UK’s urban areas and multiple service providers will knock on a landlord’s door or tout tenants for their services.
Then there will be the question of whether a landlord must rent out roof space on their multiple-premises building for RF-based communications services like 5G small-cell base stations, digital-broadcasting infill repeaters or business-radio transmitters. This question will be distinct due to the building’s premises tenants not directly benefiting from the infrastructure and will encompass the installation of associated power and wireline backhaul infrastructure.
At least there are processes in place to make sure that large multiple-premises buildings in the UK will benefit from ultrafast broadband Internet services.
AVM is offering to the German market a Wi-Fi router that is a sign of things to come for home-network routers.
This unit, known as the Fritz!Box 5530 Fiber has a built-in optical-network modem that works with current-specification fibre-to-the-premises networks. It doesn’t matter whether the network implements active or passive topology, which would cater for situations where the infrastructure provider or ISP upgrades the service to active technology for increased capacity.
The fibre-optic cable for the network would have to be equipped with SFP fibre-optic plugs which allow the user to plug it in to the FTTP service. Depending on the FTTP installation, this may be a captive fibre-optic flylead that you plug in to the modem or fibre-optic cable you plug in to the equipment and a wall socket.
Here, this kind of router would come in handy where fibre-to-the-premises services are able to be delivered on a “bring-your-own-equipment” basis. Here, this may be a self-install setup for those premises which have extant FTTP infrastructure for the network that provides the desired service. Or it could be for professionally-installed “new-infrastructure” services where the customer supplies their own equipment or the equipment is supplied under separate delivery.
It would also appeal to ISPs who want to provide a router with integrated optical-network-terminal functionality as their customer-premises equipment.
On the left is the SFP fibre-optic connection for your FTTP fibre-optic Internet service while the Ethernet socket in the middle outlined in white is the 2.5 Gigabit Ethernet socket.
On the LAN side, there are three Ethernet connections with one being a 2.5 Gigabit connection for “multiple-Gigabit” Ethernet networks along with two Gigabit Ethernet connections. The Wi-Fi segment is a two-stream Wi-Fi 6 setup which allows for high-throughput wireless networking. Of course, these connections work at the stated speed if equipment matching these specifications is connected to them.
The Fritz!Box 5530 Fiber has VoIP adaptor functionality including a DECT base station for six handsets along with an analogue-telephony-adaptor for one regular telephony device, including a fax machine. This setup is SIP compliant for setup with most Fixed-Line IP services that are the way to provide landline telephony in the era of fibre-to-the-premises broadband.
At the moment, the Fritz!Box 5530 Fiber sells to the German market for a recommended-retail price of EUR€169. But the fact that it provides a fibre-optic WAN and at least one multi-gigabit Ethernet LAN connection to answer the trend of high-throughput Internet and home-network connectivity.
This could become in the near future the path to go for home-network routers as fibre-to-the-premises Gigabit broadband Internet takes hold. It also underscores what is going on with the design of consumer IT hardware within Europe.
This year will see a question about whether Gigabit or faster fixed-line broadband Internet services will be relevant in the face of 5G cellular wireless broadband services.
5G wireless broadband will have a theoretical maximum bandwidth of 10-50Gbps and an average bandwidth of between 100Mbps to 200Mbps. This average speed will start to increase as it becomes less dependent on 4G wireless broadband technology. But these figures are affected by the kind of reception your 5G endpoint device is getting from the service.
… or 5G wireless cellular broadband (whether fixed-wireless or mobile broadband) – what is relevant?
This typically is delivered in the form of mobile broadband services that are used with smartphones, tablets and other portable devices. But it is also being delivered as a “fixed-wireless” broadband service where the customer connects a more-powerful 5G modem to their home network. Optus is providing this kind of service offering to declare independence from Australia’s NBN service but it is offered in areas where it isn’t technically feasible or too costly to deploy fixed broadband service.
Current-generation fixed-line broadband services are capable of at least 1Gbps upload/download n the case of fibre-to-the-premises services. The ideal setup or “gold standard” for this kind of service is fibre-to-the-premises but various fibre-copper setups are being used that can deliver close to this speed. These are based on DOCSIS 3.x cable-modem technology, RJ45 Ethernet cable technology or G.Fast DSL-based telephone-cable technology with the copper run covering a small neighbourhood or a multi-tenant development.
The 5G technology would be cheap to establish but costly to maintain and upgrade. This is compared to fixed-line broadband technology that would be expensive to establish but cheap to maintain and upgrade. In most cases, an upgrade would be about new equipment in the racks at the headends at least. Or a fibre-copper service may be upgraded through a change of topology towards a full-fibre (fibre-to-the-premises) setup.
Typically, fixed-line broadband would be the preferred solution for those of us living in larger built-up communities. It is although there are efforts like B4RN who are pushing fibre-to-the-premises fixed-line broadband in to rural areas within the UK. Sparser areas may prefer to implement 5G wireless-broadband technology with a few large low-frequency 5G cells covering those areas.
Both technologies can complement and serve each other in various ways.
Since 5G technology is based on a cellular-wireless approach, each base station needs to link to a backhaul to pass the data to each other and to other communications devices connected to wired infrastructure around the world. As well, the 5G wireless technology operates at radio frequencies up to 6GHz thus requiring many smaller “cells” (base stations for a cellular-wireless network) to cover a populous area. Even the use of many of the very small cells like picocells or femtocells to cover buildings or shopping strips would require the use of a backhaul.
In this case, fixed-line broadband networks especially fibre-optic networks can be used to provide this backhaul.
Increasingly, Wi-Fi network segments connected to fixed-line broadband setups are being considered as a complementary wireless-network solution. This may be about providing load-balancing for the 5G-based cellular service, even as a failover mechanism should the user not experience ideal reception conditions or the network underperforms. The classic example here would be indoor settings where building materials and the like obstruct 5G cellular coverage using the typical smartphone’s own antenna.
On the other hand, the 5G technology will maintain its keep for mobile / portable use cases while fixed-line broadband networks will serve in-building network use cases. 5G will also satisfy those use cases where it is technically unfeasible or cost-prohibitive to deploy a fixed-line broadband network.
For that matter, the mobile / portable use cases are what the technologists are banking on for 5G wireless-network technology. Here, they are envisaging the likes of self-driving vehicles, drones and the like depending on this technology for communication with each other. This is along with it being as a data backbone for the “smart city” that is driven by the “Internet of Everything”, facilitating improvements for things like service delivery, public safety / security, transport, energy efficiency and the like.
But 5G and fixed-line broadband, especially fibre-to-the-premises broadband, will exist on a “horses for courses” approach. Here, one technology may be about data reliability and infrastructure upgradeability or the other may be about mobile / portable or transient use.
In some countries like the UK, Australia and Germany, regional broadband infrastructure providers set up shop to provide next-generation broadband to a particular geographic area within a country.
This is used to bring next-generation broadband technology like fibre-to-the-premises to homes and businesses within that geographic area. But let me remind you that fibre-to-the-premises isn’t the only medium they use — some of them use fixed wireless or a fibre-copper setup like HFC cable-modem technology or fibre + Ethernet-cable technology. But they aren’t using the established telephone network at all thus they stay independent of the incumbent infrastructure provider and, in some areas like rural areas, that provider’s decrepit “good enough to talk, not good enough for data” telephone wiring.
In the UK especially, most of these operators will target a particular kind of population centre like a rural village cluster (Gigaclear, B4RN, etc), a large town or suburb (Zzoom), city centres (Cityfibre, Hyperoptic, etc) or even just greenfield developments. Some operators set themselves up in multiple population centres in order to get them wired up for the newer technology but all of the operators will work on covering the whole of that population centre, including its outskirts.
This infrastructure may be laid ahead of the incumbent traditional telco or infrastructure operator like Openreach, NBN or Deutsche Telekom or it may be set up to provide a better Internet service than what is being offered by the incumbent operator. But it is established and maintained independently of the incumbent operator.
Internet service offerings
Typically the independent regional broadband infrastructure providers run a retail Internet-service component available to households and small businesses in that area and using that infrastructure. The packages are often pitched to offer more value for money than what is typically offered in that area thanks to the infrastructure that the provider controls.
But some nations place a competitive-market requirement on these operators to offer wholesale Internet service to competing retail ISPs, with this requirement coming in to force when they have significant market penetration.That is usually assessed by the number of actual subscribers who are connected to the provider’s Internet service or the number of premises that are passed by the operator’s street-level infrastructure. In addition, some independent regional infrastructure providers offer wholesale service earlier as a way to draw in more money to increase their footprint.
This kind of wholesale internet service tends to be facilitated by special wholesale Internet-service markets that these operators are part of. Initially this will attract boutique home and small-business Internet providers who focus on particular customer niches. But some larger Internet providers may prefer to take an infrastructure-agnostic approach, offering mainstream retail Internet service across multiple regional service providers.
Support by local and regional government
Local and regional governments are more likely to provide material and other support to these regional next-generation infrastructure operators. This is to raise their municipality’s or region’s profile as an up-to-date community to live or do business within. It is also part of the “bottom-up” approach that these operators take in putting themselves on the map.
In a lot of cases, the regional next-generation infrastructure providers respond to tenders put forward by local and regional governments. This is either to provide network and Internet service for the government’s needs or to “wire up” the government’s are of jurisdiction or a part thereof for next-generation broadband.
There will have to be legislative enablers put forward by national and regional governments to permit the creation and operation of regional next-generation broadband network infrastructure. This could include the creation and management of wholesale-broadband markets to permit retail-Internet competition.
There is also the need to determine how much protection a small regional infrastructure operator needs against the incumbent or other infrastructure operators building over their infrastructure with like offerings. This may be about assuring the small operator sufficient market penetration in their area before others come along and compete, along with providing an incentive to expand in to newer areas.
It will also include issues like land use and urban planning along with creation and maintenance of rights-of-way through private, regulated or otherwise encumbered land for such use including competitors’ access to these rights-of-way.
That also extends to access to physical infrastructure like pits, pipes and poles by multiple broadband service providers, especially where an incumbent operator has control over that infrastructure. It can also extend to use of conduits or dark fibre installed along rail or similar infrastructure expressly for the purpose of creating data-communications paths.
That issue can also extend to how multiple-premises buildings and developments like shopping centres, apartment blocks and the like are “wired up” for this infrastructure. Here, it can be about allowing or guaranteeing right of access to these developments by competing service providers and how in-building infrastructure is provided and managed.
The need for independent regional next-generation broadband infrastructure
But if an Internet-service market is operating in a healthy manner offering value-for-money Internet service like with New Zealand there may not be a perceived need to allow competing regional next-generation infrastructure to exist.
Such infrastructure can be used to accelerate the provision of broadband within rural areas, provide different services like simultanaeous-bandwidth broadband service for residential users or increase the value for money when it comes to Internet service. Here, the existence of this independent infrastructure with retail Internet services offered through it can also be a way to keep the incumbent service operator in check.
The UK is still pushing on with the idea of providing gigabit-class broadband in to its rural areas in a few different ways. It is becoming very real as COVID-19 validated the concept of working from home and has made the idea of “tree-changes” to rural areas more appealing.
Government assistance being provided
At the moment, the government is providing national-level financial help to these rural communities, especially those that are relatively distant. This is in the from of subsidising connections to current-specification gigabit broadband Internet through the implementation of a voucher scheme. It is also being supported by local-government funding in some areas thus making these efforts more affordable. The driver will be to have the Internet connection future-proofed to suit newer connection needs.
Here, it’s about subsidising costs associated with activity necessary to bring broadband out to distant areas like digging long trenches to lay fibre-optic cabling. This is something that most commercial operators would find difficult to cover out of their budgets alone.
Of course a lot of this effort is being driven by a number of independent broadband networks who are laying down their own infrastructure in to these areas. Some of these efforts like Gigaclear are ordinary businesses while some like B4RN are co-operatives that have local help towards laying down infrastructure through the rural areas. It is seen as a way to sidestep the likes of Openreach who may see the rural market as being less profitable to have to current specification.
Wholesale broadband market for independent infrastructure providers
The UK market is gaining an increasing number of independent broadband Internet infrastructure providers who are courting particular geographical areas, be it large cities or rural areas. Examples of these include Gigaclear and B4RN serving rural communities, through Zzoom who serve large towns and suburbs, to Hyperoptic and Cityfibre who serve large cities. Most of them offer very-high-bandwidth service using fibre-optic technology, usually fibre-to-the-premises and offer this service on a retail footing.
Another factor that is being considered is to give independent network infrastructure operators access to the wholesale broadband trading market. This is so they can allow retail Internet service providers to buy bandwidth on their networks to sell to end-users, which is part of a lively competitive Internet-service market.
The main issue that plagues independent network infrastructure providers is the fact they can only sell wholesale access to retail ISPs directly. That makes it hard for a retail ISP or telco to buy bandwidth on multiple infrastructure providers serving many communities and they would have to deal one-to-one with each infrastructure provider. It may appeal to a speciality ISP who provides bespoke Internet services to particular user groups but wouldn’t satisfy ISPs targeting the mass market.
It makes it also confusing to end-users who want to take advantage of a particular technology offered by one or more of these providers but want to be sure of what is offered on their platform and by whom. This includes knowing who will offer their Internet service and at what prices. As well, there is the difficulty associated with admitting competing providers to these networks to permit a highly-vibrant broadband market using these technologies.
The UK’s independent infrastructure providers are working towards a wholesale-broadband market that simplifies the processes required of retail ISPs to buy wholesale bandwidth (and operating rights) in multiple communities. The ability to easily sell bandwidth wholesale may make it more economically feasible for independent infrastructure providers to build out in to more areas due to tbem being able to sell more of the bandwidth and recoup infrastructure costs quickly.
Here, these infrastructure providers offer the bandwidth to ISPs in an aggregate approach. As well, there will be mechanisms that will exist to facilitate the switching of a connection between ISPs who use the same infrastructure. The
I also see this facilitating the ability for retail ISPs to provide single-pipe triple-play services to residential customers using the independent infrastructure providers. This means that customers could benefit from packages that have landline telephony, multichannel pay-TV and broadband “hot and cold running” Internet through the same connection on the same account. It would mean that moving to that large AGA-stove-equipped farmhouse won’t have you forego the cost-savings associated with these packages when you want landline telephony, pay TV and an Internet connection at the farmhouse.
A question that can easily arise is the possibility for a retail ISP to offer its services on multiple infrastructure providers that serve the same geographic area. In the UK, it could be an independently-operated fibre-to-the-premises network or it could be Openreach’s infrastructure for example.
This may be of benefit with providing all levels of service within a neighbourhood even if different providers offer differently-capable infrastructure to that neighbourbood. Or it can be about assuring service competition when there are exclusionary agreements regarding access to a premises for supplying network infrastructure.
Britain is still keeping its foot on the accelerator regarding the availability of current-specification. Here, it will have to be about public subsidies for reaching hard-to-reach rural areas along with measures to assure competitive Internet service to current specifications.
In the UK, a person who bought a London apartment worth multiple millions of pounds is litigating the owners of the apartment building it is in because of substandard Internet service within the building.
They took up the lease on the apartment after being sold on the fact that there was to be proper Internet coverage to all rooms therein along with proper service within the building. But the service was below par before Hyperoptic ran fibre-optic Internet connectivity through the building in 2016. This led to him using public-access Wi-Fi at a local library and cafe as well as the home network and Internet service at his brother’s home before that installation.
This case, although litigated within the UK, touches on contract-law issues especially when it comes to the description of a premises that is subject to a lease or sale agreement. Here, it is pointing to the expected standard of broadband Internet service and network wiring that is provided within the premises. It is also of importance concerning what is being provided within high-density developments like apartment blocks that based around multiple premises being integrated in few buildings.
Concurrently, the UK Government are working on regulations regarding the provision of this infrastructure, whether to provide communications and Internet service to the premises in the development or to establish a mobile-telecommunications base station especially where a landlord or building committee who has oversight regarding the building won’t respond.
I see this case bring in to scope issues regarding how the standard of telecommunications services available to a premises is represented in its sale or lease contract. This will have a stronger affect on apartments and similar premises that are integrated within a larger building. It will also be part of the question about infrastructure providers’ access to these buildings and the premises therein.
Gigaclear underscores the value of infrastructure-level competition
An issue that will be worth raising regarding the quality of service for newer high-speed fixed-line broadband services is the existence of infrastructure-level competition.
When we talk of infrastructure for a fixed-line Internet service, we are talking of copper and/or fibre-optic cabling used to take this service around a neighbourhood to each of the customers’ premises.
Then each premises has a modem of some sort, that in a lot of cases is integrated in the router, which converts the data to a form that makes it available across its network. A significant number of these infrastructure providers will supply the modem especially if they cannot provide a “wires-only” or “bring your own modem” service due to the technology they are implementing and, in a lot of these cases, will legally own the modem.
In Europe, Australia and some other countries, this broadband infrastructure is provided by an incumbent telco or an infrastructure provider and multiple retail-level telecommunications and Internet providers lease capacity on this infrastructure to provide their services to the end-user. This is compared to North America where an infrastructure provider exclusively provides their own retail-level telecommunications and Internet services to end users via their infrastructure.
In a lot of cases where multiple retail telecommunications and Internet providers use the same infrastructure, the incumbent telco may be required to divest themselves of their fixed-line infrastructure to a separate privately-owned or government-owned corporation in order to satisfy a competitive-service requirement. This means that they cannot provide a retail Internet or telecommunications service over that infrastructure at a cost advantage over competitors offering the same service over the same infrastructure. Examples of this include Openreach in the UK, NBN in Australia and Chorus in New Zealand.
A problem with having a dominant infrastructure provider is that there is a strong risk of this provider offering to retail telecommunications providers and their end-users poor value for money when it comes to telecommunications and Internet services. It also can include this provider engaging in “redlining” which is the practice of providing substandard infrastructure or refusing to provide any infrastructure to neighbourhoods that they don’t perceive as being profitable like those that are rural or disadvantaged.
Some markets like the UK and France implement or encourage infrastructure-level competition where one or more other entities can lay their own infrastructure within urban or rural neighbourhoods. Then they can either run their own telecommunications and Internet services or lease the bandwidth to other companies who want to provide their own services.
Where infrastructure-level competition exists, there are at least two different providers who provide street-based infrastructure for telecommunications and Internet service. The providers may run their own end-user telecommunications and Internet services using this infrastructure and/or they simply lease the bandwidth provided via this infrastructure to other retail Internet providers to provide these services to their customers.
Some competitors buy and use whatever “dark fibre” that exists from other previous fibre-optic installations to provide this service. Or they provide an enterprise communications infrastructure for government or big business in a neighbourhood but use dark fibre or underutilised fibre capacity from this job for offering infrastructure-level competition in that area.
As well, larger infrastructure operators who pass many premises in a market may be required to open up their infrastructure to telcos and Internet service providers that compete with their retail offering. This is something that ends up as a requirement for a highly-competitive telecommunications environment.
This kind of competition allows a retail-level telco or ISP to choose infrastructure for their service that offers them best value for money. This is more important for those retail-level ISPs and telcos who offer telecommunications and Internet to households and small businesses. As well, whenever a geographic area like a rural neighbourhood or new development is being prepared for high-speed broadband Internet, it means that the competing infrastructure providers are able to offer improved-value contracts for the provision of this service in that area.
Infrastructure-level competition also allows for the retail-level providers to innovate in providing their services without needing to risk much money in their provision. It can allow for niche providers such as high-performance gaming-focused ISPs or telcos that offer triple-play services to particular communities.
There is also an incentive amongst infrastructure providers to improve their customer service and serve neighbourhoods that wouldn’t otherwise be served. It is thanks to the risk of retail ISPs or their customers jumping to competitors if the infrastructure provider doesn’t “cut the mustard” in this field. As well, public spending on broadband access provision benefits due to the competition for infrastructure tenders for these projects.
What needs to happen
An issue commonly raised by independent infrastructure providers who are the first to wire-up a neighbourhood is the time they have exclusive access to that market. It is raised primarily in the UK by those independent infrastructure providers like Gigaclear or community infrastructure co-operatives like B4RN who have engaged in wiring up a rural community with next-generation fibre-optic broadband whether out of their pocket or with financial assistance from local government or local chambers of commerce.
This is more so where an established high-profile infrastructure provider that has big-name retail Internet providers on its books hasn’t wired-up that neighbourhood yet or is providing a service of lower capability compared to the independent provider who appeared first. For these independent operators, it is about making sure that they have a strong profile in that neighbourhood during their period of exclusivity.
Then, when the established infrastructure provider offers an Internet service of similar or better standard to the independent provider, the situation is described as a “build-over” condition. It then leads to the independent provider becoming a infrastructure-level competitor against the established provider which may impinge on cost recovery as far as the independent’s infrastructure is concerned. Questions that will come up include whether the independent operator should be compensated for loss of exclusivity in the neighbourhood, or allowing a retail ISP or telco who used the independent’s infrastructure to offer their service on the newcomer’s infrastructure.
Pits, Poles and Pipes
Another issue that will be raised is the matter of the physical infrastructure that houses the cable or fibre-optic wiring i.e. the pits, poles and pipes. These may be installed and owned by the telecommunications infrastructure provider for their own infrastructure or they may be installed and owned by a third-party operator like a utility or local council.
The first issue that can be raised is whether an infrastructure provider has exclusive access to particular physical infrastructure and whether they have to release the access to this infrastructure to competing providers. It doesn’t matter whether the infrastructure provider has their own physical infrastructure or gains access rights to physical infrastructure provided by someone else like a local government or utility company.
The second issue that also can crop up is access to public thoroughfares and private property to install and maintain infrastructure. This relates to legal access powers that government departments in charge of the jurisdiction’s regulated thoroughfares like roads and rails may provide to the infrastructure provider; or the wayleaves and easements negotiated between property owners and the infrastructure provider. In the context of competitive service, this may be about whether or not an easement, for example, is exclusive to a particular infrastructure provider.
Then there is the issue of sustainable competition within the area. This is where the competitors and the incumbent operator can make money by providing infrastructure-level Internet service yet the end-users have the benefits of a highly-competitive market. A market with too much competition can easily end up with premature consolidation where various retail or infrastructure providers cease to exist or end up merging.
Typically the number of operators that can sustainably compete may he assessed on the neighbourhood’s adult population count or the number of households and businesses within the neighbourhood. Also it can be assessed on the number of households and businesses that are actually taking up the broadband services or likely to do so in that neighbourhood.
Retail providers having access to multiple infrastructure providers
An issue that will affect retail-level telcos and ISPs is whether they have access to only one infrastructure operator or can benefit from access to multiple operators. This may be an issue where the infrastructure operators differ in attributes like maximum bandwidth or footprint and a major retail-level operator want to benefit from these different attributes.
In one of these situations, a retail-level broadband provider who wants to touch as many markets as possible may use one infrastructure provider for areas served by that provider. Then they use other providers that serve other areas that their preferred infrastructure provider doesn’t touch yet. This may also apply if they want to offer service plans with a particular specification offered by an infrastructure provider answering that specification but competing with the infrastructure provider they normally use.
Then there is the issue of multiple-premises buildings and developments where there is a desire to provide this level of service competition for the occupants but offer it in a cost-effective manner.
This may be answered by each infrastructure provider running their own wiring through the building but this approach leads to multiple wires and points installed at each premises. On the other hand, an infrastructure cable of a particular kind could be wired through the building and linked using switching / virtual-network technology to different street-side infrastructures. This could be based on cable technology like VDSL, Ethernet or fibre-optic so that infrastructure providers who use a particular technology for in-building provision use the infrastructure relating to that technology.
Estate-type developments with multiple buildings may have questions raised about them. Here, it may be about whether the infrastructure is to be provided and managed on a building-level basis or a development-wide basis. This can be more so where the multiple-building development is to be managed during its lifetime as though it is one entity comprising of many buildings.
Then there is the issue of whether the governing body of a multiple-premises development should be required to prevent infrastructure-provider exclusivity. This can crop up where an infrastructure provider or ISP pays the building manager or governing body of one of these developments to maintain infrastructure exclusivity perhaps by satisfying the governing body’s Internet needs for free for example.
In all of these cases, it would be about making sure that each premises in a multiple-premises development is able to gain access to the benefits of infrastructure-level competition.
The idea of infrastructure-level competition for broadband Internet is to be considered of importance as a way to hold dominant infrastructure providers to account. Similarly, it can be seen as a way to push proper broadband Internet service in to underserved areas whether with or without public money.
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