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Forget the crosstalk, superfast broadband can and should be unbundled

Way back near the dawn of time, well 1968 actually, a major and important kerfuffle broke out in the US over who could attach devices to the telephone line. The Carterfone was a simple acoustic coupler to enable someone on the far end of a two-way mobile radio system to hop onto the PSTN to establsh a call, but AT&T didn't want it on its network. The ‘Carterfone’ case went all the way to the supreme court and eventually established that anyone could attach - as long as it was lawful and safe (couldn’t break the network).

Then, once legal, the acoustic coupler idea was applied to fax machines, answering machines and, of course, computer modems, eventually enabling the Web and the online world as we now know it.

Two lessons here. AT&T actually spent time, money and good-will tying to stop something that, when finally allowed, drove revenue into its pockets (all those fax lines and their long distance calls).

Secondly, it tried to use a mostly spurious technical argument to further commercial, competitive ends by claiming it needed total control over all the devices attaching to its network. Without that control the network would be harmed it claimed and - worst case - such devices could theoretically malfunction and send a fatal electrical shock to an engineer innocently working away in the local exchange

That ‘network harm’ argument harbours a germ of theoretical truth, but in practice nobody has ever been electrocuted… anywhere (no don’t write in with the one example - I’m sure there is one). And there hasn’t been a rash of major outages because of malfunctioning devices confusing the network… just doesn’t happen.

And although AT&T is on the naughty step on Carterfone, the same arguments were pursued and resistance offered by telcos all over the world as third party devices started knocking on the door. In most cases, the harm boil was lanced by a stringent device approval process, even though this had the effect of slowing down the introduction of devices and making them more expensive when they finally arrived.

So all that’s now in the past, of course.

Not a bit of it.

According to ASSIA CEO, John Cioffi, the old ‘network harm’ chorus has been reformed and is doing a triumphant world tour as dominant wireline telcos try to knock unbundling on the head for the next phase of broadband roll-out.

According to this line, if nothing is done to squash crosstalk in mixed vectored and non-vectored DSL environments then the vectored lines will suffer substantial degredation. Therefore there should be market competition restrictions so that only the incumbent service provider can manage all vectored lines in a single DSLAM. John vehemently disagrees.

That sort of network harm argument is something he’s become familiar with over the years. He is credited with being the ‘Father of DSL” and he founded DSL pioneer Amati Communications Corporation in the early 1990s, so he’s no doubt heard and countered the harm thesis in all its manifestations more times than most of us have had hot dinners.

Unbundling for DSL was, of course, hotly contested and eventually pretty-much defeated in the US. And while the motivation to get rid of unbundling was always commercial and competitive, the harm thesis was always in there to lend extra support, he says.

So imagine John’s delight when he became aware that it was back… in fact that it had never really gone away. And along with the harm thesis, there’s the “unbundling is too complicated to implement for VDSL in a street cabinet” mantra. Both compositions alive and well and being put to work in Europe.

As I reported last month in Superfast broadband? Great, but there’s no unbundling to anchor pricesthe supposed impossibility of continuing with unbundling has pretty-much become conventional wisdom.

“Even if [unbundling] is not being used so much, [it] acts as price restrainer for what is effectively still a monopoly… but… the problem is that unbundling, thus far, doesn’t work well with short run VDSL - the fibre to the node, copper to the home technology that BT is currently installing. It works even less well with fibre,” I wrote.

John points out that all this is completely wrong. Not only can unbundling work with the next wave of copper-based broadband technologies, but it can be extended to work with fibre as well.

“Today the connecitivity of the Internet is increasingly in the hands of software. Not only is it possible to continue to unbundle the hardware, but by using software the level at which unbundling take place can be pushed up the stack,” he says.

This means the unbundling operator could (if the right unbundling regulations were put in place) have even greater control over the differentiating features of an unbundled offer than it does with conventional unbundling from the exchange.

“The management standards in our system, for instance, offer hundreds of parameters,” says John, “so the unbundler, using a dashboard and software from some remote location could offer different quality across the network, could change the power levels up and down and perform all sorts of diagnostics and fixes. He could control a flow from the end user, right across the unbundled network to the data centre or to a cloud application.”

John’s concern, though, is that management and other standards capable of supporting this vision will be carefully squashed by the wireline incumbents as the new network, driven by SDN and NFV, travels from powerpoint to reality.

But it’s that harm thing that really gets his goat. “To be using the harm argument to shut down unbundling at this stage is just outrageous,” he told me.

To find out more read ‘Methods for Supporting Vectoring when Multiple Service Providers Share the Cabinet Area'

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