First, some definitions:
The local loop is the bit
of the phone system that goes from the exchange to your front
door. Historically, BT has owned this after a century of
digging up trenches and laying down copper wire. Latterly,
some of the cable companies have come along and dug trenches
next to BT’s trench, the Gas Board’s trench, the water
company’s trench, the local authority’s road drainage
trench and the “other” trench
- the one that the men with picks and shovels come
along to dig when they haven’t got anyone else to disrupt.
And in the cable trench,
the operators have laid a mix of copper and fibre to reach
their consumers directly, so that instead of a tidy little 60
cm dish tucked away on the wall, there is another great
(generally poorly repaired) gash along suburban roads and
pathways, adding yet more to the confusion when anyone needs
to dig across the road.
The reason that local
phone calls generally cost money (ie: unless your cable
operator delivers to your door on their own local loop) is
that BT charges the long distance carriers – those who take
the traffic from the nearest exchange and then deliver it
along their own telecom networks – a rental for use of their
As we know, cable was
originally licensed to the operators on the basis of
delivering TV choice , but all the cable operators are now
focused on simply delivering bandwidth. There was very little
of this taken into account in the original cable planning, and
so BT has been able to keep its local loop monopoly and
effectively strangle competition in services like ISDN and
ADSL to the home, at the exchange.
Oftel, the telecom
industry watchdog, recently published a report entitled: Access
to Bandwidth: Proposals for Action, in which it has
recommended that competitors are allowed to upgrade BT's local
loop in order to provide their own services to customers.
This is mostly now about
the onset of ADSL – asynchronous digital subscriber lines
– which means that your can get as much as 8Mbit
connectivity in and 2Mbit back – although the precise
mileage varies considerably between different systems. Factors
such as distance from exchange nodes also plays a part, as it
does with ISDN.
And it’s worth
remembering that ISDN was over ten years old before BT made
any sort of effort to attempt to popularise it as a domestic
service. Just in time before ADSL comes along to make ISDN
seem like wading through cyber treacle!
ADSL promises to deliver
high quality video on demand – which is the Holy Grail of
domestic telecom operators, and the sort of thing that will
give Rupert Murdoch and Sky a seriously bad day. I said “promises”,
because no one has yet quite worked out how to handle the
problems of exchanges with 1000 ADSL subscribers all fondly
imagine that they are going to get 8Mbit inbound from a server
several “hops” away on a network, where the trunk capacity
is squeezed down to maybe 100Mbits and generally less. Those
1000 ADSL subscribers can whistle if they reckon they will be
getting 8Gbits between them! Even Oftel cannot wave a magic
wand to make this happen. Sorry.
It’s good to surf
Announcing the proposals,
David Edmonds, the Oftel supremo said:
communications technology is developing at a rapid pace. This
will revolutionise the types of services that can be delivered
over existing local telephone lines. One example is 'always
on' high speed Internet access with unmetered charges”
Hoorah to that, and not a
moment too late. The Queen’s Superhighway should be made
accessible to all on the same sort of terms that the roads are
(mostly) not operated by toll collectors in this country.
Our Dave also went on and
believes that effective competition means that alternative
infrastructure providers should have the ability to roll-out
their own technology. They should not have to wait for BT to
make decisions that determine the timetable for the roll-out
of new services.
"There are some
technical issues to overcome but with concentrated work by the
industry and successful trials concluded by the end of 2000, I
am confident competing operators can have direct access to
BT's network by 1 July 2001. This target will focus the
efforts of industry to deliver on time.”
There’s a lot more said
on the matter, so follow the links from the front page at
http://www.oftel.org.uk/< if you want to know the full SP.
Although an initial
reaction is that this is bad news for BT, I somehow don’t
think it will be. The new high speed services could easily
fall into the same hole that most cable operators are already
trying to climb out of – namely a mish-mash of incompatible
systems that have been cobbled together at a time of frenetic
evolution of the base technologies involved.
The one thing that BT has
got going for it is consistency, and most users will
grudgingly accept that at times of new technology challenges,
it will be safer to go with BT.
Especially now that NTL has blown all credibility and
proved conclusively that it can take on BT in the
“irritating advert” stakes - and produce something that it
even more wholly irrelevant and information free, Although BT
will doubtless put up token resistance to being told to let
other operators use “their” wires, the I am all the more
inclined to suspect that the Blundering Tortoise may be worth
the stake money. At least BT’s commercials occasionally
refer to the products and services they are providing.