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
All may now be about to change with the news that Openreach,
the broadband deployment division of UK incumbent BT, is
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
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
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