Learn what Ethernet first mile is and how it can benefit your business.
If a week is a long time in politics, then a couple of decades is a lifetime in information technology. As recently as the 1990s, businesses were still exchanging data on tape or via slow dial-up telephone connections. Taking work home meant packing a couple of floppy disks in your briefcase, and the idea of the cloud was confined to weathermen.
Now, however, thanks to the wide availability of fast, reliable broadband internet connections, exchanging data and accessing information online is easier than ever. As a result, enterprises are increasingly reliant upon their connections with the outside world as they store data in the cloud or access software on an as-a-service model rather than installing and maintaining it in-house.
But this increased dependency on the internet throws up a problem. You become ultra reliant on having good, reliable communications. And while the internet has represented a major stride forward, for business purposes it does – in its standard form – present some limitations too.
The main reason for this is that conventional connections are asynchronous (ADSL) which means in simple terms that the download speed is much faster than then upload speed. That’s fine while you’re watching Netflix, and it’s okay if you’re working from home. But for business use where, certainly from an office environment, you may need to upload copious amounts of information to the cloud, it presents a problem.
If you have to wait for large files to upload it means someone, somewhere else on your cloud network, or at a supplier waiting for information to begin work on a job, is unable to access them.
Ethernet First mile explained
So, what is Ethernet First Mile and how does it work? This is a technology that delivers a synchronous communication link from your premises to the exchange using the same twisted pair technology that’s employed in everyday internal networking.
By combining pairs of cables with signal processing technology, an EFM system can deliver a fast connection to allow you to access your cloud data and as-a-service applications.
It offers the benefit of a guaranteed connection speed and, because linked circuits are used, it’s tolerant of failure. If one circuit fails, it can continue to run at a lower speed until the issue is fixed.
The number of copper cables used to create the Ethernet first mile circuit affects the speed available. A two pair circuit will usually allow speeds up to 10 Mbps, using four pairs increases this up to 20 Mbps, though the final speed depends upon the length of copper cable involved.
Speeds up to a maximum 30 Mbps are available using this technology. These speeds are equivalent to regular copper or fibre broadband links but the crucial factor is that EFM speeds are the same in both directions.
EFM vs fibre
Is Ethernet First Mile like fibre? Well, yes and no. In the UK most fibre broadband services use FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet), this means the fibre optic connection terminates at a street cabinet and the connection of the final stretch to your premises arrives over an ordinary copper telephone wire.
Only in some locations, mostly city centres, is it possible to have an FTTP (Fibre to the Premises) connection where the fibre comes all the way to your building. While these offer much faster speeds, geographical restrictions mean they’re out of reach of most users.
So, why have an Ethernet based connection instead? Although using copper cable, Ethernet first mile can deliver speeds equivalent to standard fibre broadband, with the added advantage of faster uploads – even fibre services are still asynchronous. Importantly, costs when using this system are lower than other alternatives that offer similar connectivity, certainly when compared with leased line prices. The other advantage is that EFM is available across the UK.
There’s another advantage too, which is that normal internet connections are a shared resource. You may have noticed at home that your connection is faster during the day than it is in the evening when all the neighbours are at home streaming movies or Skyping their relatives overseas.
This is called contention, in the early days of broadband, there were fixed contention ratios, usually around 20:1, which meant that up to 20 people could be sharing a single connection at any one time. More sophisticated exchange systems now mean that fixed ratios are a thing of the past.
Instead, traffic management software is used to actively manage connections at times of peak demand. But while this makes for more efficient use of the network, contention hasn’t gone away; it’s simply better managed.
With EFM internet there’s no need to worry about contention; the connection is exclusive to your business. That means that it won’t slow down at peak times and your business isn’t going to suffer due to activity elsewhere that’s outside your control.
In the past to have this sort of dedicated connection would have meant a direct leased line between your business and the exchange. An option which is not only costly but usually involves a long lead time for installation too.
In addition to the benefits of not sharing the connection, an EFM link also means you won’t be subject to a data usage cap. Many internet services restrict the amount you can transfer each month and will impose extra charges if you exceed your limit.
Even services that advertise themselves as ‘unlimited’ are usually subject to some kind of ‘fair use’ restriction which can see you being penalised – either financially or in a slowing down of service – should you download too much. While these caps may be okay where light domestic use is concerned, they’re likely to prove unacceptable in a business environment.
Another factor here is that EFM circuits are also resilient. In other words, it’s possible for them to survive a certain level of failure and still deliver a connection. This is thanks to the same signal processing technology that also allows the maintenance of a fast connection over copper circuits when the line is working correctly.
If the circuit is particularly business-critical then you can always opt for a fall-back in the form of a secondary circuit to ensure that your connection remains operational in all but the most extreme of circumstances.
There is, of course, a security angle too. The fact that the connection is dedicated to your business means there’s less chance of data being intercepted or mis-routed on its way to its destination. It’s also using familiar, reliable, Ethernet technology so there are no worries as to whether it will be compatible with your existing networks and systems.
In commercial terms, this reliability is reflected in the fact that there will usually be in place a service level agreement covering the connection and the minimum levels of service you can expect from your communications provider.
Business benefits of EFM
So far we’ve looked at the technology underpinning EFM, but what can it deliver in terms of the business? Depending on what your company does, you may find that you need to upload large amounts of material on a regular basis.
This might be copy for printing, CAD files for machine tools, detailed reports and specifications, high-res illustrations, and so on. Using a conventional asynchronous connection can lead to frustratingly long waits for files to upload. A situation that becomes doubly frustrating when deadlines are rushing towards you.
The symmetrical download and upload speeds of an Ethernet first mile service, combined with extra reliability and security, solves the problem of large data transfers.
But it has other benefits too. Many businesses now rely on VoIP calls and video conferencing for their day-to-day business communication. There’s also an increasing trend for distributed working which means you need to stay in touch with all parts of your business and all of your staff.
Here again, the reliability and speed of EFM is a plus, as are guaranteed service levels. The same applies when you need reliable access to cloud-based services such as Office 365. It’s an often overlooked factor of moving systems to the cloud that the availability and reliability of your connection to the web becomes a crucial matter for your business. If you lose communication you can’t work.
Businesses, of course, don’t stand still. Their needs evolve and grow over time. If your data demands are increasing then it’s likely that you need the extra security, reliability and speed that Ethernet connectivity offers.
The alternatives of point-to-point leased lines, managed internet access or a wide area network solution are likely to prove more costly and harder to support. They also have longer lead times, whereas using EFM can get you a faster connection up and running more quickly.
To level the playing field for businesses looking for faster, more reliable connections, the government recently launched a new Gigabit Voucher Scheme which provides businesses with a grant of up to £2,500 to support the capital costs of gigabit-capable connections.