Current alternatives won’t light up Britain’s broadband blackspots

Satellites, microwaves, radio towers – how many more options must be tried before the government just shells out for fibre to the home? Reposted from The Conversation.


Despite the British government’s boasts of the steady roll-out of superfast broadband to more than four out of five homes and businesses, you needn’t be a statistician to realise that this means one out of five are still unconnected. In fact, the recent story about a farmer who was so incensed by his slow broadband that he built his own 4G mast in a field to replace it shows that for much of the country, little has improved.

The government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme claims that it will provide internet access of at least 24 Mbps (megabits per second) to 95% of the country by 2017 through fibre to the cabinet, where fast fibre optic networks connect BT’s exchanges to street cabinets dotted around towns and villages. The final connection to the home comes via traditional (slower) copper cables.

Those in rural communities are understandably sceptical of the government’s “huge achievement”, arguing that only a fraction of the properties included in the government’s running total can achieve reasonable broadband speeds, as signals drop off quickly with distance from BT’s street cabinets. Millions of people are still struggling to achieve even basic broadband, and not necessarily just in the remote countryside, but in urban areas such as Redditch, Lancaster and even Pimlico in central London.

Four problems to solve

This cabinet is a problem, not a solution. mikecattell, CC BY

Our research found four recurring problems: connection speeds, latency, contention ratios, and reliability.

Getting high-speed ADSL broadband delivered over existing copper cables is not possible in many areas, as the distance from the exchange or the street cabinet is so far that the broadband signal degrades and speeds drop. Minimum speed requirements are rising as the volume of data we use increases, so such slow connections will become more and more frustrating.

But speed is not the only limiting factor. Network delay, known as latency, can be as frustrating as it forces the user to wait for data to arrive or to be assembled into the right order to be processed. Most of our interviewees had high latency connections.

Many home users also suffer from high contention, where a connection slows as more users in the vicinity log on – for example, during evenings after work and at weekends. One respondent pointed out that the two or three large companies in the neighbouring village carried out their daily company backups between 6.30pm-8.30pm. This was obvious, he said, because during that time internet speeds “drop off the end of a cliff”.

Connection reliability is also a problem, with connections failing randomly for no clear reason, or due to weather such as heavy rain, snow or wind – not very helpful in Britain.

Three band-aid solutions

With delivery by copper cable proving inadequate for many, other alternatives have been suggested to fill the gaps.

Mobile phones are now ubiquitous devices, and mobile phone networks cover a huge proportion of the country. A 4G mobile network connection could potentially provide 100Mbps speeds. Unfortunately, the areas failed by poor fixed line broadband provision are often the same areas with poor mobile phone networks – particularly rural areas. While 2G/3G network coverage is better, it is far slower. Without unlimited data plans, users will also face monthly caps on use as part of their contract. Weather conditions can also adversely affect the service.

Satellite broadband could be the answer and can provide reasonably high speeds of up to around 20 Mbps. But despite the decent bandwidth available, satellite connections have high latency from the slow speed of transferring data to and from satellites, due to the far larger distances involvedbetween satellites and the ground. High latency connections make it very difficult or impossible to use internet telephony such as Skype, to stream films, video or music, or play online games. It’s not really an option in mountainous regions, and is a more expensive option.

A third alternative is to use fixed wireless, relaying broadband signals over radio transmitters to cover the distance from where BT’s fixed-line fibre optic network ends. These services generally provide 20Mbps, low latency connections. However, radio towers require line-of-sight access which could be a problem given obstructions from hills or woods – factors that, again, limit use where it’s most needed.

The only one that fits

All these alternatives tend to be more expensive to set up and run, come with more strict data limits, and can be affected by atmospheric conditions such as rain, wind or fog. The only true superior alternative to fibre to the cabinet is to provide fibre to the home (FTTH), in which the last vestiges of the original copper telephone network are replaced with high-speed fibre optic right to the door of the home or business premises. Fibre optic is faster, can carry signals without loss over greater distances, and is more upgradable than copper. A true fibre optic solution would future-proof Britain’s internet access network for decades to come.

Despite its expense, it is the only solution for many rural communities, which is why some have organised to provide it for themselves, such as B4RN and B4YS in the north of England, and B4RDS in the southwest. But this requires a group of volunteers with knowledge, financial means, and the necessary dedication to lay the infrastructure that could offer a 1,000 Mbps service regardless of line distance and location – which won’t be an option for all.

Finnish decision to allow same-sex marriage “shows the power of citizen initiatives”

November rainbows in front of the Finnish parliament house in Helsinki, one hour before the vote for same-sex marriage. Photo by Anne Sairio.
November rainbows in front of the Finnish parliament house in Helsinki, one hour before the vote for same-sex marriage. Photo by Anni Sairio.

In a pivotal vote today, the Finnish parliament voted in favour of removing references to gender in the country’s marriage law, which will make it possible for same-sex couples to get married. It was predicted to be an extremely close vote, but in the end gender neutrality won with 105 votes to 92. Same-sex couples have been able to enter into registered partnerships in Finland since 2002, but this form of union lacks some of the legal and more notably symbolic privileges of marriage. Today’s decision is thus a historic milestone in the progress towards tolerance and equality before the law for all the people of Finland.

Today’s parliamentary decision is also a milestone for another reason: it is the first piece of “crowdsourced” legislation on its way to becoming law in Finland. A 2012 constitutional change made it possible for 50,000 citizens or more to propose a bill to the parliament, through a mechanism known as the citizen initiative. Citizens can develop bills on a website maintained by the Open Ministry, a government-supported citizen association. The Open Ministry aims to be the deliberative version of government ministries that do the background work for government bills. Once the text of a citizen bill is finalised, citizens can also endorse it on a website maintained by the Ministry of Justice. If a bill attracts more than 50,000 endorsements within six months, it is delivered to the parliament.

A significant reason behind the creation of the citien initiative system was to increase citizen involvement in decision making and thus enhance the legitimacy of Finland’s political system: to make people feel that they can make a difference. Finland, like most Western democracies, is suffering from dwindling voter turnout rates (though in the last parliamentary elections, domestic voter turnout was a healthy 70.5 percent). However, here lies one of the potential pitfalls of the citizen initiative system. Of the six citizen bills delivered to the parliament so far, parliamentarians have outright rejected most proposals. According to research presented by Christensen and his colleagues at our Internet, Politics & Policy conference in Oxford in September (and to be published in issue 7:1 of Policy and Internet, March 2015), there is a risk that the citizen iniative system ends up having an effect that is opposite from what was intended:

“[T]hose who supported [a crowdsourced bill rejected by the parliament] experienced a drop in political trust as a result of not achieving this outcome. This shows that political legitimacy may well decline when participants do not get the intended result (cf. Budge, 2012). Hence, if crowdsourcing legislation in Finland is to have a positive impact on political legitimacy, it is important that it can help produce popular Citizens’ initiatives that are subsequently adopted by Parliament.”

One reason why citizen initiatives have faced a rough time in the parliament is that they are a somewhat odd addition to the parliament’s existing ways of working. The Finnish parliament, like most parliaments in representative democracies, is used to working in a government-opposition arrangement, where the government proposes bills, and parliamentarians belonging to government parties are expected to support those bills and resist bills originating from the opposition. Conversely, opposition leaders expect their members to be loyal to their own initiatives. In this arrangement, citizen initiatives have fallen into a no-man’s land where they are endorsed by neither government nor opposition members. Thanks to the party whip system, their only hope of passing has been in being adopted by the government. But the whole point of citizen initiatives is that they would allow bills not proposed by the government to reach parliament, making the exercise rather pointless.

The marriage equality citizen initiative was able to break this pattern not only because it enjoyed immense popular support, but also because many parliamentarians saw marriage equality as a matter of conscience, where the party whip system wouldn’t apply. Parliamentarians across party lines voted in support and against the initiative, in many cases ignoring their party leaders’ instructions.

Prime Minister Alexander Stubb commented immediately after the vote that the outcome “shows the power of citizen initiatives”, “citizen democracy and direct democracy”. Now that a precedent has been set, it is possible that subsequent citizen initiatives, too, get judged more on their merits than on who proposed them. Today’s decision on marriage equality may thus turn out to be historic not only for advancing equality and fairness, but also for helping to define crowdsourcing’s role in Finnish parliamentary decision making.

Vili Lehdonvirta is a Research Fellow and DPhil Programme Director at the Oxford Internet Institute, and an editor of the Policy & Internet journal. He is an economic sociologist who studies the social and economic dimensions of new information technologies around the world, with particular expertise in digital markets and crowdsourcing.

Broadband may be East Africa’s 21st century railway to the world

The excitement over the potentially transformative effects of the internet in low-income countries is nowhere more evident than in East Africa. Reposted from The Conversation.

The excitement over the potentially transformative effects of the internet in low-income countries is nowhere more evident than in East Africa – the last major populated region of the world to gain a wired connection to the internet.

Before 2009, there wasn’t a single fibre-optic cable connecting the region to the rest of the world. After hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, cables were laid to connect the region to the global network. Prices for internet access went down, speeds went up, and the number of internet users in the region skyrocketed.

Connecting 21st-century Africa takes more than just railways and roads. Steve Song, CC BY-NC-SA
Connecting 21st-century Africa takes more than just railways and roads. Steve Song, CC BY-NC-SA

Politicians, journalists and academics all argued that better connectivity would lead to a blossoming of economic, social, and political activity – and a lot of influential people in the region made grand statements. For instance, former Kenyan president Mwai Kibai stated:

I am gratified to be with you today at an event of truly historic proportions. The landing of this fibre-optic undersea cable project in Mombasa is one of the landmark projects in Kenya’s national development story.

Indeed some have compared this to the completion of the Kenya-Uganda railway more than a century ago. This comparison is not far-fetched, because while the economies of the last century were driven by railway connections, the economies of today are largely driven by internet.

The president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, also spoke about the revolutionary potentials of these changes in connectivity. He claimed:

In Africa, we have missed both the agricultural and industrial revolutions and in Rwanda we are determined to take full advantage of the digital revolution. This revolution is summed up by the fact that it no longer is of utmost importance where you are but rather what you can do – this is of great benefit to traditionally marginalised regions and geographically isolated populations.

As many who have studied politics have long since noted, proclamations like these can have an important impact: they frame how scarce resources can be spent and legitimise actions in certain areas while excusing inaction in others.

Two moments of change

Because the internet is so frequently talked about in revolutionary terms, colleagues Casper Andersen and Laura Mann and I decided to compare in a paper the many hopes, expectations and fears written about the internet with those from another transformational moment in East Africa’s history: the construction of the Uganda Railway.

The original opening up of East Africa was built from steel, not fibre-optic. Nairobi Government Printers, Author provided
The original opening up of East Africa was built from steel, not fibre-optic. Nairobi Government Printers, Author provided

The Uganda Railway was built from 1896 to 1903 between Mombasa and Lake Victoria, connecting parts of East Africa to each other and the region to the wider world. There were strong views at the time of what this could bring. The journalist and explorer Henry Morten Stanley claimed:

I seemed to see in a vision what was to happen in the years to come. I saw steamers trailing their dark smoke over the waters of the lake; I saw passengers arriving and disembarking; I saw the natives of the east making blood brotherhood with the natives of the west. And I seemed to hear the sound of church bells ringing at great distance afar off.

A young Winston Churchill waxed lyrical on the new railway:

What a road it is! Everything is apple-pie order. The track is smoothed and weeded and ballasted as if it were London and North-Western. Every telegraph post has its number; every mile, every hundred yards, every change of gradient, has its mark … Here and there, at intervals which will become shorter every year, are plantations of rubber, fibre and cotton, the beginnings of those inexhaustible supplies which will one day meet the yet unmeasured demand of Europe for those indispensable commodities… In brief, one slender thread of scientific civilisation, of order, authority, and arrangement, drawn across the primeval chaos of the world.

Learning from expectations

After a full analysis of the historical and contemporary texts, we can make two key points.

The hopes and fears people hold about changes to how they connect with other people and places are surprisingly similar across generations. But there are notable differences between these two moments, a century apart.

The arrival of the railway revolved around the use of technology to integrate an empire and open up new lands to imperial ambitions. By framing the arrival of the railway as allowing the core to extend its dominion over the periphery, what was said and written at the time served to legitimise the extension of colonialism.

The arrival of fibre-optic cables, however, presents a different story. Instead of a world of shrinking space between the core and periphery, it tends to lean more on the idea of a “global village.” The need to connect everyone to the global economy overrides concepts of self sufficiency, local economies, or trade outside the global marketplace.

These visions matter because they leave little room for alternatives. Just as dominant narratives around the arrival of the railway presented a worldview amenable to colonialism, contemporary dominant narratives offer a convenient justification of globalised capitalism and neo-liberalism.

How people imagine they are connected to the world matters. They shape how we make sense of the world and ultimately what steps we take to re-shape the world. We should therefore look to the past, and not just the future, when we examine the effects of the changing ways in which we are connected.