Thursday, 21 January 2010

Confession of an FTTH-geek: I chose cable over FTTH

(don't forget to take the poll, to tell me what you would have done)
You've seen it in recent posts already. I switched to UPC. That really means that all despite all the FTTH pictures on my blog, I'm not actively connected to the internet over fiber at all. This has been tough for me to swallow. I really wish I could have done it differently. But business is business even if there is some emotion to it.

So why did I choose UPC Fiber Power 60 in december? Well, KPN made me do it. I wanted FTTH so much, I waited for 6 months to switch to UPC, even though I had already concluded it was the sensible thing to do. I just thought that KPN would get its act together. Then came the investors call of December 15. For me as a consumer, it wasn't good. All KPN could promise was, we're working on it. No timelines, no debate on how they would fix half year backlog and worse somewhere in the second quarter KPN would offer symmetrical speeds over fibre, but still at a too high price point.

So here I am, I chose UPC Fiber 60, because I get 60mbit/s that performs reasonably well and beats Alice DSL 6 times. I have the international calling package, which saves me from bill shock whenever we call in Europe, can't get that from KPN. I have the Royal digital TV package with a year free Film 1 movie channel, including a 100 movies on download. Can't get such a package from KPN. And the best thing is. It worked within 24 hours of walking into a UPC store, with minimal fuzz. All that for 25 less then what I would pay KPN and 5 less than what I paid Alice+UPC combined.

It's the economy.

Hopefully next year December XMS will have crossed the canal between Almere Buiten and my home and they serve my area as well. They offer 50mbit/s symmetrical at a reasonable price, but their phone offer is quite bad. I can't move away from UPC any time soon for the content as my wife likes it too much.. So all in all anybody who can offer symmetrical internet and international calling for 50 euro is my friend.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Ars Technica published my article on ENUM

For Ars Technica I wrote a more accessible version of some of my ITU work. It's a basic intro into ENUM and then some views of the future. Hope y'all like it.

Speedtest UPC Fiber Power 60 vs Alice DSL 20

I switched providers. I moved from Alice DSL to UPC Fiber Power. An explanation on the switch follows later, but here are some of the differences in broadband speed. Important disclaimer: This is not a perfect test. There are many factors involved.

The Networks
Alice is using ADSL2+ provided by BBNED in the Netherlands. This is an Unbundled Local Loop connection, so no KPN involved here. According to the Alice website I am close enough to the DSLAM to be able to get between 16 and 20 Mbit/s (screenshot).

UPC is using Docsis 3 to provide 60 mbit down and 6 mbit up to my home.

I tested using my laptop with the power plugged in. I shut down most software and processes that were running on the laptop. Especially the ones I suspected might influence the download. I shut down the wifi by flipping the physical switch on my T60 laptop. I used a 2 meter UTP cable straight to the UTP-port on the DSL-modem and Cable-Modem. There was no switch or anything in between. I used the Chrome browser and switched off all proxies and stuff. I used Chrome as I figured that with it's pre-loading of DNS queries it might be best and it consistently is the fastest browser around. It also has the least plug-ins installed.

I went to four websites to test the speed. Three performed speedtests and 1 allowed me to download a 100mb .bin file (104.857.600bytes according to windows). I used both UPC's and BBNED's speedtest sites and I always made at least two trial runs before performing three speedtests and for the file download I did at least one full trial file download before performing the test. The results are as follows (screenshots embedded below). I started at 23:30 and finished at 24:00. UPC was first and then Alice.

Results UPC
100MB File download from Leaseweb using the site: 29 seconds or 28926kbps
UPC Speedtest site: 40.87mbit/s down and 3.99mbit/s up, 49.51/3.64 and 50.47/3.99
BBNED Speedtest site: 29,433kbps down, 29,001kbps and 31,565kbps 10677kbps/2045kbps, 10144kbps/1735kbps and 13789kbps/2015kbps

Results Alice
100MB File download from Leaseweb using the site: 158 seconds or 5309kbps
UPC Speedtest site: 5.36mbit/s down and 0.87mbit/s up, 5.41/0.87 and 5.370.87
BBNED Speedtest site: 5363kbps, 5746kbps and 5762kbps 5222kbps/804kbps, 5276kbps/794kbps and 5269kbps/302kbps

Both networks don't reach the promised speeds all the way. What is shocking is that Alice doesn't even come close on its own network. It promises between 16 and 20Mbit/s but delivers only 5.7, regardless of what network you test against. That is only 28% at best. All in all switching to UPC got me 5.5 times more bandwidth for roughly the same price. (more on that later)

UPC fares better. To it has a problem it seems. It is only twice as fast there as Alice is. which would be an underperforming 17%. But when connecting to BBNed the worst I get is 48%. In it's own network UPC showed varying performance between 40 and 50mbps or a maximum of 84%.

There is more difference in the upload speeds it seems, but the tests probably aren't good enough to say much about it.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Invest in Fiber or UPC / Liberty Global will move into your country.

Last week I wrote that the end of DSL is nigh. In reaction a compadre of mine told me, that he had followed UPC  (Liberty Global) for a while and he got the feeling that they were moving out of countries where there was a strong threat of FTTH (Slovenia and France). In his opinion they were moving into countries with a slow moving incumbent that had bet the house on VDSL2 (ie Germany hat tip to Dirk for the link). Very interesting idea, might be something to it.

A bit of technical explanation, for more see this report. Docsis 3 wins on headline speeds for download and upload being able to deliver 200 down and 120 up, but it has a contention issue. The upload is the big problem as it cannot be expanded (unlike download) and has to be shared by all users on the same segment. Contention is a statistical issue, so contention on 200Mbit link may be disproportionally less than on a 20mbit link. VDSL2 doesn't have the contention issues and when built out to the curb it can deliver 50mbit up and down. VDSL2 to the curb has however seen limited adoption until now (Deutsche Telekom and AT&T). What I understood of KPN's fiber strategy is that it won't even offer VDSL2 to the curb anymore as it's not cost effective. Instead it will offer VDSL2 from the central office with up to 40mbit download speeds.

And I always thought that a low fiber diet gave you indigestion!

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The end of DSL is nigh, but collusion will save it

DSL was given a killing blow in The Netherlands today. The headline item on every TV-news and news-website from morning to evening was that DSL consumers do not get what they pay for. Not even half. Cable did much better. The messenger was the most trusted consumer organisation; Consumentenbond.

The news itself of course isn't news. Most readers here know about loop lengths and up-to xMbit/s advertising. Telecompaper recently published the same results. But the news was news because somehow this geeky little secret was headline news. Even my parents in law, retirees, were talking about it. It was everywhere.

What were the numbers?
The Consumentenbond only compared the popular 20mbit/s subscriptions. They had some of their members install a piece of software at multiple times during the day tests speeds and it was clear. Most DSL subscriptions didn't reach 10mbit/s let alone the advertised up to 20mbit/s. Cable did much better with UPC deliver 62% of the promised speed and Ziggo delivering around 80%. One of the most respected ISP's XS4ALL received an extra blow because it was called the most expensive on a price per mbit comparison at €5,60. KPN is at €5,10/mbit, the average is €2,80/mbit, Ziggo at  €1,50/mbit and UPC at €1,15/mbit. This competely left out that XS4ALL has the best loved helpdesk, free access to 950 hotspots. But anyways... the main product is internet and it is expensive at XS4ALL. KPN is even more no frills.

Mom and pop felt DSL was the better choice
So, why is this such a blow? Because in the hearts and minds of the consumer DSL was still king. Cable was something crappy, shared with the entire neighbourhood provided by greedy morons, uncapable of even  basic administrative proceses. This has now changed. The news said that the Consumentenbond said that cable was better and that means a lot here. And you know what. The Consumentenbond is right. For a consumer in the Netherlands today Cable is the best option, unless there is FTTH provided by Solcon, XMS or Concepts available.

In the last 6 months the world changed here in NL. for the first time this millennium cable got more new broadband subscribers than DSL. KPN showed tens of thousands net losses across the board. Only Tele2 got some new subscribers. The news today confirmed this lead of the cable companies.

DSL doesn't have an answer and FTTH won't be big enough.

The really bad thing for the DSL providers is that their infrastructure doesn't allow them to give a proper answer to the cable challenge. KPN promissed its All-IP network with 50mbit symmetric VDSL2 from every curb into every home by 2012. The fibre strategy of 15 december 2009 showed that this will not happen. Instead KPN will provide VDSL2 40mbit down, 4mbit up from the current central offices with their much longer loop lengths. 70% percent of customers will see a speed increase, but we don't know by how much. Chances are most people will average out close to 20mbit/s. Tele2 has gone this road already and BBNed is rolling it out too (Thanks Hendrik for alerting me that were already rolling out.) Telecom Italia is looking for a buyer for BBNed, so I wonder about their commitment towards rolling out VDSL2 to consumers

Up to 20% of consumers will get FTTH in the coming years. But there is no big bang planned, so where we stand in 2020 is anyone's guess.

Worse still is that KPN has promissed its investors that it will market VDSL as a premium product with Premium prices. The real world speed is comparable with a low-end cable subscription. With the Consumentenbond watching, this will be a tough sell. It hurts if you're advertising 40 and you can't deliver anymore than 15-20 to most people.

Cable and KPN will agree on a truce
If this were a game of Command & Conquer or Railroad Tycoon and I was running cable, I would be going for the jugular. I would up minimum bandwidth on the cheapest subscription to 50 down and 5 up. This way even the headline speed on the cheapest subscription would out shine the competitors premium product. The arrival of VDSL would be a non-event. All subscribers would run to cable and life would be good. (even more so with a competing investment in FTTH and in better services) This however is the real world and KPN is a giant who gets nasty when wounded.

Of the two cable companies Ziggo is the one with the heavily leveraged balance sheet and heavy losses because of heavy interest payments. UPC can handle more as it short changed it's bond holders years ago, but the steady profit from NL is used to expand elsewhere in Europe. They don't want a price war with KPN. They want cash flow. Steady sustainable growth that doesn't strain their back office too much. KPN has strict internal rules on what it sees as an acceptable market share. Anything above is good, anything below and all hell breaks loose. The net effect will need to be that some kind of truce is agreed.

The mobile sector shows how to collude without angering the regulator
A truce exists already in the mobile market. KPN has publicly stated that it doesn't want less than 40% of the mobile market. T-mobile and Vodafone know this leaves 60% for them to split (of which 10% can go to MVNOs). Both mobile operators don't accept market shares below 20%. Now that everyone knows this everyone can optimize their business accordingly. Even the retail channel receives bonuses selling according to market share.Whenever someone gains too much or drops too much the other too will adjust their behaviour accordingly. Every marketing manager has targets to attain and everybody knows everybody.

One of the venues where this is agreed is the main stage of the Telecomtime event I blogged from this year. KPN said it was happy where it was and the other two said the same. This is not collusion in the: Yoohoo, send in the European Commission and the anti-cartel police kind of way, but the effect is the same and much harder too prove. The nice thing of doing it on stage is that you can just say you were answering a question or giving a presentation.

The way it shows is by how Dutch mobile providers have changed the fine print from per second billing to per minute billing and have reintroduced start-up fees for new subscribers.

The way forward
KPN and cable will need to signal each other where they will draw a line in the sand when it comes to market share.  Now that cable has the upper hand in head line speeds and also in television content, the playing field needs to be levelled. KPN can do this by increasing its service offer. I foresee KPN leveraging its huge wifi installed base to provide its customers with more wifi hotspots (like FON) and probably some offer with mobile broadband as well. I also expect it to invest heavily in services that are included in the package to justify the price, ie backup online for free and more type of stuff. None of this will happen before the second half of this year. KPN will bleed customers in the first half year and they won't mind it either as it will keep OPTA of their backs. After the market has rebalanced the cable operators will probably target the speed freaks as their customers and KPN will opt to capture a market that wants a full range of services.  

Confession from a fiber geek
BTW I moved from Alice 20mbit DSL to UPC 60/6 triple play this month. Saved money and roughly tripled my real world download speeds. A blogpost explaining my actions and stats will follow. (yes that really means no FTTH this year, my heart bleeds)