Manchester develops next generation access (NGA) Broadband

A key priority of Manchester’s statutory city region pilot is to expand and diversify the City Region’s economic base by creating the best conditions for innovation accelerated by next generation digital infrastructure.

Cities with good communications infrastructure are attractive to investors and have higher property values. They are better equipped to grow strong knowledge and creative economies. Today a good communications infrastructure means high speed, high quality digital networks that can keep up with accelerating demand and with the investment in competitor cities.

Dave Carter, head of Manchester Digital Development Agency (MDDA) at Manchester City Council says: “Demand for bandwidth is increasing exponentially. For fixed line infrastructure, only optical fibre can accommodate this increasing demand. This means using fibre for the whole connection fibre to the premises (FTTP) complemented by next generation wireless networks.”

“Other technologies and planned enhancements will only help for a very short while, enabling regions to compete more effectively with other parts of the UK but not with the other parts of the world, which they will need to do if the UK is to fully realise its opportunities to be a leading global player.”

The Oxford Road Corridor network is a pilot project to test next generation access networks, with the ambition to grow the project to Greater Manchester under the remit of the Manchester Digital Development Agency (MDDA), an arm of Manchester City Council.

Manchester is one of two statutory city regions in the UK where a new model of development is being tested – Leeds is the other. There are ten local authorities within the Manchester region, all of which want to develop next generation access – often referred to as FTTP, which includes business as well as domestic fibre to the home (FTTH). The implies a completely different type of connection compared to conventional copper cabling to premises, with much higher bandwidth or transmission speed, and the ability to expand bandwidth by changing active equipment.

“It is easy to set up a 100 megabit FTTP service, but not much more difficult to make it 1 gigabit,” argues Shaun Fensom of Manchester Digital, a non-profit trade association that is independent of the public sector (not to be confused with MDDA). “Fibre also scores on other factors such as latency, jitter, quality of service (QoS) and symmetry. Latency is critical in cloud computing and jitter is critical in high definition video conferencing for example. A raft of new applications will become available as a result of low latency, and of symmetry, that is same speed upload as that of download.

“The commonplace DSL services currently available mostly have asymmetric (slower) upload, as do some fibre networks to be fair, but there is an opportunity to have a much more symmetrical service than people are used to with ADSL.”

Because DSL is so dependent on distance, broadband customers routinely experience a halving of the nominal bandwidth quoted by ADSL service vendors. Rivalling FTTP as a technology for next generation networks is fibre to the cabinet, or very high bitrate digital subscriber line (VDSL) – the final cabling from the street cabinet to the premise is still copper, with a download speed claimed to be up to 60 megabit and 10 megabit upload.

Fensom argues that this still does not solve the high contention issues also experienced by customers, and there is still a distance dependency from the premise to the cabinet. The Corridor covers an area of South Manchester and includes some large hospitals, universities, a science park, a techno park, and mixed demographic housing.

“The two-year Corridor pilot will connect 1,000 homes and 500 businesses to determine what kind of business models would work, what mix of services are in demand and what prices are to be charged for these services. It will look at innovative fibre installation techniques like slot-cutting by saw on a road instead of digging a trench in order to drop fibre cable in, or like running fibre through sewers.

“It will be an open network where the city council will be the initial network operator, working with a private sector partner called Geo, which designs and builds bespoke fibre networks. It will not offer connection services directly to the customer, but through service providers. This provides an open platform for competition between service providers, which could include telephone suppliers, internet service providers (ISPs), digital TV vendors, voice over IP vendors, and so on.

“In the UK, it is not unusual for one vendor to offer a mix of services as a bundle, but where fibre networks are built in other parts of Europe, customers buy individual services from several competing companies operating on the same open network.”

Fensom explains that a small ISP may buy from the network a connection to resell through to the customer which is ‘fully lit’, while a larger ISP may want to ‘light’ the connection itself, or in other words, to provide the active equipment at each end of a connection provided by the network as ‘dark’ fibre .

This opens up whole value chains of different types of access, with vendors occupying different parts of the value chain. Those buying dark fibre make higher margins because they have to commit to a larger investment in active equipment. The first connections will be made in mid-2010.

Fensom concludes: “The ultimate ambition to connect businesses across Greater Manchester would need to go alongside developments in next generation connections to homes. Amsterdam has done a great deal of this already, by connecting 40,000 homes and businesses to fibre networks, and Manchester has drawn much inspiration and indeed, assistance from Amsterdam City Council. If you were to name the three most exciting places in Europe for the development of digital industries, covering everything from new media and web design through to cloud computing development, they would be London, Amsterdam and Manchester."

One of the reasons The Corridor was chosen as a starting point, was that it has an internet exchange in the middle, with a lot of internet peering activity where the connections between the private networks take place – they can exchange traffic locally without charging each other.

“There are only two places where significant peering activity goes on in the UK: London and Manchester. As a consequence of peering, transit prices are very low. There is no other place in the UK where you can do that outside of the London Docklands”, added Fensom.


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