Tuning old DSL in Germany: the race is on
For less than a week now, German internet access providers have completed filing their requests for reservations of vectoring locations - in which they can offer vectoring enhanced internet access to customers. Vectoring technology allows to push broadband speed of old DSL subscriber lines to 100 Mbit/s by removing what the experts call 'crosstalk', an interference in the copper bundles resulting from putting more and more data onto them. Despite the immediate benefit with regard to boosting broadband, vectoring also has its downsides, some regulatory challenges and the potential to delay fibre roll-out.
On 30 July 2014 Deutsche Telekom (DTAG) started to take reservations for the build-out with vectoring from competitors. Now the race is on as to who will be able to use vectoring in order to offer fast access lines to German customers. The race results from a technical issue with the vectoring technology: in order to make it effective only one provider per Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexer (DSLAM) can manage it.
Re-bundling unbundled access lines? For regulators this creates quite a headache. BEREC, the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications, has put vectoring regulation prominently on its 2014 agenda and the German regulator now has tried to put in obligations and quite a complicated process to save competition (on the German and other regulatory models, see here).
Based on a first-come-first-served reservation model, a provider who grants to put the necessary crosstalk filtering technology into the DSLAM in the next twelve months is expected to win. If several providers put in their reservation request at the same time, the one who promises to offer the vectored access first gets the go. If the network providers fail to honour their reservations, they are fined by the regulator and are blocked for another twelve months for the respective service area.
The regulator tried to prevent the incumbent who has pushed heavily for the vectoring access scenario from playing foul: DTAG's fine for letting the announced update deadlines slip is more than twice as high as the one for competing operators (1000 Euro vs 375 Euro) and if an operator falsely pretends a DSLAM has already been updated before reservation started, he loses the right to build-out at that location for two years.
While DTAG was asked – against competitors' warning – to manage the vectoring list, the company had to file its own vectoring build-out plans to the Federal Network Agency beforehand. Not that there are no potential imbalances left. DTAG for example can still terminate a contract with an operator who serves normal VDSL at a particular location if two conditions are met. One, at least 75 percent of the respective spot is connected to cable or another fixed network alternative; plus DTAG already offers VDSL2 with or without vectoring. Local unbundling and vectoring, at least for now, do not go togehter well.
There is on the other hand a grandfathering of older contracts from 11.9.2013 (the date when the vectoring regulation was first published) and some additional safeguards. Also, if DTAG throws out a competitor, the incumbent has to offer Bitstream access.
A layer 2 Bitstream access (which is close to the customer premises) is obligatory from 1 January 2016, Marc Kessler, spokesperson at Breko, a german association of Broadband providers told us. “In general, Bitstream access cannot be compared to full access at the DSLAM,” Kessler adds, “as it is more expensive and the included volume of data is limited.” Federal Network Agency spokesperson Anne Froehlich described the quality as more dependant on the upstream network of a provider instead.
Fibre roll-out can be delayed
It is not that DTAG competitors will not play. Network operators in Germany certainly would invest in the multi-access strategy towards broadband, Kessler said. Fibre to the home everywhere is expensive. Using vectoring for the last mile for now saves some money and could allow DSL providers to compete with cable, which can easily offer high data rates. Fibre to the building and home is the next step.
But there are also experts who warn that the middle-term strategy to boost old DSL could easily develop into a long-term trap by tying financial resources that could otherwise be spent on fibre roll-out. The Fibre to the Home (FTTH) Council, an association to promote fibre roll-out, remarked in its recent report, that vectoring was especially under consideration in Western Europe, while the East and North was going ahead with fibre. Certainly in line with its mission, the FTTH Council also warns, that all the vectoring in the world will not help, as users will need more bandwidth soon. The speed of 100 Mbit/s, while allowing to meet the goals of the Europe Digital Agenda, is just not enough. And even if vectoring technology developers already promise they can speed up the old copper lines some more, they will not reach the 200 Mbit/s that the FTTH Council thinks is needed. Those sceptical of vectoring may ask, how long do you want to repair your old car before buying a new one?