What's the issue in MK?

Influence of the design of MK

Milton Keynes is a large town about 45 miles (72 km) north-west of London. It was formally designated as a new town on 23 January 1967, with the design brief to become a 'city' in scale.

Its 89 km2 (34 sq mi) area incorporated the existing towns of Bletchley, Wolverton and Stony Stratford along with another fifteen villages and farmland in between.

MK was designed in a unique manner, with strongly modernist designs. Planners were determined to learn from the mistakes made in the earlier New Towns and revisit the Garden City ideals. They set in place the characteristic grid roads that run between districts 

The largest and almost the last of the British New Towns, Milton Keynes has stood the test of time far better than most, and has proved flexible and adaptable. The radical grid plan was inspired by the work of Californian urban theorist Melvin M. Webber (1921–2006). He thought that telecommunications meant that the old idea of a city as a concentric cluster was out of date and cities which enabled people to travel around them readily would be the thing of the future achieving "community without propinquity" for residents. With both car ownership and ever more emphasis on e-commerce, his ideas, launched in the 1960s, have proved far-sighted.

Facts about MK, 2010

Number of People in MK – 240,000
Number of Houses in MK – 100,000
Number of Cars in MK – 150,000
An average of 2.4 people and 1.5 cars per household

So why the broadband issue?

With the revolutionary grid square design, services such as water, gas, electricity and telecommunications are routed along the main grid roads. 

This provides extremely easy access for maintenance and installation; but means that those services are then routed inwards through the estates, typically along the small number of main roads that traverse each grid square - then spurring off to individual streets and houses.

While this doesn't pose a problem for water, gas or electricity, nor indeed for plain old voice phone calls, it creates a problem for broadband.  The speed of ADSL broadband, over standard phone lines is affected by distance from the exchange.  As we know, the shortest distance between 2 points is a straight line.  While the telecoms cables in MK can potentially be travelling round 3 sides of a grid square, this dramatically increases the distance from the exchange.  This leads to very slow ADSL broadband speeds, or indeed unavailability of ADSL broadband.

Additionally, in the 1970's the telephone network for MK was designed with 2 large exchanges. One in Fishermead, the other in Emerson Valley.  Fewer exchanges also mean longer line lengths; that's fine for voice, but not broadband.

The final factor was created during the initial build of MK.  While expanding a 'traditional' town piecemeal has a lower capital cost, enabling the infrastructure of an entire new town is costly.  As a result, it was decided to use large amounts of aluminium cable throughout MK as at the time it was much cheaper than copper cable and could handle voice telephone calls without issue.  However, broadband signals across aluminium cable degrade more easily and quickly than on copper, amplifying the distance/speed issues.

To overcome this, the original planners decided to implement a form of fibre optic data delivery to houses in MK - called TPON.  This technology was superseded within the following years and today is incompatible with carrying broadband, or modern internet based IT kit.  In short its use is only within MK's telecoms and cable TV network infrastructure and needs to be replaced.  In some areas of MK, the TPON fibre and aluminium cables have been removed and replaced with copper cable, to enable ADSL broadband - thanks in part to the campaigning of MK BAG.

Some of the issues faced by typical Milton Keynes families are explained inour use-cases document.

What do the official statistics say?

According to Ofcom's 2011 fixed-line broadband speeds report, the percentage of people in MK receiving less than 2Mbit is 30% which is a considerably higher percentage than surrounding areas even though many of those areas are rural. As MK is an urban area you would expect speeds to be much faster.

Average speed in MK is reported as 5.5Mbit which is slower than surrounding (rural) areas and despite the fact that FTTP (100Mbit) and FTTC (40Mbit) are available in some areas of MK which pushes the average sync speed upwards.

The figure of superfast broadband availability of 90% in the report, is by Ofcom's own admission incorrect and should be ignored. 90% assumes the entire Bradwell Abbey exchange area is FTTP enabled which is incorrect - it's only 1/3rd of the exchange area. In any case we cannot possibly have 90% Superfast broadband availability if the report also states 30% of residents receive less than 2Mbit. Estimated superfast broadband availability: 30-40%.

What about MK's cable TV network?

The cable network ("CATV" for Cable Access Television) in MK was one of the first in the country, being installed from the late 1960's, based on technologies imported from the United States in the early 1960's.

The network itself is 'narrowband analogue' and carries just 32 channels, with no provision for cable telephony or data.

MK's CATV originally belonged to BT, who was required by legislation to dispose of it when BT got into the ISP/content provision business.  Eventually NTL agreed to lease it, and Virgin Media acquired it as a result of the reverse merger between the two companies.  Seemingly, it's a hybrid, copper, aluminium and fibre network already.  All of the cables installed pass through BT cabinets and the infrastructure is owned in parts by BT Openreach and in other, smaller parts, by Virgin Media.

The digital TV switchover happens in the MK area in 2012, which due to MK being geographically located in a valley with poor aerial-based television reception, increases the importance of the CATV network for people without a satellite TV provider, nor the desire to buy into the Freeview service.

Theoretically, the cable network could be upgraded to the "DOCSIS 3.0" standard, which could provide a modest speed of around 10Mbps across CATV in MK.  However, this would take all the bandwidth available and mean TV couldn't be broadcast across the network in MK easily.

The economic development of Milton Keynes

The continued dominance of MK within the so-called "MKSM" region (roughly a diamond shape, with MK at the centre, Northampton at the North point, Aylesbury at the West point, Luton in the South and Bedford to the East) - and indeed MK/MKSM's capability to outperform the West Midlands & Birmingham areas are directly influenced by having a world-class telecoms infrastructure.

In short, faster broadband in MK is not about faster video streaming, or gaming.  It's about attracting businesses and business people to MK as an ideal town to locate, live, work and play in.  Without an adequate broadband and telecoms infrastructure this won't happen.  We need to get back to the original vision of Melvin M Webber and re-create his view of telecommuting and e-commerce.