The traffic jam in cabled homes

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 18, 2013

Wednesday's announcement that all new homes approved from May 1 must come with ethernet wiring to deliver high-speed fibre broadband services to every room will be welcome news to many.

But since the rule applies only to new homes, the first developments with such ethernet-ready cabling are likely to come onto the market only from the second quarter of next year.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of homes still face the problem of how to channel fast-speed broadband that comes to a single point in a home, to all the other rooms.

The irony is that the solution is staring households in the face. The obstacle is not technology, but inter-business rivalry between SingTel and StarHub over the use of infrastructure already installed in homes.

Fast lane in, slow lane within

MORE than 300,000 - or one in five - households are hooked up to Singapore's super-fast fibre broadband service that promises speeds of up to 1 Gbps.

But access speeds slow within the home. This is because the super-fast Internet access is brought in to only one point in the home, usually in the living room. People need to set up Wi-Fi to distribute the connection to all the rooms. By the time Wi-Fi signals pass through a few walls to reach the farthest bedroom or study, surfing speed would have dropped 10 times.

Some home users tap existing power and phone lines to pipe the signals, but these options are also prone to slowdowns and interference. So for most homes, super-fast broadband speed slows to a relative crawl within the home.

Those adamant about wanting to stream high-definition movies or play online games have little choice but to wire up their dwelling with ethernet cables. The downside is ugly surface trunking.

Yesterday's announcement, requiring new developments to come with such ethernet cabling built in, will remove the problem for new homes.

The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) is clearly signalling its intention to make high-speed ethernet cabling key infrastructure that should be provided in every home, in the same way homes come with water pipes and electricity cabling.

This is good news for Singapore's ambitions to upgrade its infocomm network over the long term. But it does little to help the one million or so existing housing units. They still face the problem of super-fast Internet access brought from outside the home into the living room - that then slows to a relative crawl.

The ubiquitous cable point

MEANWHILE, a round, angled cable point that sits in every room in most Singapore homes could be the answer to existing Internet users' networking needs.

Many households leave the cable points unused in the rooms, unless they have a StarHub set-top box plugged in to provide cable TV and broadband services in that room.

The network that the cable points connect to belongs to StarHub, which spent $600 million building it over a decade from 1991 to 1999. In recognition of its nationwide cabling effort, the Singapore Government granted Singapore Cable Vision - which StarHub acquired in 2001 - exclusivity in providing pay-TV services until 2002.

Today, the cable point - widely known as an SCV point - is as ubiquitous as the telephone port in most homes.

The Government has not only mandated that every residence must have a cable point. It has since 2008 been requiring all developers to dress up every bedroom with one too.

Recently, the cable - or "co-axial cable" in tech speak - network has been superseded by the government-funded Next Generation Nationwide Broadband Network, which is based on fibre-optic technologies. Since its rollout in 2009, the fibre link has reached 95 per cent of all homes.

Although fibre links are 10 times faster than co-axial cables in carrying Internet traffic, both are equally important to Singapore's dream of a connected, smart home.

If, that is, they are allowed to work together.

This was done in 2010 when SingTel did a pilot trial in condominiums and landed homes. It hooked up the co-axial cables within homes to distribute fibre signals throughout the home to all rooms.

SingTel piped its mioTV services that came over fibre into every room through the cable points. Result: super-fast connection into the home's fibre point, and super-fast connection from the fibre point via the co-axial cables to all rooms.

But StarHub objected to SingTel's equipment, saying it caused a drop in speed and interference problems for its own cable TV and broadband services.

To use the co-axial cables, SingTel had to install an "isolation filter" to prevent its stray signals from shooting back upstream into the cable network and affecting a neighbour's StarHub services. A splitter also had to be inserted to split the cable into two "lanes" - one used by SingTel and the other by StarHub.

In September 2011, the IDA stepped in to mediate the dispute.

The IDA recognised the merit of using the widespread co-axial cable already present in homes to promote home networking. It invited the industry's feedback on the idea.

Two warring parties

PREDICTABLY, it elicited differing responses from the two warring parties.

SingTel argued that co-axial cables were "the only viable home networking solution" that could complement and encourage the take-up of fibre broadband services. It urged IDA to "remove all the barriers" to this end.

According to experts, co-axial cables offer 10 times faster surfing than Wi-Fi, and transmit signals two to five times faster than power and phone lines.

StarHub, on the other hand, cited "significant risks and burden" it would have to put up with if outsiders meddled with its infrastructure. It wants to impose terms and conditions - including access charges - on service providers that install the isolation filters and splitters.

Improper equipment or handling of the co-axial cables will affect StarHub's cable TV and broadband services to users whose homes are being networked as well as neighbouring residences, it argued. So the process must be supervised by a StarHub employee, which comes at a cost.

Who is right in this dispute? SingTel has a point in arguing that in-home co-axial cables are paid for by home owners who should be free to use what they own in any way they deem fit - including asking SingTel to provide fibre services over these cables.

But StarHub also has a point in countering that the cable points are joined to the larger infrastructure that it has painstakingly built and is currently maintaining.

Any cable customer complaint has to be investigated and fixed by StarHub. IDA requires that of its licensed cable operator. Again, there are costs involved.

Should these costs then be passed on to SingTel or any supplier that wishes to do home networking?

Over the past two years, SingTel and StarHub have not been able to reach an agreement on such access conditions.

Recently, IDA stepped in again to fast-track the negotiations. In mid-March, it proposed a code of practice, including mandating that isolation filters, splitters and other related home networking equipment follow certain technical specifications.

It also invited StarHub to publish its terms and conditions.

IDA's role here as referee is crucial to scoring a goal for consumers. It could be more assertive in getting the parties to come to an agreement.

Sign-ups for fibre broadband services are picking up. It does not make sense to have blazing fibre broadband speeds reaching one's home, only to have inadequate home networking solutions causing a slowdown within the home.

IDA's announcement mandating ethernet cabling for new homes shows that helping homes get fast-speed networking is very much on its radar. It is being proactive in taking this step, and is providing a solution for new homes.

But this is insufficient.

It now needs to be proactive in tackling the problem faced by the majority of consumers who live in homes already constructed.

IDA has to bring the two business rivals to the negotiating table to work out access conditions so that the co-axial cable points can be used for faster home networking.

Consumers should not have to wait another two years before they can get their fibre broadband service providers to use the ubiquitous cable points for distributing signals throughout their homes.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 18, 2013

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