Stumbling through the Ethernet First Mile
My firm moved offices a little while ago, and one of the things I was looking forward to was a much better Internet pipe than we had in our old place (which seemed like a domestic ADSL shared across 100+ people). Part of the plan was a fully VOIP telephone system, something that I’ll return to in a later post, but a disaster when you don’t have a decent connection.
I wrote already about our terrible experiences with ADSL. Upon further reflection I remain convinced that the City in London might be one of the worst places on the planet to use ADSL. Seriously – I got a better connection recently when I was on holiday in the Lake District – in a rental cottage – part way up a mountain. It remains a disgrace that all of the political attention remains focussed on rural areas (and presumably their voters) rather than business centres.
I thought I’d found salvation when I came across Urban Wimax, which uses fixed Wimax terminals to deliver up to 10Mb/s (symmetric). All it needed was installation of an antenna on our roof and we could be up and running in days. Sadly I’d not counted on a belligerent landlord. We weren’t even granted access to the roof for the pre installation survey, so getting something actually installed wasn’t going to happen (having a clause in our sublease that prohibited installation of ‘communications equipment’ – presumably aimed at satellite dishes – didn’t help either).
Reluctantly I went with the only remaining solution that would provide the required bandwidth (and that didn’t break the bank) – Ethernet First Mile (EFM). That was back in mid May, and my nightmare ended in late July when the service was finally put online (substantially later than the 30 [working] days I was originally promised). What follows are the highlights (well mostly lowlights) of what I discovered as I went through the process.
Too many mouths to feed
EFM is considered within my supplier as a ‘complex product’. All of the complexity is in the installation workflow and the balkanised sub organisations that process it. Account managers, installation managers, operations coordinators, offshored schedulers, outsourced router configurers, bearer installation engineers, site commissioning engineers – I’m sure there’s more. To make matters worse there are parts of the whole that are not allowed to talk to each other – they just pass messages (do this:done that). There’s no equivalent of try:catch, as there’s basically no exception processing. If you hit an exception then you’re in trouble, as nobody is empowered to take oversight and fix things. On the same day that the commissioning engineer turned up to switch us on I also met with the product manager. He didn’t actually have a full process map for how the product gets delivered, but was trying to build one (forensically).
The product itself
EFM has a lot in common with xDSL, as both use the regular copper pairs between your building and a telephone exchange. The main differences are that EFM doesn’t try to carry an analogue phone signal over the same pairs, and supports having multiple pairs to provide more bandwidth. Our feeble 2Mb/s connection only needed one bearer pair, which I’m told will probably be good for 4Mb/s should we ever need to upgrade. Adding another bearer pair would take the max bandwidth up to 8Mb/s.
Network Terminal Equipment (NTE)
This is a little black box that connects to power, the bearer and ethernet. Nobody seems to call it a modem, but that’s basically what it is.
We got a Cisco 1841 supplied with the service (and managed remotely). This seems like massive overkill (just like the /29 that was provisioned to satisfy our request for one IP address). It’s also a clumsy bit of kit, being 1U high, but not a whole U wide (and lacking any rack mount brackets) – so you can put it into a comms cabinet, but not properly.
The commissioning engineer got a single IP up and running on the router, and showed me web access on his laptop – I even got him to tell me what the IP was before he left the building (so that I could configure my load balancer that would use the old ADSL as a fallback).
How things could be improved
EFM might use different signalling over the copper, and have different terminal equipment, but fundamentally I don’t see how it’s that different from ADSL. ADSL has provisioning processes that (mostly) work. ADSL also has end user integrated modems/routers that are mass produced at low cost. EFM suppliers needs to clone the ADSL process, and cosy up with the consumer/SME grade equipment suppliers. That’s how EFM will get to be a £100/m for 5Mb/s product that small businesses (and ‘prosumers’) will be willing to pay for on a large scale to escape the limitations of ADSL (and SDSL).
Of course an even better plan would be for telcos to work with landlords so that fibre was already installed an terminated, and each tenant(subscriber) could then just get a virtual circuit with the bandwidth that they need. Ethernet (the regular sort that only goes 100m) will always trump EFM. It would have been great if our building could have co-operated to share a relatively modest fibre connection, but the deck is stacked against this type of arrangement.
There is a happy ending
It may be expensive, and I did have a nightmare getting it installed, but it does work well. Bandwidth seems to be as advertised, and latency is a substantial improvement on ADSL. I also have the small consolation that if I’d ordered fibre I’d probably still be waiting now.
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Tags: broadband, efm, ethernet, ethernet first mile, network, telco, wimax