York runs fibre rings round telecoms elephants
York City council has become the enabler for a local "fibre ring" carrying superfast broadband, in a move which could leapfrog the city to the forefront of UK technological innovation.
The initiative was born out of rationalisation of the city's public network spending. "Eight years ago we were running separate networks for schools, libraries and traffic control", Roy Grant, ICT director at York City council, told the Government ICT conference this week. "Then we had the idea of pooling finances, and tested the water to see what might come back. When it went out we had no idea we would have a fibre footprint."
But fibre is what emerged as the most attractive solution, and in a deal with UK specialists Pinacl and CityFibre Holdings it has part-funded the laying of a fibre ring of more than 100 kilometres to connect 110 sites by mid February. Sites include schools, libraries and NHS facilities. The network can support symmetrical bandwidth speeds of up to 10Gbps.
"With a fibre footprint, bandwidth problems are forgotten - it takes a while to get your head around it and think about what is possible," says Grant.
Early projects planned include using the network to enable free city centre Wi-fi; moving all CCTV onto the network; and exceeding the national target for broadband access (with the government pushing for 90% of homes to have access by 2015, York will offer 95% access by 2014). It could also help launch a planned local TV channel, he says.
But the real value of the network will be in connecting homes and businesses outside the public sector's involvement, Grant said. "The public sector is just a customer, it kick-starts the project and other investment is found - we do not own or manage it. But the network has capacity and capability to deliver fibre to the home and businesses, and will hopefully attract many new businesses to York."
James Enck, head of corporate development at CityFibre, said the UK was lagging far behind the rest of the developed world in seeing the potential for local fibre networks. The UK doesn't even qualify for listing in the annual OECD rankings of "fibre to the home", because it has less than 1% penetration, compared with Japan at more than 60%, Sweden at approaching 50%, or the Netherlands at 6%, Enck said.
Part of the reason for this lag stems from "bad answers to the wrong questions", Enck said. "People are asking 'why would anyone possible ever need symmetrical gigabit connection?', when the real question should be, 'if we did have a gigabit symmetrical connection, what would it make possible?'" he said.
There was a small herd of elephants in the room at Westminster, in the shape of the UK's telecoms giants: all offering broadband in various guises but at much lower capacity overall as they try to balance upgrading to compete with sweating their legacy assets. But Rudolf Van der Berg, an OECD policy analyst and economist, said in countries where local fibre had been encouraged, the big players soon found ways of changing their business models to compete or use these networks to carry their own services.
"Access rights are key when you fund fibre-rollout - you need open access for competitors, otherwise you are just funding your own use and their monopoly for other uses", said van der Berg.
He said there were no problems with competition law, as anyone can tender for a dark fibre contract. "If there isn't any other requirement other than we want a dark fibre between point A and point B, and you can't deliver it to me, there is no judge in the world to say I am being anti-competitive," he said.