Rory Cellan-Jones

Historic day for Broadband Britain?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 3 Mar 09, 15:40 GMT

"This is a very significant day in the deployment and history of Britain's communications," said Ofcom's chief executive, trying to gee up a roomful of sleepy hacks in a conference room this morning. Ed Richards, the impossibly youthful looking boss of a very powerful regulator, was obviously excited about an announcement which he says will "clear the way" for investment in superfast broadband. But should the rest of us care? Well yes. This news is significant for three groups - BT, Virgin Media and anyone who's interested in getting a faster broadband connection.

BT was cock-a-hoop, rushing out a happy statement just minutes after Ofcom's announcement. The telecoms giant had warned it wasn't going to spend billions on a new fibre network if the regulator wouldn't allow it to make a decent return. It had two worries - the price it could charge other firms to use its network and the fact that existing regulation meant it would have to send two sets of engineers to 8000 fibre cabinets across the country, vastly increasing the cost. Openreach - the BT local network division - is run at arm's length, treating the firm's own retail broadband business as just another customer, so when anything happens at exchanges two sets of engineers are involved. Now Ofcom has, in its own words "varied BT's undertakings", so that Openreach can do the whole job. More significantly, BT can charge its rivals whatever it likes for access to its new network. So now it's promised to press ahead with its investment in fibre-to-the-cabinet, with the rollout of 40Mbps broadband starting early next year.

Virgin Media got two things today - it was left alone by Ofcom and also got a glowing endorsement from the chief executive. The regulator was in no hurry to order Virgin to open up its network - and Ed Richards was keen to point out that the cable operator was already way ahead of BT: "People say nothing is happening in the UK when it comes to super fast broadband. That just isn't the case- it's unfair to what Virgin have done. By the end of this year 50% of the UK will be covered with superfast broadband before BT have started."

So it sounds like there was good news for consumers too. By 2012, 40% of the UK will have BT's 40Mbps service, and 50% will have 50Mbps Virgin cable broadband - and although the two firms will overlap a lot, that means well over half of the UK should be in the fast lane. But two problems remain - how much are we going to pay, and what will happen to the large numbers of people who still won't get access? Ed Richards said he'd be surprised if consumers weren't willing to pay a premium for a fast product - but the market would limit the cost :"You're not going to be able to charge £300 a month, when customers can still get 10-20Mbps for just a few pounds." And he pointed out that the take-off of mobile broadband would also mean there was plenty of competition.

But what we haven't learned today is how we can stop a new digital divide opening up. "We don't know how far the market will take us," said Ed Richards, "but the market is not going to provide super-fast broadband for 100% of homes." That will be the subject of phase two of Ofcom's deliberations - but may be more of a question for Lord Carter's Digital Britain report. We still have no idea of the cost of bringing in a "Universal Service Obligation" to make sure every home can get at least 2Mbps, so working out how to give 50 or 100Mbps to every home in the UK is going to involve an awful lot of head-scratching.

The debate has already started - the Country Landowners Association said Ofcom had failed to understand the needs of rural communities, and the effect of deregulating broadband would be to create such a gulf between town and country that "the rural economy could find itself on its knees".

As we found on our Broadband Britain tour last year, speed is an issue which really gets people worked up. And nothing gets them more agitated than the fact that everyone else seems to be accelerating away into the distance. So prepare for a long and bloody broadband battle.


  • Comment number 1.

    Let me guess, it will be the same 40% of the UK that currently has Virgin Media or LLU coverage?

    My town (of around 6000 people) waited until 2003 to get anything faster than dial up.

    The Government (through Ofcom) should do all that it can to ensure that the deployment of this new technology is first done in areas where there are no other high speed options.

    I resent hearing from friends that they have a list of providers all willing to give them ADSL2+ and that their street is also cabled by Virgin when I have no choice but to endure BT Wholesale's ADSL Max product.

    I am with O2 Broadband (on their "Access" product for those outwith their LLU footprint) and the advertised speed for my line was 7mbit/sec. I can get this in the middle of the night but the service at peak times has been abysmal of late. In the evenings my connection speed can drop well below 1mbit/sec.

    Please Ofcom, save me from this!

  • Comment number 2.

    Why should only BT have their hands out for a sub, in return for the slack they are being cut in the consumer market, they could be providing cheap/fast fibre backhaul to government-incentivised urban in-fill sites (covering, for example, the have-nots on deprived housing estates) where the operators' Ethernet Microwave roll-out plans will be less effective in providing sufficient backhaul.

    HSPA has real-life capabilities of 2-5Mbps and HSPA+ 8-20Mbps+ though more carriers/spectrum will be needed for this. Both are available today, no need to wait for 2012, but the operators are reluctant to invest in the radio network expansions required.

    BT (and VM and others on a regional basis) will not pay for 'spectrum' yet they will need to trench every road in Britain with massive disruption to the public, for which they will be given free rein. I doubt that the Mobile Operators will have the same freedom when looking to add new sites for in-fill!

  • Comment number 3.

    Sounds like good news if they are both tasked with universal service

  • Comment number 4.

    Even with the hub of the network running at 100's of Mbps those of us living in the middle of nowhere will still be stuck with very thin copper wires for the last couple of kilometres - unless BT (or whoever) is supported in changing this ancient technology. The scientists have done amazing things with the voice network but it's time to move to the next phase, for everyone, not just those in cities.

    What would our reaction be if BT said, "Oh, sorry, you can't have a telephone because you are too far form the exchange"?

  • Comment number 5.

    BT need to be downgraded into just another service operator. Alternatives are desperately needed to BT as they are too slow to react to the latest technology.

    They've held back the speed and quality of broadband in the UK for decades now.

  • Comment number 6.

    To be honest I don't care about super high speed, I still can't get better than dial up as there is no Virgin Media and I am too far from the exchange.

    It's all very well sorting out the rural areas but what about the Centre of Cheltenham!!

  • Comment number 7.

    How about we see BT sub-contracting some of the this fibre roll out to H2O Networks?!

    This is the company that lays fibre in the sewage network (, a ready made tunnel-network that covers most, if not all of the UK and no need to go digging up roads when the pipe to push the cable down already exists!

    The need to get high speed broadband, or even a decent connection, to much of the UK requires innovative solutions such as this.

    If I were H2O - I would start to get to the locations that neither Virgin or BT are servering very well... at present. Get market domination before the big boys muscle in! (I understand the the market has to be commercial viable).

  • Comment number 8.

    BT arent out for a 'sub', they are investing 1.5 billion of their/the shareholders money to upgrade the network. In exchnage they get to make a profit from others. Seems far to me.

    One of the reasons why they (BT) are out of date is because its taken until now for the regulators to decide that they can do so (make a profit).

  • Comment number 9.

    Every time there is an article about broadband in the UK, every tom, dick and harry from countryside X pipes up about being left in the lurch and demand that BT or some other company upgrade the network so they can get what the rest of us in Cities are being offered.

    What none of them seem to realise is that you are talking about private companies that only invest money when they are sure within themselves they will get a clear cut profit.

    If you want true "broadband for all" where every household gets at least 2Mbit whether you live on an island in Scotland or in the middle of the Yorkshire Moors then go ask the government to nationalise BT. As long as you are preaching to private companies then don't expect anything where they'll likely lose money. Like, I don't know, laying thousands of pounds of fibre to a village of 300 and only 50 of those houses actually sign up for the service.

  • Comment number 10.

    Rojam, I admire your zeal but surprising large areas of the UK do not have sewage pipes, either! Septic tanks are the norm. However, anything that stops the divide between those who cannot get a decent highspeed connection at an affordable price (that is, affordable to people not on City salaries) and those who 'need' broadband to order a taxi has got to be welcome.

  • Comment number 11.

    In Milton Keynes, many parts of our "21st century" town can't get a decent broadband speed.

    I get a reasonable speed of around 4 mbps but I'm only 300 m from the exchange.

    Virgin took over the cable tv system but it's not being upgraded from co-ax.

    We have no choice but to go with broadband using a BT line, and due to the lenghs of copper between exchanges and estates, the speeds vary.

    The announcement can only be good news, the quicker fibre optic is laid to the cabinets, the quicker people will be able to get a decent speed...and that's just towns!

  • Comment number 12.

    Although I don't have the best broadband connection (about 3.8mbps on average) I have managed to increase it by buying a BT I-Plate from eBay... my speed is now averaging 4.3mbps with it, and still 3.8mbps without it.

    Despite this good news, BT (a capitalist company) and UK Government (incompetent zealots from a time past) you will unlikely see any improvement unless you do it yourself.

    I have just now lost faith...

  • Comment number 13.

    Virgin might be offering "superfast fiber internet", but it all seems to be just for headline grabbing, as yes the speed is there (at 3am) otherwise you get the speed for a very short time (the faster the connection the less time you get) then you get throttled back to almost dial-up speeds as they just do not have the bandwidth to cope. Even trying to watch the just iplayer on 2mb in the evening is full of stops.

    Of course they will blame the "high users" rather than them overselling their capacity, and they are now claiming to up all the packages to the next faster speed over the next few months, so even faster speed for an even shorter time. I would rather have a constant slower speed then a constantly throttled supposed high speed that you dare not use. Especially considering all the streaming TV, games. Not to mention the constant push to use online storage, video calling, remote business conference meetings, send holiday videos to the family, cloud computing etc, etc all of which uses more bandwidth than just browsing a few pages and checking simple emails.

    As for BT and it's upcoming Phorm snooping it should have been left as BT not sold off years ago to line to government pockets. If it's going to stay a private company then something should be done about it's monopoly status with the lines and it's connection fees £130+ just to switch a line on and no other option if you want a phone line (worked for BT before it was privatised so I have some idea of how little is involved)

  • Comment number 14.

    So we will have to pay through the nose then for a fast connection in the countryside where the adsl is not good and there is no other alternative! - Great - thank's a lot ofcom. How is it that other countries can provide fast and cheap internet to the countryside? I would put in a glass fibre line from my house to the exchange if I could as it would be worth the effort - but of course that would be illegal!

  • Comment number 15.

    I'm very excited in the development of Broadband Britain, i just do wish greater emphasis would be put on helping to bring improvements for internet access in rural areas.

    Many internet users in the countryside are having to fork out extra for their broadband services, as poor provider coverages in stopping them from getting some of the cheaper broadband deals that are only available in the urban inner city areas.


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