Network Interfaces and Standardisation

By Huw Saunders, Catalyst Communications Consulting

Ofcom’s General Condition 2 requires providers of communications networks and services to comply with certain technical standards, specifically with regard to interconnection between networks. GC 2 encourages all network providers to follow relevant European standards (as required by the underlying EU Telecom Framework) or those of the global ITU or equivalent bodies. It also allows Ofcom to specify standards that must be followed by one or more providers.

In practice, European or global standards, whether from ETSI, ITU or the IETF, tend not to be particularly specific – often there are a wide range of configuration or methodology options even within a single standard. Consequently, in the 1990s, it became clear to industry and the regulator that a more UK-specific standards body was necessary to agree national approaches to service delivery so that interoperability across networks was more easily enabled. This body was known as the Networks Interoperability Consultative Committee (NICC).

Originally NICC was formally constituted as a committee reporting to Ofcom (and previously Oftel). In June 2008, NICC reformed as an independent industry body that is now owned and managed by organisations involved in interoperability standards development (mainly larger communications providers and equipment manufacturers), and is parented on the Institution of Engineering and Technology. In its initial phases of operation, NICC concentrated on developing a full suite of interconnection and interoperability standards for traditional telco networks and services but, over the last few years, has been turning more and more to “Next Generation” network issues.

Of particular interest to NGA superfast broadband providers is the work they are doing on Active Line Access (ALA). This concept was first developed by Ofcom as a result of work they undertook in 2007 and 2008, looking at how the deployment of NGA would affect services delivered to customers and how competition would develop. Essentially, they concluded that NGA networks were close to being “natural monopolies”, in that only one or, at most, two competing infrastructures were likely to be economically viable. Consequently, the current broadband landscape of both large scale and niche competitive providers being able to differentiate their services through easy access to basic infrastructure such as BT’s copper network through Local Loop Unbundling (LLU) was likely to be subject to radical change.

Ofcom believe that the current health of the UK broadband market, with its wide range of providers competing vigorously for market share at comparatively low prices, is based on a high level of competitive intensity – in other words a large number of potential providers of services being forced to innovate in price, product or service in order to win customers. If NGAs are natural monopolies, LLU enabled competition will fall away and, in the face of diminished competitive pressure, consumers may lose out through the lack of innovation incentives.

Ofcom have sought to address this on BT’s network by introducing the concept of “virtual unbundling” that will, in principle, allow this competitive intensity to be maintained by requiring BT to provide an “enhanced bitstream” service that, unlike current generation IPStream and WBC, allows retail service providers a real opportunity to innovate and offer differentiated services.

But what about the smaller networks being established elsewhere through community initiatives or those that will result from the BDUK “Final Third” funding? This is where the ALA work comes in. NICC will develop standards to underpin the deployment of Next Generation Access technologies that are used to provide high speed broadband services. The Active Line Access (ALA) standards will allow retail Communication Providers (such as TalkTalk or Sky) to offer services to end users in a consistent way regardless of the access network provider that the end user is connected to. These standards can be used to support virtual unbundling of the access network where necessary; they can also provide a single transport solution for smaller community broadband networks that will enable them to connect their individual end users to any CP. The ALA standards will also support advanced capabilities such as Quality of Service and IP multicast that are key enablers for mass market broadband services.

In addition, the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) has been running a programme called Commercial, Operational and Technical Standards (COTS) that is looking at how ALA might work in practice and what other initiatives may be needed in order to deliver the multi-provider competitive landscape that Ofcom see as being necessary. This has concentrated, in particular, on the possible need for intermediaries to sit between smaller NGA players and the big retail service providers, acting as a gateway to minimise underlying technical and operational differences for the service providers without forcing the access providers to make disproportionate investment to meet their requirements.

Whether Ofcom will actually make the use of ALA and a COTS intermediary mandatory for every NGA access network is another matter. At the moment, they are actively encouraging schemes to adopt this approach on a voluntary basis and it may be that BDUK funding is tied to some degree of commitment to them. The next iteration of the WLA Review in 2013 will, however,allow them to designate any NGA networks then operational as having Significant Market Power (SMP) which would allow them to impose a so-called “regulatory remedy” such as ALA compliance.

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