PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

Going Locally Loopy
September 1998

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 copper.

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:

"High speed 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 said:

"OFTEL 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<  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.