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Learn all about Ethernet first mile and how it can benefit your business

Times are changing. People are no longer confined to work from the office. Not so many years ago business networks were pretty simple. They were confined to a single office or, if you had multiple sites, they were linked together by leased-line connections. In recent times all that has changed; the rise of fast, reliable broadband connections and improved 3G and 4G mobile signals in most parts of the country has ensured that almost anyone can get online at any time.

For enterprise users this has meant a rise in demand for more flexible and remote working and for employees to access office systems using mobile devices, or even to use their own personal devices for work. It’s meant staff at branch locations now expect the same level of access as those at head office. It’s also made it possible for software and data to move out of the organisation and into the cloud. This, in turn, places greater demand on the networks needed to support all of this extra activity.

In addition, other technologies are becoming more commonly used. Many businesses now rely upon virtual private networks (VPN) for secure connections. Also increasingly popular is the use of voice over IP (VoIP) to cut the cost of voice calls by making them over the internet. All of this increases the demand on your connection and makes it imperative that it’s reliable.

Wider still and wider

More 4G mobile access, more data in the cloud and more remote access to centralised systems all means a demand for more bandwidth. This has nothing to do with the size of your in-house musical combo, but in fact refers to the amount of data that you’re able to transmit over a given connection.

Given that large areas of the country are now covered by fibre optic broadband connections, you might think that this wouldn’t be a problem. However, standard broadband connections have some limitations and while the average home user who is doing a bit of online shopping and streaming the odd movie might not notice these, they can be a major problem for business users.

Most broadband connections are asynchronous, that is to say you can download data faster than you can transmit it. This is fine for domestic use but if you need to exchange large volumes of business data it can rapidly become a problem

ethernet-first-mileThere’s also the issue that while internet service providers (ISPs) are keen to shout about their unlimited usage, you will almost invariably be subject to fair use limitations. This means that if they think you’re using too much data they will cap your traffic. There are other limitations too; these are mainly caused by the fact that your internet connection to the exchange is shared with other people in the area.

This means that when everyone is trying to use it at once you get ‘contention’ which leads to a slowing of your connection. You may have noticed this at home in the evenings when all the neighbours are trying to access Netflix rather than going to bed with a cup of cocoa and a good book as they may have done in the days before broadband.

While you can live with all of this on your domestic connection, for business use it can add up to a big problem. When it’s essential that you upload the latest machine tool data to your remote factory, for example, you won’t want to be frustrated by a slow, contended connection.

Going the extra mile

So, what’s the answer when you need to have a fast, reliable connection to another of your company’s locations that offers equal speed in both directions and won’t be contended by other users in the area? In the past you’d have turned to a leased line. This effectively meant renting your own permanent, dedicated line between the two locations. However, this is expensive and is usually subject to long lead times to set up a connection.

In these internet-enabled days it is possible to have a synchronous connection (SDSL rather than the more common ADSL), but this again is more expensive and it isn’t available in all areas since not every exchange has the necessary infrastructure in place to handle this type of link. In fact, it’s only in about a fifth of exchanges around the country. Distance from the exchange is a factor too; the limitations of copper cabling are such that the further you are from the exchange the slower the connection will be.

What is Ethernet first mile?

The problem is that having a dedicated fast connection doesn’t come cheap. Whilst this might not be an issue for large organisations, for small and medium businesses it can prove a major expense and one that – however much of a problem ADSL is causing them – they may struggle to justify.

Happily, there is another alternative in the form of Ethernet first mile. This uses the familiar twisted pair networking technology that you should already be familiar with from your internal data and telephone networks.

So, what’s the difference between Ethernet and leased line connections? As we’ve said, Ethernet first mile uses the same twisted pair system as internal networking.

ethernet first mile, Ethernet First Mile: The Changing Shape of Business NetworkingThis is turned into a reliable, fast circuit by combining pairs together. Most Ethernet first mile circuits use two pairs, giving speeds of up to 20 Mbps. If you need more speed then you can opt for a four pair circuit which can give you up to 35 Mbps. And remember that this is a synchronous circuit so the speed is the same in both directions.

By using the twisted pair phone lines in multiples in this way, Ethernet first mile boosts the maximum speed available and will deliver better performance than ADSL (which uses only one pair) over the same lines.

Part of the reason it can do this is that the extra circuits allow for error checking, so the on-site black box in charge of the circuit can use signal processing technology to keep the connection reliable and operating at maximum speed. There’s an added advantage here in that if one of the circuits fails, the link can still keep going – albeit at a slower pace – until the problem gets resolved.

EFM explained

You might be wondering how all of this will work with your existing systems. The good news is that, because EFM uses the same Ethernet technology as your existing office networks, it will work with all your existing systems.

There’s no need to worry about your VPN or VoIP as they will continue to operate as before over an EFM connection. If your systems are business-critical then you can ensure that your service level agreement (SLA) with your service provider makes this clear and guarantees you a certain minimum standard of connectivity to protect your business.

A further benefit and one which as a business person you won’t want to ignore, is that EFM is cheaper than a traditional leased line or SDSL internet connection, so you can have a reliable fast connection that won’t harm your bottom line.

Alternatively, 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.

EFM vs fibre

At this point you might be thinking, “Hang on a minute, I have superfast fibre broadband, surely that has to be better than this first mile stuff?” Well, yes and no, when it comes to the advantages of EFM vs fibre there are some important things you need to consider.

Other than in a few city centre locations, most fibre circuits in the UK don’t go straight to the premises (FTTP). Instead, the fibre from the exchange terminates at a street cabinet (FTTC), those big green or grey boxes you see on street corners. The connection to your premises is then completed over old-fashioned copper wires, the same ones we’ve relied upon since Alexander Graham Bell’s day.

ethernet-first-mile Whilst copper is still used due to the fact that it’s cost effective and reliable (although there was a brief flirtation with aluminium in the 1970s when copper prices were high) for voice communication, it does suffer from some inherent limitations when it comes to delivering fast data connections.

Because copper is subject to losses and to electrical interference, both of which increase over distance, most fibre connections are restricted to 20 Mbps or so and may well be slower the more copper is involved in the connection. In contrast, fibre directly to the premises can deliver speeds of up to 100 Mbps or even more.

As we’ve seen EFM circuits can deliver reliable speeds over copper connections thanks to the use of signal processing technology. The good news is that if you are fortunate enough to have a fibre connection, EFM can use that too. Fibre circuits deliver faster connection speeds, however, there’s usually a longer lead time to get them installed.

So, if you need a reliable, synchronous service between two locations in a hurry, using EFM can deliver what you need quickly using your premises’ existing copper connections. A dedicated fibre leased line can take up to three months to install, whereas setting up an EFM circuit should take around half that time.

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