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B4RN Founder Says Fibre Optic is the Only Broadband Worth UK Investment

Posted Monday, September 17th, 2012 (1:05 am) by Mark Jackson (Score 3,862)
b4rn fibre optic FTTH dig

One of the founders of Lancashire’s unique community-built and owned “hyper-fast” fibre optic (FTTH) rural broadband network, Chris Condor, has in our exclusive interview told ISPreview.co.uk that “fibre is the only technology worth investing time, effort and money in”. Condor also warned that the UK government’s current strategy wasn’t working.

The Broadband For the Rural North (B4RN) project, which ultimately aims to connect thousands of digitally isolated rural homes in the county’s Lower Lune Valley area (East of Lancaster) via a 1Gbps (Gigabits per second) capable Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) style broadband network, officially began construction at the end of March 2012 and is now ready to connect its first customers.

However, unlike similar developments around the country, B4RN’s effort hasn’t required any subsidy from the government. The project has instead registered itself as a Community Benefit Society (controlled by the Financial Services Authority) and thus much of its funding comes from the community itself, often in return for special shares. Any income over expenditure is then returned back to the community.

Local people are also being encouraged to help build the network, such as by digging trenches through their gardens or fields and into homes. In addition to buying shares the community also has an opportunity to “purchase” shares in exchange for labour and materials during the project build.

It’s a solution that probably wouldn’t work everywhere, especially in dense urban towns and cities where road works can attract significant costs or cause serious disruption. Never the less B4RN appears to be making good progress and that’s despite BT having plans to reach 97% of the county with a slower FTTC solution by the end of 2014 (here). So just how have they managed all this and what advice could they give to help better inform the government’s own strategy?

The Interview

Q1. First, the most obvious question of all, why are you building a “community fibre network” in the heart of rural north Lancashire, especially when the government has pledged £62.5 million to help make superfast broadband services available to 97% of the county by the end of 2014?

ANSWER:

We are building our own network because we know that if we don’t do it now nobody else will. It’s a question of just getting on and doing it. BT are on the record saying it is not economically feasible to build such expensive infrastructure in a sparsely populated rural area, we are not of interest to the big companies whose shareholders expect them to make big profits. We also know we can do the job cheaper than they can with the support of the people who will benefit from the work done.

We are building a community fibre network because we believe fibre is the only technology that is worth investing time, effort and money in and is future proof. A member of the management team has spent his career designing networks and had all the skills needed to design a world class fibre infrastructure. Other members of the team have also been involved with community based wifi and satellite service since 2003 and one laid the first rural fibre in 2009 and proved it wasn’t rocket science. We knew we had the support of many people within the community as they are all desperate for a connection having waited for a decade for the promises of broadband and having many bitter experiences trying to get one. It is a project whose time has come, and someone has to be the first.

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42 Responses
  1. Phil

    I agree that our government are pretty useless and never will work out.

    • Sabri

      I think pretty useless is an understatement, their lack of will is really holding back businesses from trading online.

  2. FibreFred

    With respect, this is the problem interviewing someone about a network that doesn’t actually understand networks

    “Contention rates only really matter if you are talking about using a phone line and exchanges, ”

    Which is utter rubbish, Chris seems to think copper and contention go hand in hand. You would have been better interviewing their network designer to get more realistic answers. B4RN is a contended network like any other.

    Do we have a date on when the first connection is going live yet?

    • It should be said that the questions and Chris’s answers were, I’m told, checked over by other members of B4RN’s team before coming back to us.

    • FibreFred

      In that case its even worse then!

      I don’t expect performance to be an issue at all, but to say contention only affects phone lines and exchanges is laughable. All Chris had to say was that the network has been sized according to expected usage and that it can be increased as more customers come on board/usage increases if necessary, instead it just brings into question basic network knowledge.

    • Alt_FibreFred

      Alter-ego here. As my name suggests I really like fibre (I know that BT’s ‘fibre broadband’ is a marketing ‘lie’) and I’m going to be really positive about those that are trying hard to provide fibre where it would otherwise be impossible. As a technical person I note that Chris said they have 2 x 10G links (much better than the pathetic 1G links BT has from most rural exchanges) so I can work out that the aggregate is 10M (also significantly better than BT). Keep up the good work Chris and ignore those who enjoy sniping at you on forums

  3. New_Londoner

    Quote “B4RN’s effort hasn’t required any subsidy from the government”

    A more accurate statement would be that it applied and failed to qualify for government funding, so had to proceed without it. This is very different from what is stated, which implies none was needed so was not sought.

    IMHO B4RN illustrates the problem with Altnets and FTTP, namely the agonisingly slow speed of deployment. The B4RN project was announced a long time ago now to great fanfare, has been raising funding and building for > 12 months (?), yet is still not finished. Given its relatively tiny footprint, replicating on a wider scale would leave a lot of unhappy people for a very long time.

    And the there are the frankly ridiculous statements FibreFred highlights about contention etc not applying to fibre, which are utter nonsense. Nor was the first rural fibre laid in the UK in 2009. The 1Gb response is interesting, whether or not the service performs at this level when live remains to be seen, how is it being described in sales material? If this is an “official” interview on behalf of the B4RN project then presumably Ofcom or the ASA will be keen to investigate any claims made and act accordingly if appropriate, possibly the FSA too?

    No doubt this is a good project but it really needs to be represented to fora like this by technically competent people to give it the best possible exposure.

    • Old_Londoner

      “it applied and failed to qualify for government funding, so had to proceed without it” and should be lauded for it (as the bidding process was “is your name BT”) rather than being sniped at.

      “has been raising funding and building for > 12 months (?), yet is still not finished” – strangely aligns well with BT and their speed of delivery (even you people in BT Marketing should realise this)

      “the ASA will be keen to investigate any claims made and act accordingly if appropriate, possibly the FSA too” – considering the lies they let BT (and Virgin) get away with (calling their copper based service “Fibre Broadband” – I assume some of your best work), I don’t think Chris has anything to worry about

      If you can find any one in your BT Marketing dept. that is “technically competent” I’ll be surprised, but considering they sell Copper as Fibre I’m sure they’ll pretend to be.

    • New_Londoner

      @Nicknick (“Old_Londoner”)
      Nit picking is all well and good, but in reality you’re all bluster and no content. Do you think fibre does not suffer from contention too? Should you sound virtuous about not taking public funding when the reality is you applied for it, were turned down – and not for BDUK funding either, so no claims about skewed rules please?

      Is this saleable, replicable? Not at this speed of deployment surely – are any/many homes live yet? Presumably you do agree Altnets hold also abide by the same rules regarding advertising performance, making pricing claims and representing themselves to investors? Can’t excuse themselves through lack of knowledge etc?

      So please del with the substantive points rather than trying to appear smart. And note the final comment in my original post that this is a good project that, I think, is being poorly represented, hardly a case of sniping surely.

    • nicknick

      “in reality you’re all bluster and no content” that’s rich coming from you. I’ve never noticed you say “I do not work for BT”. Do you want to take the opportunity to say so here? Or do you think that is one lie too far? From your Irovy Tower in BT Centre I’m sure things all look rosy and above board. A good job you did setting up BDUK.

      “Not at this speed of deployment surely” considering they didn’t get funding they are deploying at a speed better than BT (on a per person digging basis). You in BT may have thousands of ex-squaddies to dig up the roads, but they have a few volunteers.

      Considering the claims made by you in BT turning copper into fibre, Chris claiming she is changing lead into gold would be no less a lie

      You couldn’t see “substantive points” if they came and slapped you around the face (one of them anyway)

    • New_Londoner

      Oh well, nothing of substance then, shame.

    • The Builder

      Quote

      “Quote “B4RN’s effort hasn’t required any subsidy from the government”

      A more accurate statement would be that it applied and failed to qualify for government funding, so had to proceed without it. This is very different from what is stated, which implies none was needed so was not sought.”

      It doesn’t imply none was needed, it just implies what it says. It didnt require any subsidy from the governemnt in what it did. The group weren’t quite the fibre deployment expertise for you to expect it to be done within time comparable to other telco company.

      They did a great job. Sorry the project wasn’t offered to BT!!!

  4. dragoneast

    BARN is a good local initiative. But it’s not a national panacea and in a notional democracy you can’t force people to pay for everything they don’t see the need for.

    I have the benefit (as I see it) of the FTTC commercial roll-out and pushed the boat out for an ISP service; before that I made an additional capital contribution to get an alternative WiFi service. My neighbours see the need for neither, they’re not wrong and I’m not right. You pays your money and takes your choice.

    I know the argument that fast broadband is as essential as roads. So what public service would you cut to fund FTTP: my answer is nothing. And I’ll bet I’m not alone. (Hint: The answer is not something that you don’t or won’t use but other people do – that’s not the way it works).

  5. FibreFred

    Mark, anything you can do about Deductions alt_nick trolling? Once again brings down the site as a whole

  6. nicknick

    In Deduction’s defence it was me.

    I just thought I would remind you of of what a ‘reasonable’ person who calls themselves FIBRE Fred might have said to someone who (without ANY Government subsidy) has managed to build a FIBRE network in one of the most rural areas in the country.

    Rather than just jumping immediately on her back with some half baked comments

    If you won’t rename yourself to CopperFred expect more such comments if you want to continue to be so negative.

    PS Trolling is where someone continually posts negative comments (New-Londoner should also recognise himself here), not where they are posting ‘positive’ comments

    • FibreFred

      So you also believe “Contention rates only really matter if you are talking about using a phone line and exchanges, ”

      ?

      B4RN is a great initiative and one that I hope will be repeated elsewhere. Just because its a community project it doesn’t mean that quotes cannot be judged, its an incorrect statement whoever makes it. And whoever makes it shows little knowledge of networking.

    • nicknick

      Contention rates/ratios are irrelevant, and in that way Chris’ comments are correct. She did not say “contention only affects phone lines and exchanges” as you said

      Actual real time peak contention is important and does mainifest itself a lot when when you are talking about copper lines from BT and 1G backhaul links – remember those wonderful BT VDSL cabinets only have 1G backhaul typically as well – but when you are talking about 20G of backhaul for just 2000 rural users then it won’t be an issue for quite a while and even then it can easily be upgraded (try saying that about the BT service)

    • FibreFred

      I think you’ll find I quoted her exact words http://www.ispreview.co.uk/index.php/2012/09/b4rn-founder-says-fibre-optic-is-the-only-broadband-worth-uk-investment.html/2

      As for the upgrading the backhaul of a FTTC PCP, you mean adding another fibre pair? Yes, easy to do.

      As I said above, I don’t think contention will be an issue for B4RN but what she said (and what I quoted directly) is wrong.

    • nicknick

      You did quote her correctly “Contention rates only really matter if you are talking about using a phone line and exchanges” is what she said that is “Contention RATES” yes RATES and as I said that is irrelevant i.e. that is IRRELEVANT.

      Her statement is CORRECT, actual contention is the real issue, RATES is just the number of users into the amount of bandwidth, actual usage monitoring is key. In order for BT to upgrade it needs to add fibres, Chris just needs to turn up the wick.

    • FibreFred

      Still not sure what you are on about Nick, contention, contention rates my point being is that she is saying it only affects “phone lines and exchanges”

      Yes or no, you are agreeing with that?

      ONLY affects (i.e. is not a problem anywhere else)

      As for upgrading her backhaul, if they do have 2 * 10G uplinks there’s no magic dial to make it increase, obviously more work is needed more fibres needed.

    • PhilT

      B4RN have received public money. That’s before we get into all the tax avoidance measures they’re promoting.

      “B4RN Website Sponsored By Carrera IT Ltd and marketing by *Forest of Bowland AONB*”

  7. nicknick

    Never mind the detractors Chris (they will never get it), you are doing a fantastic job.

    A job even BT could not do without Government funding!!!!!!!

    If only BDUK hadn’t made such a pigs ear of the bidding process a lot more rural communities would be getting fibre

  8. zemadeiran

    There are some important points:

    BT = Hybrid fiber/vdsl

    B4RN = Full fiber

    Lets look at this from a bandwidth and connection perspective…

    It is logical that B4RN would be connecting it’s clients back to a local UK data centre where it would rent one or more 42u racks in which to place their routers/servers etc.

    They would then need to arrange for national and international connectivity from their rack. In general UK sites are hosted in UK data centres on servers in racks, each data centre has peering arrangements with all the other data centres in the UK thus traffic is free between said data centre’s but limited by the bandwidth of the fiber link’s between them.

    So, you can look upon the UK’s data centre’s as communications hubs. If B4RN is connecting to the UK fiber backbone this way, they would be bypassing BT’s infrastructure (unless said data centre uses BT fiber) and hitting servers all over the country directly which results in faster load times etc.

    In which UK data centre does the BBC host it’s iplayer service?

    Let’s ask Brandon:

    Brandon Butterworth
    British Broadcasting Corporation
    BBC Centre House
    56 Wood Lane
    London
    W12 7SB
    England, GB
    +44 3030409777

    Just up the road from me :)

    International traffic:

    B4RN would have to pay a higher rate for international bandwidth but the cost for this can be reduced substantially if they implemented some decent sized cloud storage and ran a caching server or two just for international traffic.

    The main point to all this is that once the fucking fibers are in the ground, user bandwidth is only limited by the bloody router in each person’s home. Please do point me to a consumer fiber to ethernet router that has a 10gbps port on it :/

    Traffic prioritization is MUCH more important then limiting bandwidth in order to make sure that the people watching porn online have a higher priority then the other people who are downloading illegally :) The other 0.1% would of course have priority over the porn for voip/email/browsing blah blah blah.

    You know you watch the porn! Admit it!

    Back to Sanity:

    What B4RN is doing is no easy task and they should be commended for pulling their finger out of their arse and not hammered on for not being able to compete on speed of install and coverage with one of the world’s largest telecom’s incumbents’s with pre-existing fat dark fiber cables all over the fucking country which they will not let anyone else use!

    Everyone’s ip traffic ultimately travels through the same national fiber backbone and here lies the true bottleneck to bandwidth. This limit is constantly being upped by new routing and switching technology and the bandwidth limitation myth is complete shit!

    Imagine a connection with no interference and not limited by distance?

    THAT, my ispreview friends is true FIBER TO THE HOME.

    Thank you and anyone who say’s otherwise is a wasteman…

  9. Bob

    We need a UK wide alternative network to BT competion would spur BT on and we would get a far faster rollout and better network. Without competion BT can take there time no one is going totake their market share

    The key to competion is ensuring that BT open up their ducting on a fair and equal basis something they have not done to date and OFCOM has allowedf BT to get away with it

    A good indication that access is being blocked is there is not one commercial PIA service other than a few tiny pilots which have not moved beyond being pilots.

    The technology has been proven and the companies can deliver a servise but BT has ensures that they are priced out of the market

    • FibreFred

      And Bob, when is your favoured Open Network Consortium going to get off its backside and do something? We’ve seen zilch to date. If they are in cahoots with Virgin surely they have access to 50% (a good start) of the country from the outset.

      Why don’t you stop blaming BT and blame the people that talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. At least B4RN and other similar outfits like Fibrewave are just cracking on and doing their own thing instead of blaming others.

  10. Some interesting issues to debate so here we go.
    Firstly the issue of contention keeps being raised. In the good old days ISPs had to lease capacity off BT to link their kit in exchanges back to their core network. As this was expensive they tended to take the minimum they could get away with. Given that user lines were standard ADSL, probably <8Mbs, this meant that even a small number of users could over load the link back to the ISP's core which was frequently tens of megabits, rarely more than 100Mbs. So the "Contention Ratio" was a meaningful measure of quality of service to be expected by users.
    However B4RN doesnt look like this model, it looks like a LAN with privately owned fibre between each node and our core, think of a campus LAN spread out over 350Km2. No one talks of "contention Ratios" in LANS do they? Instead we all look at packet loss, round trip delays and percentage utilisation. We have an initial 20Gbs from each node to our core BUT because its private fibre and we have plenty of spare available we can simply go with the model of monitoring the links and adding capacity as and when any of the measures warrants it.
    If we now look at the other side of the equation, how much capacity do ISPs have between their core network and the internet then again contention is the wrong measure. Look at any significant network and you will see that they use packet loss, round trip delay and utilisation to decide how much external capacity they need. B4RN is no different. We have dark fibre with DWDM deployed on it linking our network round Lancaster to our node in Telecity Kilburn House Manchester. In Telecity we have a Juniper MX240 router and multiple 10Gbs links back to our core. We have a peering 10GbE port on the EDGE-IX switch and also another with a Tier 1 Internet transit provider. All the major content providers are on the peering LAN including Google and the BBC along with just about everyone else you can think of. LINX also have a presence in Telecity and we can peer with them if any major content provider isnt on EDGE-IX.
    So our model is that we monitor our external links to check on packet loss, round trip delays and utilisation. As necessary we add 10GbE circuits between the core and Telecity to keep QoS excellent. We monitor our IP transit traffic to check which AS numbers are delivering most traffic and immediately establish peering with them either via the EDGE-IX peering LAN or via unilateral BGP4 peers with private fibre links within telecity. The content providers are very happy to peer with us because it saves them having to buy additional IP transit and improves QoS to their customers within B4RN.
    So Chris may not have used the right words when dismissing contention ratio but the way we do things means she is right to say its not relevant.
    Barry

    • Somerset

      Finally some accurate intelligent information here!

    • zemadeiran

      Zemadeiran licks his index finger and draws a imaginary vertical line….

      Nice one Barry, it’s good when a network Geek lets rip and give’s us the inside info. The ispreview family needs clued up on UK bandwidth availability, one of the largest UK networks JANET http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JANET has a shit load of users and has upgraded their core network to 100Gbps not much at all when you think about it.

      NTT just announced 1PBps over 50km with a 12 core strand :)

      http://www.ntt.co.jp/news2012/1209e/120920a.html

      Things are definitely on the up which is why I keep banging on about the the “CAPACITY MYTH” like a maniac.

      Barry, what’s the current cost per GB outside of IX peering? Many here will be surprised no doubt.

      Stiff upper lip!

    • Neil McRae

      So – if you had any doubt about the capability of this project this interview should clear up the real understanding these folks have.

      I honestly don’t think I’ve seen such a scary dismissal about the true costs and economics of operating a network as I have in this interview and the follow up.

      Of course there are contention ratios in local area networks! If I have 5 machines on a LAN with 5 1G ports and 4 machines all try to talk to one machine at the same time – whats my contention ratio?!

      The same absolutely applies in any network, there is _always_ a contention ratio. In fact with switched LANs is the biggest danger!

      On the one hand, one talks as if bandwidth is magically added for nothing, on the other more clues are given but then the cost of adding 10G links, peering ports and transit are dismissed as if its not relevant then later “oh actually it is relevant”.

      Caching server and cloud storage? Hmm let me see, what are you caching? is it Yahoo? or Google? Hmm – how does that work when they move to https ? which they are all doing specifically to stop caching and if you cache content you risk copyright infringement- have you any idea how much storage you need to cache to drive a 1G link? let alone a 10G link? High speed storage is expensive as are the servers that drive it.

      As for national backhaul, there are many providers who provide this service, BT, COLT, C&WW, TalkTalk, Easynet, Exponential E, etc, etc there is a very competitive market place for backhaul, but backhaul, both the electronics and the placement of fibre, again has a cost and doesn’t come for free and in fact its very expensive.

      Regards,
      Neil.

  11. Hi Zemadeiran
    The cost of IP transit is difficult to nail down. Lots of people talk about quite cheap prices per Megabit/Month but when you dig you find that they are buying from a smaller operator who is sub-selling capacity. In telecity we are paying around £1.20/Megabit/Month for very high QoS transit. But you have to buy at least 1Gbs to get that sort of pricing. The problem for most community groups is how on earth do you get an affordable 1GbE pipe to Telecity/Telehouse.

    • zemadeiran

      OK, so roughly £1200 pm for a Gbit port “international traffic”.

      This is why I keep banging on about a mesh of community fiber networks right across the country bypassing BT completely and connecting into all the UK’s IX’s.

      THAT would be something… All the best and keep at it.

    • New_Londoner

      @Zemadeiran
      But as Barry says, there is the small matter of being able to connect to Telecity, as well as needing to pay for a presence in it. Your “mesh of community fiber [sic] networks” would have to be built first (funding?), linked together and then connected to Telecity. As with Chris Conder’s “village pumps”, real costs are involved, giving something an attractive sounding name does not make it any easier to build or pay for unfortunately, boring though such practical matters are to some.

    • zemadeiran

      I am not sure if you are aware of how many data centre’s there are in the UK at present.

      Thank you for finding the “CFN mesh” name attractive, copyright zemadeiran 2012.

      The UK has a 2 trillion dollar per annum economy, anything else?

      People should lead by example which is exactly what B4RN are doing and maybe, just maybe someone will take notice and say “You know what, fuck it”

      Thank you.

    • New_Londoner

      @Zemadeiran
      It rather depends on what you define as a data centre. Some are little more than a couple of racks in a cupboard, whereas other are rather more substantial Tier 4 operation. The relevance to your “CFN” concept? Limited if you’re assuming plenty of surplus bandwidth at every site that you can tap into at very low cost.

      What you have not explained is how your nice and fluffy concept would actually turn into reality. For example B4RN might eventually deliver connectivity to a 1000 or so premises, but even it’s relatively high cost per home passed is subsidised by landowners not being greedy about wayleaves, labour being provided fee etc. This may not translate well in any but the most rural areas, given elsewhere you’ll have more roads, a greater needed to employ contractors with the necessary certification and so on.

      So rather than just sloganising like Chris, how about some specifics? And while you’re at it, try dropping the gratuitous profanities, which are really rather childish and have no place on a site like this.

  12. zemadeiran

    Please accept my apologies in regards to my use of profanity and the way it has offended you.

    This unfortunately is due to my upbringing in the inner city which has left me scarred for life with a disdain for negativity but on the flipside has bestowed upon me a penchant for positive outlooks.

    [admin note: removed swearing]

    “So rather than just sloganising like Chris, how about some specifics?”

    I personally do not know Chris from Adam, I do however admire the positive attitude and work that the B4RN team has put into the project and the way they have provided ongoing transparency.

    If you require specifics on how zemadeiran would implement a “CFN mesh” (copyright zemadeiran 2012) I can of course oblige but would need you to sign a non disclosure agreement beforehand plus a substantial fee.

    Strange is it not?

    • zemadeiran

      Oops, forgot to mention,

      The mesh does not connect to every data centre in the UK, every data centre in the UK connects to the mesh :)

      Have a good week

    • New_Londoner

      So no actual content on the idea then, just an empty headline and no substance. Shame as it could have been an interesting concept if the economics of delivery really had been addressed.

    • zemadeiran

      See,

      That! is what I am talking about! Now we are cooking with gas!

      You have just brightened up my week :)

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