As businesses increasingly rely on the internet, always-on connectivity becomes a necessity.
The internet is essential for most modern businesses. Workforces are spreading around more and we are relying on systems and services delivered from the cloud. The problem is that not all internet connections are created equal, so unless you’re a very small company the type of connection you have at home probably won’t be suitable for the needs of your business. ISP’s are keen to push the benefits of their ‘high-speed fibre’ but even this can have its limitations.
For commercial use you need speed – crucially speed in both directions – but also reliability and consistency. And this is something that, generally speaking, ADSL broadband is unable to provide. What would be ideal is an internet connection that performs to the same standard as your internal network, but is that possible?
Inside and out
It’s easy to think that all computer connections are the same. Whilst that’s true up to a point, in fact, there are some key differences between the sort of networking you have within your organisation and that which you have in the outside world.
You’re probably familiar with Ethernet; it’s the most commonly used protocol for local area networking. Its popularity is largely down to the fact that it offers a dedicated, high-speed, private connection with guaranteed availability making it the perfect option for businesses.
External connections to the internet or between your sites – wide area networks – operate rather differently. Internet connections, for example, are usually ‘asynchronous’ which means that the speed of downloading data is faster than the speed of uploading. While this is fine for downstream activity use such as surfing websites or streaming Jeremy Clarkson from Amazon Prime, for businesses needing to upload it can be a big problem.
Depending on the nature of your business, you may need to upload copious amounts of material – copy for printing, CAD files for machine tools, detailed reports and specifications, high-res illustrations, etc. On an asynchronous connection, this can lead to frustratingly long waits for files to upload. A situation that is unacceptable when deadlines are looming.
This is even more the case as many organisations now use as-a-service software delivered over the web or rely on the cloud for storage. Similarly, remote offices or home workers may be dependent upon reliable, fast access to a centrally located server. Historically many companies have solved this issue by incurring leased line costs to ensure a fast, synchronous connection, effectively having their own private point-to-point connection.
However, a leased line connection is expensive and unless you’re running a 24/7 operation, it is likely to be underutilised for a good deal of the time. This would seem to be a bit of a catch-22 situation, but fortunately, there is a cost-effective alternative in the form of Ethernet first mile (EFM). But what exactly is it and how does Ethernet first mile work?
First or last?
Ethernet first mile offers a reliable, fast connection to the outside world. It uses national fibre optic networks to provide internet services but differs in the final delivery method as there is no requirement to bring fibre optic cable into the end premises. The last mile is delivered using copper circuits from the nearest serving telephone exchange.
There are a number of advantages of Ethernet first mile to a business. We’ll look at these in more detail later, but the major plus is that it gives you symmetric upload and download speeds of up to 35 Mbps depending on the type of circuit.
It’s also more resilient, allowing it to ride out some failures and it doesn’t suffer from contention at peak times because you’re not sharing the link with other users on the same exchange. Although you may not have heard of it before, Ethernet first mile is now enabled on many Openreach exchanges across the country, making it available to around 80% of businesses in the UK.
Because you’re buying a dedicated business service you want to be sure that the support infrastructure is in place to maintain the connection. When you have a problem you don’t want to be held in a queue for ten minutes being told that, “Your call is important,” and listening to Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’. You can reasonably expect your EFM provider to offer a much better level of support, with access to knowledgeable technicians 24/7 if required. Since your business is reliant on the connection, you need to be able to rely on the support.
How Ethernet first mile works
Unless you have a fibre connection direct to your premises, a standard internet connection uses copper telephone wires for the first part of the circuit, to the exchange or to a street cabinet depending on the type of service you have. From there it will be carried by fibre backbones.
Even if you have fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) which is the way in which most UK fibre services work, you’ll still have an asynchronous connection, giving slower uploads than downloads. The ultimate performance of the circuit will also depend on how close you are to the cabinet, and therefore how much copper cable is needed to make the connection.
Copper is subject to interference and losses over distance and therefore constitutes the slowest part of the connection. You’ll also be subject to the vagaries of contention ratios, that is the number of other people and businesses in the area that are using the internet via the same exchange at the same time.
Whilst an Ethernet first mile service may still use copper cables, it does so in a rather cleverer way. Using EFM a combination of two or four lines will be bundled to create the service and allow symmetric transmission of data.
The number of copper cables used affects the speed available; for example, a two pair circuit will usually allow speeds up to 10 Mbps. Using four pairs increases this up to 20 Mbps and it’s possible to achieve as much as 35 Mbps synchronously across up to 8 copper pairs.
Advantages of having EFM vs ADSL
One of the big business benefits of having EFM vs ADSL from the customer point of view is that it’s using the same Ethernet protocol as your internal network connection, so it makes setting up connections more straightforward. There are no specialist networking technologies to complicate establishing and maintaining a connection.
The other key benefit, of course, is consistent speed whenever you need it. Not just in terms of asynchronous connection but also because an EFM link will provide the same level of service regardless as to the time of day or the number of other people in the area using the internet.
As we’ve already seen, EFM circuits are also resilient in that they will survive a certain level of failure and still deliver a connection. If the circuit is particularly business critical then you can, as a fall-back, opt for a secondary circuit to ensure that your connection remains operational in all but the most extreme of circumstances.
In commercial terms, this reliability is reflected in the fact that there will usually be some sort of service level agreement covering the connection and the minimum levels of service you can expect from your communications provider.
Conventional broadband, even if it’s supplied over fibre, is often subject to a data cap. Too much binge-watching Clarkson and you’ll find yourself hit with an extra charge at the end of the month.
Even if there’s no specified maximum amount of data you’ll often find yourself subject to something called ‘fair usage’ which will slow your connection if your ISP thinks you’re taking up too much bandwidth, and consequently feels pretty unfair. An Ethernet first mile connection won’t be subject to this as it is a dedicated line; you can therefore transfer as much data as you like.
Whether you have a copper or a fibre connection to the outside world you can use EFM. A full fibre connection can give you much faster speeds – up to 10Gb.
There’s a cost advantage too. Conventional leased lines are expensive; an EFM connection can provide similar speed and reliability advantages at a lower price.
What’s more, the government’s Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme offers eligible UK businesses the chance to claim vouchers of up to £2,500 to put towards the cost of an Ethernet connection, so now could be the ideal time to look into investing in an Ethernet solution.