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.

14 Responses to “Stumbling through the Ethernet First Mile”

  1. 1 Damian

    Interesting read Chris. Out of interest, who supplied the EFM connection, and would you recommend them?

  2. 3 Nick

    Hi Chris

    Any pointers to links for support pages for EFM connections please. I am about to assist a collegue who seems to have had little information from a large telecom company. He has been supplied IP/Gateway/Mask etc. He is unsure how these are used. i.e. what is set in the customer equipment and what in the telco equipment.



    • I’m not aware of any such support pages.

      The config of the telco router is pretty opaque, as it’s under their management. The IP, Subnet mask and gateway would normally be put into your own router/load balancer (or any clients connecting directly).

  3. 5 Peter

    I’m 50% on the way to getting EFM with KCOM. The NTE is installed with 3 copper pairs, but there is no IP on it’s LAN Ethernet port yet. The Cisco 1841 is sitting on my desk with me wondering why I need it? Can’t I just cable the NTE Lan port to my office LAN Watchguard LAN Port 2(Port 1 is the current ADSL router) and skip its overhead? None of the kit was delivered with any user manuals and I concur with the above writers dismay at the Cisco 1841 not being 19 in rack mountable, I may have to make something up to perform this.
    The Hatteras NTE seems very well made although it is small has massive 19 in rack mount brackets provided with it.

  4. 6 Markus

    Hi Chris, thanks for sharing this!

    We are very much in the same situation and hope to find a solution.

    Is EFM using a BT-like line (think DSL) but with a different protocol or is this a genuine new fibre/copper line that is put into place when EFM is installed?

    Would you drop me a line and share with me what supplier you have you chosen and why?

    Many thanks,

    • EFM uses the same copper pairs as regular voice/DSL lines between the exchange and your building. I don’t think they even had to pull any new wires when ours was installed. It uses different terminal equipment in the exchange and at the subscriber end though (versus xDSL), and can use a number of copper pairs to achieve the required bandwidth.

  5. 8 Graham Brown

    Interesting read. I was looking at EFM but have been told that we are too far from the exchange. I find that odd since our local Cab has FTTC. I wonder why it is not possible to use that fibre to the cab and have a small footprint balun to convert back and install in our building. Shame as can’t afford a leased line!

    • I think the EFM terminal equipment goes in the exchange rather than the local cabinet, which may explain your situation. If there’s FTTC then can’t you get a product based on that, which I would expect to be far better than EFM?

  6. 10 Andy

    I’m currently on fiber to the box FTTB and getting speeds of 20+ mb down and 7-9mb Up. Apparently the companies that are doing FTTB and then copper to the building are government funded and they are pulling the funding. Which means from April 2014 I will no longer have FTTB. My options are, go back to an ADSL line of which I got 1-2mb down with 2 different companies…so NO. A leased line will cost me in the region of £600 – £900 per month….So NO. Or EFM. I was hoping for a 2 pair connection as this would cost around £150 per month, but after checking with 3 different efm providers (who all use either BT or talk Talk Business) i’m just too far from the exchange, so I’m now looking at 4 pair for around £300 per month.
    This will give me a 1:1 contention ratio connection with the ADSL equivalent speed of around 80m up and down, No A in sight. It will also give me 3 back up lines, so should 1 go down the cisco router will auto switch to another line, no loss of service. It also gives me a 6 hour maximum Sla for a fix if the lot does go down, after that I can then claim for loss of service, all sounds good, but thats £300 ish a month. If i could sell on my connection to next door (string an Ethernet cable across across the wall and spread the cost, they I will go for it.)

    As far as i can work out, a standard phone line installed by BT some 30 + years ago under the street has 6 or even 8 copper wires in it. (Dependent on how old the cable is, you may only have 4 wires running around your house, but the cable from the street will have at least 6)
    Only 2 to are used to make a phone work, the same 2 that make the ADSL work. An Ethernet cable has 8 copper wires in it (or 4 pair). It seem to me that what they have managed to do is turn the wires from the pole or cabinet from a phone line using only 2, into an Ethernet cable using either 4, 6 or all 8 of the wires in the cable. a standard Ethernet cable may have 8 wires in it but at CAT 5 standard you don’t use all 8, only 2 or 4. So in theory, they are literally clamping a CAT 5 plug onto the end of your phone line, the telegraph poles or cabinets must then act as a powered repeater to the local exchange. the more pair of wires you use the more bandwidth you get and the more back ups you get. (apart from if someone chops the whole cable, then you done for – fix that in 6 hours I dare you) My distance must mean that I can’t get 2 pair because despite the powered repeaters the signal would degrade too much. 4 pair would mean less information through each wire, so not as much packet loss. CAT6 uses all 8 wires and the copper must be of a certain quality, of which BT copper wire is not, especially the new stuff they put in now trying to save money.

    So for me, they can trash my current phone line as it’s only used for broadband, I have a second line for the phone any way, I will need 4 pair to get at equivalent of 80 ish mb up and down, with a contention ratio of 1:1 (it’s all mine), fully supported with 3 separate back ups to help reduce down time, all at a cost of £300 ish per month, with the ability to “sell” my connection to next door to spread the cost.

    I’m assuming that you can’t run a normal phone over the phone wire once this is hooked up, but now that VOIP is such an easy option to get up and running, why bother.

    Think i have just talked myself into spending £300 per month for a kick a$$ internet connection with no fair usage policy and no data caps

    • I’m sorry to hear that you’re losing FTTB. I’d be gutted if I lost my FTTC connection – I can live with a little asynchronism and a bit of contention for 10x lower price.

      EFM uses Ethernet framing, but the twisted pairs that the telcos have in the ground for voice are much lower quality than the twisted pairs in Cat 5 or similar structured cabling, which is why it’s not as simple as putting an RJ45 plug on the end of some phone lines – that’s why they have to provide an EFM modem (and an expensive Cisco router to go with it – though to be honest they could probably use the cheap consumer routers that come with FTTC modems these days).

      VOIP should work flawlessly over an 80Mb/s connection – so I wouldn’t worry about sacrificing a land line (though I might worry about having enough copper pairs available – I once lived in a place where there was basically only one pair provisioned per house, and too much demand because some people wanted second lines for businesses they ran from home).

      It’s a shame you can’t find more people to share with… it’s often possible to get 1Gb/s fibre connections for about £1000/month.

      • 12 Ben

        Hi Chris

        It was an interesting blog to read in regards to EFM. I work for an ISP in Gloucestershire where we supply EFM as one of our many access products.

        I know from experience that BT OpenReach who are the contractors that carry out their own… I mean… the ISP’s bidding are a pain to deal with, even at the best of times. There seems to be little or no ownership for just about anything they do unfortunately. Let me assure you that it is as much a pain for us as it is trying to get the service in for the end user as it is for you as an end user waiting for the live date!

        In regards to the way EFM works, as you quite rightly said, it is bonded together in order to provide the service depending on how far and how much bandwidth you need. That Hatteras box which the engineers should install as part of the service is basically just a glorified de-bonding device which then accumulates the data from each of the lines before outputting into Ethernet frames for the device it connects to.

        The Cisco routers are usually provided so that ISP has some sort of visibility of the circuit. Usually the routers are interrogated every so often via SNMP or Ping to just show that they are still up and running. It is possible to swap the Cisco out for a cable modem in theory, however you may find that this won’t work as some ISP’s add a specific VLAN id to the Cisco’s to match the network configuration during the ordering process. I admit that it would be easier for Cisco to comply to 1U spacing, however i’m sure they do it to rake in some extra pounds for those routers…

        As mentioned in previous posts, FTTC is a good contender for fast access products though, and this is extremely popular. One unfortunate truth though is that FTTC still remains a non-guaranteed service which utilizes just 1 copper pair. So when this goes down because of some sort of line card failure, or copper line fault then your at the mercy of the engineering workstack – which varies. At least with the EFM solution each of the copper pairs terminates onto different line card at the exchange and is monitored proactively for any faults.

        Somewhere down the grapevine though i believe BTWholesale are going to be offering (if they havn’t already) a EFM solution which will tie in with the new FTTC cabinets so there maybe room for growth. However i haven’t heard of any confirmation of this as far as i am aware… Yet!

      • I recently moved site and after some crazy BT/ISP shenanagins have a 10Mbs EFM circuit.
        The ISP supplied Juniper SRX110 router runs really hot and after reading the comments above (that it may only be there to let the ISP ‘ping’ the circuit) I wonder if you folk have any opinion on replacing/removing it… should we try plugging our cisco rv120 firewall straight in (using the Juniper’s public IP) ?

      • If you mess with your service provider router they’ll almost certainly cut you off. It’s their management outpost in your environment, and although there’s pretty much no way that you seen any real value add from that management it’s part of the package (and part of what makes EFM ridiculously expensive).

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