“Sign here, please” – we scrawl our name and look shiftily around. We’re in one of Britain’s most secure technology centres. Sky‘s broadband SNS centre is so secret, we’re not allowed to tell you where it is, in case it’s targeted by terrorists. We feel like Jack Bauer, with more child-like handwriting and some crumpled Non-Disclosure paperwork stuffed in our back pocket. Step inside with us, and see what Sky’s so desperate to keep secret.
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The SNS (Sky Network Services) centre is where your data is sorted and where your emails, streamed video and calls pass through on their way to your laptop, games console, set-top box or home phone. It’s integral to Sky’s on-demand operations, not to mention their broadband and phone networks.
Here, Sky has a bank of servers and monitors and whirring fans that ensure one fifth of its 3.4 million users can access their services at all hours of the day and night. It’s one of five nerve centres in the UK that pumps out entertainment and communication 24/7. You’ve probably never thought about it before, but if you’re a Sky customer, you rely on this building thousands of times a day.
The broadband SNS centre is where your online requests wind up and where the data you’re after pumps out. But Sky’s raft of services also hinge on a delicate deal with British Telecom. It’s the silent, and rather unwelcome, partner in Sky’s network.
BT owns the phone line between your house and the telephone exchange. It’s sometimes called the ‘last copper mile’, and it’s a stranglehold on home connections that Sky would sooner live without.
If you’re a Sky customer you’ll probably be aware of BT as the necessary evil in your relations with the TV giant. To receive the web, phone or on-demand video through Sky you need to use a BT line. You may technically pay Sky for the line rental, but most of that will end up with BT.
BT, being the oldest player in the game, still pretty much runs the UK’s home broadband infrastructure, at least in terms of getting data to and from UK houses. Sky and other ISPs want to offer you their services, but hit a blockade at the point nearest to your house: The telephone exchange.
That ‘copper mile’ refers to the distance from your house to the nearest BT building. It’s generally more than a single mile, but in well connected areas you can expect to be within 4 or 5 miles from yours. There are 5000 exchanges in the UK, which all look entirely nondescript and unassuming. Inside, they look like this:
What you’ve got here is row upon row of ‘Krone blocks’. Each block represents about 100 homes in the local area. It’s where, in the first instance, your request for that YouTube video winds up. The place is called an ‘exchange’ because that’s exactly what it is: BT exchanges the data to the ISP (in this case Sky), via branches of thick white cabling into another room. Sky has enough banks in there to manage all its local customers.
In each server there are numerous data cards, each of which represents 72 customers or roughly 140GB of data per second. If they haven’t already, that’s where things go fibre optic: cables that can carry 100GBps (serving 100,000 customers) connect back to the SNS centre, so Sky can sort your requests into voice or data. Then your request for information is met, either by Sky content or elsewhere.
This is why you can always make cheaper or free calls between phones using the same provider – it’s all handled in one room and therefore the costs are lower all round.
That’s the brief engineering lesson over, but now for the politics. Sky is secretly frustrated at BT. The company has a near monopoly on that final chunk of virtual land between you and your content. They won’t admit that directly, but as a mater of pride it’s frustrating to have to rely on another company, rather than being a true end to end provider.
It’s anecdotal evidence for sure, but we know that when anything goes wrong with Sky, they have to go and see if it’s BT that’s at fault. That extra step takes time, resources and money. And all the while, you’re left tutting because your Sky box or phone line won’t work.
The exchanges themselves are archaic buildings with wooden shelves – a world away from the newer tech on offer in Sky’s SNS centre. We’re not surprised Sky feels a little trapped, but it’s working on an answer. Several, in fact.
First the satellite dishes. The Sky has a dish on the house of every single one of its customers; is there a way to beam the internet straight to your house through that? Yes and no. In essence it’s possible, but as Sky’s Jon Blumberg says: “Physics is a problem.” Pesky physics.
While Sky believes that satellite dishes remain the best way to receive video content, they’re not that great at pumping information back out at a speedy rate. If you tried to play an Xbox game over the web as provided by a satellite dish, “you’d be dead before you’d started the level.” In order to remove that kind of latency, you’d need a massive dish, but even then it’s a problem. That signal has to travel nearly 36,000km into space and back, and can only go as fast as the speed of light. The latency would just be too much for gaming.
The other option is to go in heavy handed, and morph itself into a cable company: Sky could, in theory, require its own wiring straight to your door, in order to deliver its services.
It might surprise you to learn that the company has conducted private trials of exactly this solution, but digging up roads and aping companies such as Virgin Media brings a new set of headaches.
At the moment, switching onto Sky is relatively painless. Forgetting the process of having the dish installed, the switch from BT to Sky broadband takes 10 minutes, and it happens at the exchange.
If Sky insisted on doing everything themselves, it would cost a huge amount of money, would take longer, and be much more disruptive to customers. But, and this is crucial, it would probably save Sky money in the long run by being able to do everything in house – a saving they could, in theory, pass on to customers. And that’s not to mention the added security, reliability and pride in being able to offer a complete end-to-end service.
Secret option C? The Cloud. Not the vague buzzword, but the actual company of the same name, which Sky now owns. Blumberg says that Sky is looking to “extend the footprint of the Cloud massively,” initially for the sake of users of the Sky Go mobile app, but it makes you think: where could that lead?
In a future where wireless is more the norm than wired, could Sky use its wireless portfolio to literally leapfrog over the ancient copper and physical constraints of BT’s infrastructure? Could the company replace your BT line altogether with a simple username and password to tap you into a Cloud hotspot on every street corner?
Quite possibly. One thing’s for sure: Sky is intensively assessing each option, and looking for every solution to bring you better broadband. BT remains the weak point in its network, and only time will tell how long the two companies’ love-hate relationship will last.