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By: MarkJ - 7 December, 2010 (9:30 AM)
the digital uk village pumpYesterday the government announced its ambition to deliver a Digital Hub to almost every community in the country, which it claimed would be at the heart of their £830 million strategy to make sure that the "UK has the best broadband network in Europe by 2015" (here). But just what do they mean by Digital Hub?

The concept sounds, at least for now, similar to that of a community owned Digital Village Pump (DVP), which has been pioneered by ISPs like Fibrestream ( NextGenUs ) and a few others, to help bring fibre optic broadband connectivity to rural towns and villages. A hub is not unlike a small local telephone exchange, albeit often almost exclusively focused on digital / internet connectivity.

In essence, a fibre optic cable is carried from a reliable backhaul source outside of town and dug all the way into the village, where it connects inside a small building (DVP) to manage the areas various premise (home / business) connections. Premises can then be individually connected by digging a direct fibre optic link ( Fibre-to-the-Home ( FTTH )), or the service could even be distributed over wireless (e.g. Wi-Fi , WiMAX etc.); sometimes called FiWi (Fibre Wireless).

This certainly sounds a lot like what the government proposed yesterday when it said that, "The hubs will act as central digital points in each community, with high speed connections to the nearest exchange and communities working with local providers to extend networks to individual homes".

The Governments Full Digital Hub Explanation

4.4 BDUK will also explore the viability of a broadband community hub at a local level – which could provide the means of extending networks where the community will either take responsibility for the actual civil engineering of the network or take greater control over managing network elements. Networks can then be extended over time to provide enhanced access to broadband for individual premises in a variety of ways.

For example, an operator’s cabinet can be equipped to support the splicing of fibre builds into the access network. Interfaces can be made available such that wireless networks or indeed community managed femtocells can be added to the network. The latter needs to be agreed with industry and is subject to sufficient demand and support by communities.

We adore the idea of giving communities control over managing or even "extending the network to individual homes,," as one government quote said yesterday. We also support the principal of extending networks over time to "provide enhanced access to broadband for individual premises in a variety of ways", which is again similar to the original DVP idea.

However the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at business ISP Timico UK, Trefor Davies, recently claims to have confirmed that the governments 'Digital Hub' idea could also be twisted to include Fibre-to-the-Cabinet ( FTTC ) technology, which BT is already busy rolling out to 66% of the country by 2015.

Trefor Davies said:

There are however some worrying indicators. In today’s announcement there are constant references to BT together with “cabinets” and “fibre connectivity to the nearest exchange”. DCMS has also now confirmed that in saying digital hub they do indeed mean FTTC.

BT has said that it intends to tender for each project covered by the £830m of funding made available for this activity and that it will match any government funding. On the face of it this might not sound like a bad thing. BT has said that such an arrangement would allow it to extend superfast broadband reach to 90% or more of the population."

FTTC delivers a fast fibre optic cable to BT's street level cabinets, while the remaining connection (between cabinets and homes) is done using VDSL2 (similar to current ADSL broadband but faster over short distances) via existing copper cable; FTTC can deliver speeds of up to 40Mbps, rising to 60Mbps in the future (uploads can reach up to 10-15Mbps). However future DSL enhancements could go a lot further.

Despite what some people might say, FTTC is not a bad solution and makes a lot of sense at a time when money is tight and ISPs are looking to keep pace with growing consumer demands at the minimum possible cost. However the VDSL2 part of this setup does still suffer, not unlike existing ADSL / ADSL2+ broadband, from performance loss over distance on copper lines.

Some consumers could find themselves with sub-15Mbps speeds on FTTC, which in fairness is significantly better than 0.5Mbps or 1Mbps and should be welcomed, but it's not as future proof as true FTTH and would fall well below the EU's 30Mbps minimum target for 2020. Likewise this could effectively mean calling BT's street cabinets "Digital Hubs", which are not usually open to control, management and future enhancement by communities. This conflicts with the government's proposal.

In fairness it's still far too early to tell how this will play out in the real world and, like it or not, this is the direction that the government has chosen to take. Isolated consumers will at least be pleased to know that they haven't been forgotten and the majority do stand to benefit, in most cases significantly, under what has been proposed. But as always, the devil could still be hiding in the detail.
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