Broadband Britain makes a start on a very long journey

01 November 2011

The term ‘Broadband Britain’ regularly comes back to haunt those who coined it. The UK has never come near to delivering on early commitments to being in the vanguard of high-speed internet access development in Europe.

The UK doesn’t even have the required 1% of direct fibre access subscribers needed to get into the FTTH Council Europe’s annual ranking of the continent’s most wired economies. Ukraine and Hungary are the latest two countries to beat the UK to this honour.

All may now be about to change with the news that Openreach, the broadband deployment division of UK incumbent BT, is launching
a fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) service. Initially to be available on a wholesale basis, in 12 pilot areas of the country, the service will kick off with download performance of up to 110Mbps, and upload speeds of 30Mbps.

By Spring 2012, Openreach says it expects to be delivering downstream speeds of up to 300Mbps, three times as fast as those currently offered by its nearest competitor Virgin Media, and claims to be trialling 1Gbps access at a location in Suffolk, near its Martlesham labs. By spending £2.5 billion over the next four years, it hopes it can pass two-thirds of UK homes and businesses with fibre by the end of 2015.

Openreach has also committed to speed up its fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) performance from a maximum of 40Mbps to 80Mbps which, owing to its existing FTTC footprint, will have a more immediate impact than the FTTP announcement. It is also halving the amount it charges other service providers to use its poles and ducts, which should further boost super-fast broadband progress.

"The announcement made by Openreach that it will offer 300Mbps speeds through its FTTP network, and in some places increase 'up to’ 80Mbps its FTTC network, is to be welcomed," comments FTTH Council Europe president Chris Holden. "This is good news for the UK but we mustn’t lose sight of the bigger picture. BT has committed to rolling high- speed broadband out to 66% of the UK, and FTTP will make up only 25% of that 66%, with FTTC VDSL serving the rest of the two-thirds. Ofcom has already found that VDSL customers in many cases are not achieving the higher end of the 'up to’ performance."

The UK, argues Holden, still has a long way to go: "This announcement is unlikely to materially change the broadband situation for the vast majority of the country in the next few years," he believes.

John Hunt, co-founder of Thinkbroadband.com, an information site for UK broadband stakeholders, agrees: "Whilst this [300Mbps] announcement is a great achievement, considering where broadband speeds were just a few years ago, it is worth noting that this product will only be available to a limited portion of the country. And this highest-speed product will no doubt come with a premium price tag in the short term. A large portion of the country will benefit from the FTTC speed increase to 80Mbps however."

Mike Galvin, managing director of BT’s Next Generation Access division, naturally takes a different stance. "We’re currently engaged in one of the fastest NGA roll-outs in the world, all done so far without public funds, and this [the FTTP announcement] is the next stage of that," he counters. "It’s a very ambitious plan. The idea that we are not moving fast enough is ridiculous. Two years ago we were talking about minimum 2Mbps for all, now that’s up to 30Mbps. That’s a long way in a short time."

He stresses that within the confines of needing to make a profit that BT is committed 100% to a better Broadband Britain: "We’re really up for this, and for providing it across the UK," he says. "It’s now a question of getting on with the engineering. We’ll have two-thirds of the country covered by 2015, and then it’s a matter of the last third."

Getting fast broadband out to this 'final third’ will mean, says Galvin, continuing the ongoing debate about the use of public money to fund rural rollouts: "To reach the last 10% of the population may necessitate use of the entire toolbox – fibre, mobile broadband, satellite," he believes. "We’ll be looking at all the options, balancing cost and effectiveness to see which option, or combination of options, works best. In the mean time, we do have further FTTP plans, but we’re not ready to announce those yet."

Christopher Britton, MD of satellite service provider Hughes Europe concurs with Galvin’s 'whole toolbox’ prognosis: "Landline or wireless connectivity will take years to roll out into more remote areas of the country, and will remain prohibitively expensive," he says. "As a result, there is an essential role for ready-made alternatives such as satellite."

Galvin reaffirms at least that BT is committed to a wholesale model, and to enabling an open market, which he says explains why the UK will never be able to follow the example of some of the world’s fibre access leaders: "We’re not operating under the same regulatory regime as in places like South Korea and Japan," he says. "The UK is one of the most competitive broadband markets in the world."

Topics: BT, Britain, UK, Openreach, Broadband, FTTC, FTTP