Rory Cellan-Jones

Broadband Britain - Digital Dundee

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 4 Jun 08, 09:05 GMT

Suddenly, I know how Dr Who feels. Yesterday afternoon I was in a phone-box in Glenelg pumping coins into the slot as I used 20th Century technology to talk to my bemused boss in London. (Anyone remember "Press Button B"? I do, I'm afraid). Now, after some rapid time-travel in the telephone box (oh, okay, the producer Jonathan drove us for five hours on windy roads across the Cairngorms) we're in 21st Century Dundee.

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This is one of the UK's most digital cities, with a thriving cluster of games developers - it's where Grand Theft Auto was created more than a decade ago - and high take-up of broadband and 3g phones.

And it's soon to become a centre for ultra-fast broadband. A small company called H20 which specialises in laying fibre-optic cable through the sewers has decided this is one of the places which could become what it calls a "fibre city", along with Bournemouth and Northampton.

H20 has already worked with Dundee University to give it a fast network, and this morning we tried that out in a hall of residence on the campus. It's quite a few years since my student days and the accommodation has come on a bit with en-suite bathrooms and lager on tap through the water system (or did I imagine that?).

Sunrise over DundeeBut it's the level of connectivity which has really moved on. I wrote my essays in longhand, typed out articles for the student paper on an ancient typewriter, and made calls home from the college phone-box once a week. Today every student has a laptop - and can be online from their rooms at lightning speeds via H20's fibre network, getting access to teaching materials, or maybe watching YouTube.

We tested it, and got speeds hovering between 35 and 45Mbps. And when we tried our timed download of that 10Mb video file, we came up against a problem - it was so fast it was just about impossible to time, though we think it downloaded in under 2 seconds. Back in our Glenelg hotel, where they generously let us hog the broadband line in their office, the download took over four minutes.

Rory Cellan-Jones broadcasting live from Dundee UniversitySo is fibre-through-the-sewer the way forward? It's the hefty bill for digging up Britain's streets which frightens the telecoms industry as the debate about our need for a nationwide fibre-to-the-home network gathers pace, with memories of what happened to the finances of the cable television pioneers fresh in many minds. But H20 says its system means few if any road closures and cuts the bill for installation by as much as 80%.

Now H20 will be a wholesaler and will have to persuade ISPs that they need to offer these kind of speeds. With a pretty vicious broadband price war underway, many may be sceptical about whether they can persuade customers to pay more for higher speeds - though H20 claims there should not be much of a premium.

But one thing is worth remembering after our coverage yesterday of the urban/rural speed divide in Britain. H20 can cut the cost of bringing fibre to cities where there's the right kind of sewer system - but in the words of one of its executives 'we don't go into septic tank territory". So fibre-to-the home is coming closer - but fibre to the farm may have to wait awhile.


  • Comment number 1.

    It seems like a very sensible idea to use an existing hole in the ground rather than dig another one, but I'm not sure that fibre to the home is going to help anyone.

    If you look at the state of ISPs at the moment the link to the home is already too fast - that's why major providers like Virgin Media are imposing ever stricter 'fair' usage limits on their 'unlimited' products. There's no advantage in being able to get data from the exchange to the customer at faster rates if the ISP can't get it to the exchange fast enough as things are now.

  • Comment number 2.

    @ 4 Jun 2008, _Ewan_

    Sorry mate thats absolute nonsense, the speed of ADSL is directly related to the copper connection from the PCP (green box at the end of the street) to your NTE5 master socket, if you had fibre to the door then 100Mbs is already possible.

  • Comment number 3.

    2 - Oh really? Then why do ISPs like Virgin feel the need to throttle the speed of users' connections when they download too much, too quickly? Why are ISPs complaining about the amount of bandwidth used by the iPlayer et al when that last mile of copper is not shared between users?

    Do you really think that the bottleneck is between the green box and the house - that there's enough backhaul capacity to serve each green box with 100Mbs * number of attached lines?

    There isn't.

  • Comment number 4.

    Most cabling does not require digging up the road as there is a lot of unused duct capacity. Major digging is usually only required either for a new entrant or if an existing operator is trying to create a ring network for resilience (normally only economically viable in city centres for large business users.) Effectively H2O is bypassing the digging stage by renting or buying space in existing ducts (which, in this case, happen to be sewers.) In cash terms this could mean in many cases that it actually costs them more than BT and the cable operators which have existing duct networks. All the other infrastructure costs are still there but they don't affect H2O as they are only selling dark fibre.

    Anyway I have a septic tank so it won't affect me - I'd be happy to get 1 meg (2 to 3 times what I normally get at the moment). So here's a suggestion: why don't we stop defining broadband in terms of technology (be it ADSL, fibre or whatever) and start defining it by speed. What is the minimum speed that can be considered broadband? At the moment I would guess that 1meg is the absolute minimum for true broadband (e.g. to allow streaming video) and if we consider Moore's law to apply then by 2010 it will be 2meg. And the septic tank brigade will be left ever further behind.

  • Comment number 5.

    The first broadband package I ever signed up to was Tiscali's one at £19.99 per month. Back then, that was cheap as chips!

    And it gave me 256Kbps... the "norm" then was 512... but 256 was a dream having been on 56k before then...

    So there's no speed that can be seen as a minimum for broadband. I would define broadband as an internet connection which doesn't use audiable (to the human ear) sound waves down a copper phone line, require the dialing of an 0845 number and cost you by the minute.

    Any other suggestions?

  • Comment number 6.

    Have the signal travel by radio signal from a corner pole to the houses and buildings. Encrypt each one. That's how it works in the apartments where I live and it's great. Faster than the T1 line at work.

  • Comment number 7.

    When I first got broadand it was with then NTL (now virgin). I originally had the 128k broadband service. After having dial up 128k was super-fast. At the time there was an Broadband war between BT and NTL in which BT claimed that 128K wasn't broadband (most of NTL's customers were on a 128k service) and subsiquently sued NTL for faulse advertising. BT won the case and NTL was forced to rename the 128k service as Midband.

    I have since moved to the little town of Goole in East Yorkshire, there is no cable provider in the area so Broadband is received purely through a fixed line. The nearest exchange is 20 miles away in Doncaster so I knew i wasnt going to get so called 'Super-fast' broadband. I choose to go with BT for my Broadband service (it came with a free wireless homehub and IP phone) and have been very disapointed with this service. Firstly it took 6 weeks to get BT to admit there was a fault with my telephone line. The second and current major disapointment is im supposedly paying for 8mbps broadband but im lucky if I get 100k. (I knew i was never going to get 8Mbps but i thought i could at least get up to 2Mbps) After speaking to BT about this they say this spead is perfectly OK and that 8Mbps is the potential speed i would get if I lived closer to the exchange (or in an exchange). They hung up when I mentioned the NTL Broadband/Midband fiasco (might also have to do the me getting a little agressive/anoyed on the phone).

    If H20 would like to set up the fibre network in Goole I would happily put up with some distruption whilst they laid the cables and pay a few quid more if it meant I could get the service I was paying for. There nothing worse than watching streaming video for it to start buffering when it gets to the good bits.

  • Comment number 8.

    Its all well and good making the cost to the cable company less expensive but what about the probems this proposal could create when it comes to making new connections to the sewers?

    If a new connection is made then it is highly likely the cable could be severed and hence disrupt connection to the world wide web.

  • Comment number 9.

    I think this blog post is slightly misleading or maybe I'm reading it wrong. It suggests that this high speed access is being provided by H20 networks. H20 Just provide fibre, the speed comes from the Kit lighting it. I work for a University in the Network team and we currently are talking with H20 about providing fibre to one of our halls. However the we will be providing the active kit linking it to our campus network. The high speed downloads come from our connection to our Metropolitan Area Network (MAN) and their link to the Join Academic Network (JANET). Whilst what H20 do is innovative (and reasonable priced) they are just one of many fibre providers.

    This post also gives a false impression that if everyone had fibre to their street everything would be rosey. It wouldn't. ISPs core networks generally only have 10 - 40 Gbit/sec interconnections. If every customer had 1Gbit to their home the core network wouldn't be able to cope. Ugrading the core network would be massively costly as the kit for faster connection isn't cheap.

  • Comment number 10.

    At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how fast your broadband is, you'll still only connect to a website at the speed available. It's like having a Aston Martin and being stuck in roadworks, you've got the power/speed you just can't use it!

  • Comment number 11.

    As a mobile data consultant I have studied this at length.

    The problem isn't getting extra fibre down. There are tons of 'dark fibre' under Britain's streets at this very moment. In an urban area you are seldom more than 10 metres from it. Telecoms companies replaced most copper with fibre years ago, the capacity means new customers can quickly be connected and it’s cheaper. The copper is worth something as non-ferrous scrap (recycling) as well.

    The real problem is that last few metres.

    The issue is about the 'last mile' actually getting from the street into people's houses. That’s the expensive bit.

    Householders would object to having their gardens, drives and paths excavated as well. The cost effective solutions being considered include wireless technologies including new MMwave systems since they can transmit over these distances.

    The Sewers are there for an essential hygiene purpose. With the current trend to build apartment blocks in what were gardens or sites for single dwellings we are now moving from having one or two sinks or lavatories on a site to 20 or 30. The implications for the sewers seem obvious to everybody except the planners. Anything actually in the pipe is not only cutting down its capacity but also running the risk of entangling with the refuse or causing blockages. Data might come out but there are other things we would really prefer to go away…

    It is also unnecessary.

    There are established techniques to put fibre under the ground without digging the place up, watch what the gas companies do when replacing pipes to see what I mean.

    There are products including new pipes that have built in culverting for cables, these avoid putting the fibre actually in the pipe but have to be put under the ground as new or replacement pipe.


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