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1st Meeting of the Dyfinet Working Group, 1st July 2002

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Meeting Minutes

Phil Williams' opinion of wireless broadband


Meeting Minutes

The first Dyfinet meeting as held at Dulas Ltd, Dyfi Eco Parc yesterday 1st July 2002.

Tim Fletcher, Powys County Council (PCC)
Dave Thorpe, Cyberium
Gareth Bowker, Ateb
Jeremy Rollinson
Tim Black, Byteback Systems
Neil Diack, Byteback Systems
Nathan Harmsworth, Ysgol Bro Ddyfi
Robert Ayres, Yesmate
Bob Gautier, Ateb
Andy Rowland, Ecodyfi

Note: for simplicity the term 'broadband' is used here to be high speed internet access and is not necessarily 'true broadband'.

The agenda consisted of:

* Tim's presentation of his proposed bid to the Local Regeneration Fund for broadband facilities in 5 towns, 5 businesss parks and 50 SMEs in Powys. Discussion.

* Discussion of technical considerations and the current situation with respect to broadband availability, regulatory aspects, costs and future funding opportunities.

* Discussion of Byteback's (and other SME's) bandwidth and technical requirements.

* Discussion of 'issues for resolution' - how to make progress effectively.

Tim's plan received unanimous approval. It was agreed that the scope of Dyfinet should, if possible, serve the Centre for Alternative Technology and beyond to Corris.

Nathan confirmed that Ysgol Bro Ddyfi has a current requirement for an extension to the school network to two additional buildings, and that wireless (WiFi, 802.11b) would be an appropriate technology to achieve this.

Gareth has been working with open source wireless networking software called 'Nocat' that offers various useful features for the management of WiFi networks, including user authorisation.

Robert mentioned that the long-awaited announcement from the National Assembly about a broadband initiative was now scheduled to be released on 28th July. It is assumed that the announcement will contain an element of subsidy for organisations wishing to purchase broadband connectivity as well as a funding provision for community WiFi projects.

Bob gave his opinion that WiFi is appropriate for projects such as Dyfinet. Bob contends that the relatively short distances of Dyfinet's proposed 'point to point' and 'point to multipoint' wireless links would not lead to significant network instability. This is a complicated technical issue, these notes are merely an overview (see also Phil William's opinion in Andy's recent email below). PCC is treating Dyfinet as a pilot project, partly in order to test the effectiveness of WiFi for rural broadband provision.

It was aknowledged that, whilst a proper fiber backbone in Wales is the best way to ensure broadband provision for the future, this is not currently a forseeable option. The current problem is how to use PCC's forthcoming 32Mbps (from total of 155Mbps) backbone capacity most effectively.

Jeremy gave details of his costing analysis and business model for WiFi connectivity. Approximate hardware costs of a main wireless Access Point (AP) node is £3,000-£5,000 (?). Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) costs per location are approximately £300. A sustainable business model can be achieved by charging £50 per month to businesses (20:1 contention) and £30 per month to consumers (30:1 contention). Capital equipment costs can easily be covered in funding applications (re: Tim) but revenue costs (i.e. for network admin) are harder to come by. Therefore it should be possible to give CPE away free and only charge customers the monthly subscriptions.

Jeremy stated that simple (free) TSL licenses are adequate to provide connectivity to up to 20 customers. A model needs to be defined for management, administration and billing so that business entities with TSL licenses can be easily created, with one TSL-holder per broadband hotspot served. PCC should not become a telco. Action Point: more info required on this, is this a regulatory issue and part of the current Radio Licensing Authority consultation process? Can we define the TSL-holding business entity, administration, funding, etc. ?

Jeremy described an effective network setup for Dyfinet: a 'sector antenna' would be located on a hill, pointing at Machynlleth. A point to point link would connect this antenna with the bandwidth source in the town (possibly Ysgol Bro Ddyfi). Network users would require narrow aperture antennas with a line of site to the sector antenna. Action Point: identify possible sites (and land owners) for sector antenna location.

A possible problem was identified: the new Welsh Broadband For Lifelong Learning (BBFL) network - the 155Mbps local authority backbone upgrade - will be part of JANET (Joint Acedemic Network) and that commercial activity is apparently not allowed. If the only commercial activity allowed on the BBFL network is the supply of eLearning material then the economic regeneration potential is severly limited. Action Point: check status of allowable BBFL network activity with Cymru Ar-lein and UKERNA.

Tim and Neil of Byteback voiced concerns about network congestion. Byteback would require a guaranteed minimum amount of bandwidth in order to serve web applications to their customers. Tim F said that PCC network stats show that the current 2Mbps Machynlleth connection is under-utilised at present (Nathan confirmed that Ysgol Bro Ddyfi computer facilities do not suffer from network congestion). Jeremy suggested that Machynlleth's 2Mbps could be divided into 4 x 512Kbps 'channels'. Action Point: what is the best way to manage network activity? - which connections get guaranteed minimum bandwidth? which connections get throttled?

It was agreed that a standard methodology for WiFi network implementation should be employed/developed so that overall costs of hardware acquisition and software configuration are minimised. The 'best practice' methodology should be documented. Action Point: keep a close eye on Consume (London WiFi) members' 'Node in a Box' development efforts.

Jeremy stressed that the most important action at this stage is to sign up interested potential customers, to carry out a customer survey and thus guage demand. Approximately 20 initial users are required to make the project feasible. Andy said that a funding application could be made to the 'Communities First' initiative for a feasibility study. Action point: formulate application to Communities First for funding of Dyfinet Feasibility Study, carry out customer survey, distribute information, liaise with Machynllleth Chamber of Trade, canvas local businesses.

Dave suggested approaching the local NHS centres as potential customers. Other potential customers: ATS, shops, community organisations, Dulas. Further Action Points: update and distribute Dyfinet Press Release, update Dyfinet website (including contact email information of attendees).

Please also join the Dyfinet email list by sending an email to majordomo@www.geekspace.co.uk with the text "subscribe dyfinet" in the message body (not subject line). This will be the most effective method for disseminating Dyfinet news and co-ordinating Dyfinet action from here on. (Note, once joined, you can post a message to the group by addressing an email to dyfinet@www.geekspace.co.uk ).

Many thanks to Dulas Ltd for the use of their room and facilities, Andy for organising the meeting and everyone who attended in person or in spirit. Apologies for Errors and Omissions.

Robert Ayres

Phil William's (Aberystwyth University, National Assembly Member) has beeen actively involved in the consultation process for Welsh Broadband provision. He can be described as a wireless sceptic. His sceptical view of wireless was questioned during the meeting. Bob said that the relatively short distances of Dyfinet's proposed 'point to point' and 'point to multipoint' wireless links would not lead to significant network instability. The technical experts present contended that whilst issues of network stability and signal deterioration can exist in wireless networks, the proposed Dyfinet system should work well and was of appropriate technical merit.

Phil Williams wrote:

The government have recently published a report on ICT in Rural Areas which is useless. There was meant to be a debate on it last week but it was postponed. I prepared a short speech so I am attaching it as it contains my ideas on how to serve rural areas.

In general I think that optic fibre or cable is the only sensible long-term solution to providing broadband to urban communities. I'm not a fan of wireless solutions as I think they will always be second best. Wireless is subject to cross-talk, affected by rain, and the total capacity is limited unless you use extreme compression and accept high contention ratios. Certainly industrial estates in towns must go for full optic fibre connectivity. Wireless and satellite should be reserved for customers (like me) more than 5 kilometres from an exchange.

As to the possibilities for a fibre network this the signs are interesting. I happened to meet Mike Tedd on an evening stroll along Aber prom and he told me that the Assembly Government were considering a £130 million scheme to subsidise BT in installing ADSL in 100 exchanges. Since then Andrew Davies keeps saying he will soon be making a major announcement . . . but he has now been saying this for some months. I suspect there is a budgetary battle going on in the Cabinet. We live in hope! At least the Economic Committee has followed up my paper and is arranging a trip to Sweden to see the country in Europe with the greatest advances in IT. Incidentally, there is £25 million for ICT Infrastructure in Objective One (but this doesn't cover Powys. So far none of this has been allocated!

Phil Williams' speach:

A month ago I received a phone-call from a friend who, many years ago, did research at Aberystwyth. He has now given up plasma physics for organic farming near Aberporth. He is eager to use broadband IT to market his produce so he asked when he might expect a broadband service. If he reads this report he will understand why I couldn't offer any hope. He will feel especially bitter at the suggestion that "the fundamental explanation for the low adoption of ICT in rural sectors is one of awareness". A bit like saying the reason Ceredigion has never produced a world-champion skier is the lack of awareness. Nothing to do with the lack of snow.

What is the point of providing training, encouragement and equipment, if the infrastructure does not exist. And this is where the report is particularly disappointing. Paragraph 24 recognises a need but where, oh! where is the strategic plan? But whenever we ask for a strategic plan, we are told the Government is technologically neutral. Where did they pick up such a stupid phrase? At the risk of boring the members of the Economic Committee, who've heard this before, I remind members that across the road is Scott Quay where Robert Falcon Scott set out for the South Pole. He was technologically neutral. He couldn't decide the best way to travel across Antarctica so he took petrol-driven sledges, horses, dogs, and just to be sure gave his men a few weeks training with skis. The expedition was a disaster. In contrast Amundsen asked what was the best way to get to the pole, chose dogs, and succeeded.

So in providing ICT infrastructure for the whole of Wales we need the best combination of technology. We can choose from fibre, cable, twisted copper, satellite and wireless. So how do we best use these in a country like Wales? The answer is obvious. Most of our telephone exchanges are already linked by optic fibre, so we can deliver broadband to 500 exchanges or so. The next step is therefore to equip these exchanges with DSL equipment, ensuring that we can upgrade from ADSL to VDSL in future. Next we provide DSL to the areas surrounding each exchange using normal telephone lines. This is restricted to about 5 kilometres - but within 5 kilometres of each exchange we catch the large majority of our population.

If we have a small village with a school but no telephone exchange then to meet the Government's commitment in Cymru Ar Lein we must provide an optic-fibre link to that school. But it is no good training schoolchildren to use broadband if it isn't available at home. So the next step is to install a cabinet at each school that acts as a mini-exchange, delivering broadband over a further 5 kilometres radius. At this stage you have covered almost all the population except for outlying farms and small businesses right out in the countryside. So you turn to Satellite and Wireless. As these are transmitted into free air, the number of separate channels available is limited by frequency contention.

So these are technologies that should be reserved for those subscribers who otherwise would have no access to broadband. Satellite channels are relatively expensive, and the number of channels allocated to the UK is strictly limited. However, this would be a suitable technology for a small factory remote from a DSL exchange. Wireless is cheaper but less reliable, especially when it is raining as we have learned recently in Aberystwyth where the University has a wireless link and we have lost contact with the rest of the world 23 times already this year. But wireless is the technology of last resort for individuals like myself who live out in the countryside and will accept the unreliability as better than nothing at all. In a few minutes I have outlined the matters that would have been addressed in a proper report. The absence of any proper analysis makes this report of little value.