Monday, 9 January 2012

B4RN in focus

 Much as I agree with many of B4RN's goals, I do have some serious concerns about the project - one in which the "innocent public" is being asked to plough a lot of money (£1.5m)

My concerns about B4RN are:

1. there isn't enough detail supporting the published business plan
2. the proposed telephony service is a white elephant
3. the project has single-points-of-failure
4. the finances don't add up
5. there is no promise of openness
6. can B4RN Ltd. deliver the proposed service?

1. flaws in the plan...

No details of wayleave contracts are provided

Without details of the wayleave contracts it is difficult to gauge whether landowners will be as happy to allow access to their property.  The initial installation is one issue, subsequent access for maintenance (24x7) and upgrades (with potential disruption) are another.

The plan doesn't address the "wholesale" problem

The "wholesale problem" is the desire (indeed, expectation) by potential subscribers that they will be able to use the infrastructure to access their preferred ISP i.e. the B4RN fibre will be an access technology available on the wholesale Internet market in the same way that BT's ADSL network is.

Personally I don''t think the BT Wholesale (BTW) model (centralised L2TP handoffs) is a good one, although their latest (21CN) design using regional handoffs is an improvement.  B4RN's technical FAQ indicates that they too find the BTW L2TP model unsuitable but doesn't commit to an alternative.

The unfortunate reality is that public perception is that unless they have the (technically inferior) ability to contract with any 3rd party ISP for service, that the network is "locked in" and therefore not fit for purpose.

This concern is not addressed in the B4RN plan - either as an acknowledgement that such a perception exists and will therefore deter people from subscribing, or as a potential route to market - i.e. with a wholesale version of the service.

2. telephony...

The project is using "ditch your BT phone line" as bait to make the £30/month cost more palatable.  In my opinion they shouldn't do this - the B4RN Internet access proposition stands on its own and this pitch undermines the value of the Internet connection itself

Ironically the problem is the Internet service offered is better than the Telephony proposal and anyone taking it expecting a telephone service as good as BT's is in for a disappointment.

The problem is that with VoIP as proposed, what subscribers will get is a "just good enough" phone service - akin to a mobile phone, with occasional lack of service, voice break-ups, dropped calls etc. - but they aren't being told this.  BT (for all their faults) are pretty good at supporting telephony and even they have shied away from VoIP due to the problems.  B4RN are simply not resourced to deliver any kind of quality telephony service.

Questions around the aspects of providing telephony like provision of 999 access, handling billing enquiries etc. have simply not been addressed in the B4RN plan so we assume there simply will be none.

3. Single Point(s) of Failure

Reliance on Telecity (Manchester) and EDGE-IX

All of B4RNs Internet transit will travel down a single fibre path of 128km to Telecity (Manchester)  If ever there was a case of putting all your eggs in one basket, this is it.  And the basket is suspended by a single, very long, thin, thread.

In addition, B4RN is heavily reliant on EDGE-IX for peering   As a regional peering point, it isn't a safe assumption that all the ISPs present there will be able to support the kinds of bandwidth to their core networks that B4RN is anticipating.

Route Redundancy

No network path diagram is provided so there is no guess what route redundancy is like.

In terms of sustainability, talk of "the core router", "the fibre to Manchester" etc. indicates a lack of redundancy in the design which means that the network will be vulnerable to outages caused by the failure of any one component.

Access Side

Only a single pair is budgeted for each premises connection so there is a vulnerability for each subscriber all the way from their house to the village hub node.  This can be mitigated by a guaranteed response time to repair but B4RN is not offering such a service level guarantee.

4. The finances don't add up...

Earlier versions of the business plan had some breakdown of costs.  the current version has only high-level estimates so it is very difficult to verify that they are accurate.

As details have been removed there is less explanation for the costs, for example in the "central costs"

Taken from Plan V3.1 p.18
4.4.1Central Headend£30,000
4.4.2Parish headends£24,000
4.4.3Active routing and switching equipment£125,000
4.4.4Fibre to Manchester£50,000
4.4.5Company setup and project initiation costs£30,000
4.4.6Training and installation equipment£60,000
Central Costs £319,000

In the current plan (November) section 4.5, "central costs" are shown at only £235,450 with no breakdown - some £84k less than the budget proposed in August with no explanation of where this saving has been made.

This is difficult to fathom as the costs themselves are already at the minimum expected for the services required:

4.4.1 includes unspecified "core equipment", UPS and genset.  There are two "central headend" sites so this estimate is already pretty low.

4.4.2 are the four "network nodes" budgeted here at £6k each for UPS and genset and site build.

4.4.3 includes a core router specified as being "fully redundant" and fibre switch ports for the 1,322 properties in the first phase.  The cheapest Cisco that fits the bill fore core router is the ASR1006 with dual RP and SP, at a street price of around £50k each.  This leaves only £25k for the switches.

It has to be assumed that the project isn't proposing to use Cisco brand equipment which could be considered a "brave decision" that is usually taken only by companies who are confident they have the technical staff to support non-industry-standard solutions.

4.4.4 is the cost of "DWDM equipment" and housing this in Telecity.   For a 128km reach there would usually be at least one regen which has not been budgeted.

As a smart chap once said - the first 50% of the project took 95% of the money, the remaining 50% took the other 95% of the money.

additional services

An area where B4N hopes to supplement their income is described in section 6.3 of the business plan.  Here details some additional services which B4RN anticipates "there will be a reasonable demand for"

The first of these is "fibre area...point to point links" - but why would anyone want to pay more than £60/month for this, given that's how much B4RN charges for two IP end-points on the same fibre network?  B4RN do not propose an infrastructure for delivering differentiated services, their "leased lines" will simply be VLANs on the same switches that residential users are using for Internet access.

B4RN should be aware that BT's low speed private circuit business has been almost wiped out by cheap Internet connections.  Companies find that an Internet VPN is "good enough".  Across B4RN's own network there should be no question of quality.

5. Net Neutrality

The other revenue-generating proposal is to tie-in value-add service providers like CCTV monitoring companies with kick-back deals.  This is the first step down a slippery slope of turning the network into proprietary lock-in where there subscribers are obliged to take the services from B4RN's "approved suppliers".

I note there is no mention of "net neutrality" in the B4RN proposal, leaving the way open for them to block for example, competing VoIP companies, or non-"approved" value add services.

6. Can B4RN Ltd. deliver the service?
Although it is laudable that B4RN has put together this project, I have my doubts that they will be able to deliver a sustainable service.  As detailed above, I have concerns over the budget and the technology.  Another issue is the staffing of the company.

The board has limited experience in running telecoms carriers or ISPs, aside from Barry Forde who has previously built an access network for schools.  A couple of people have done community "Internet sharing" projects too, but that isn't the same scale as the B4RN proposal.

B4RN are expecting to train network technicians from the local community, but is there a pool of suitable candidates to fill these roles?  and once trained, will there be a continuing source of candidates (with funding for training) to replace those that leave?

There is very little budgeted for cost of supporting the network.  The Technical FAQ even states "Fibre support takes typically about 10% of that required by copper." but without any evidence for this.  I fear this is an area that has been seriously underestimated.


This article has been difficult to write since I am basically a supporter of better Internet access, community projects and JFDI however when a project asks the public to invest a substantial amount in a business I think it is only fair that the risks are made clear.

As everyone who has worked in community projects knows, and in fact in any consumer-targeted service, the take up is often substantially less in reality than any polls or public meetings would lead you to believe.  I hope this doesn't sink the project when they find it difficult to get subscriber numbers to a sustainable level to meet the opex commitments.

Despite my misgivings I hope the project is a success, but I won't be totally surprised to read in a year or two that BT (or some other telco) is "bailing out" the project by taking over the network and subscribers, writing off the investors money.

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