The fight for faster broadband

Optical fibres The race is on to make Britain a networked nation

Two important news items today about broadband, one from the politician in charge of government policy in this area, the other from the company with the biggest role in making the fast internet happen.

The Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt unveiled a pledge that 90% of British homes and businesses would have access to superfast broadband, and BT told us that it was now racing ahead in the broadband market, leaving its cable rival in the dust.

But both stories deserve a little further examination. It's certainly good to have a clear benchmark to back up the government's previous pledge that Britain will have the "best" superfast broadband in Europe by 2015.

Until now, we haven't known what "best" meant, and by combing factors like availability, price, and quality as well as speed, there would have been plenty of wriggle room to allow ministers to declare victory.

Now they have to reach that 90% mark - and as nobody thinks there's much of a commercial case for anything more than around two thirds of homes to get fibre-based broadband, that's quite a big ask over four years.

Making connections

One key question is how "superfast" is defined. The government will say it's about giving people access to any fibre product, whether that's BT Infinity, Virgin Media cable or perhaps the new offering planned by Fujitsu.

The broadband purists will argue that BT's fibre-to-the-cabinet product will offer many people little more than 20Mbps, and that's not superfast.

But BT, which has long been aggrieved at the stick it gets over what some consider the slow progress of its broadband rollout, is hitting back.

As the company unveiled some decent results this morning, it started bombarding me with facts about broadband.

Namely, that its Openreach and Wholesale divisions added 1.1 million new broadband connections in the last year - compared to Virgin Media's 151,000 new connections. For every new Virgin customer, BT is adding seven, I was told.

That, of course, includes all of BT Openreach wholesale customers, like Sky and TalkTalk. But BT says its own-brand broadband from its retail division is also caning the opposition, winning 64% of new connections in the last quarter.

Networked nation

Oh, and when it comes to fast fibre connections, BT is adding customers twice as rapidly as Virgin. What's more its fibre-to-the-cabinet technology is getting faster and faster, whatever the sceptics say, and is fully future-proofed.

I ran some of these claims past a Virgin Media spokesman - and got a rather different take. BT, he explained was going after the "cheap and cheerful" end of the broadband market, slashing prices in pursuit of market share. The same strategy had been tried by the cable industry a decade ago and had proved disastrous.

He said that many of BT's new customers were probably coming back from TalkTalk - which lured millions away with bargain basement broadband when it got into the business.

And he told me that BT's boasts about its fibre service didn't stand up either - BT Infinity, offering 20-30Mbps should not be compared to Virgin's 50Mbps product.

Now if the government is to hit that 90% superfast target, it will need both BT and Virgin Media to play a big part. So perhaps the fact that the two businesses and the likes of Sky and TalkTalk - are scrapping so furiously over the broadband market is good news.

After all, come 2015 they will want to be able to claim that they played the leading role in making Britain a networked nation.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    This super fast broadband is all well and good but what about the ageing BT network. I was supposed to connect to the new superfast service offfered by Digital Region in South Yorkshire, but was let down by BT cabling. My cabling is aluminium and not copper so I was un-able to connect to the service. This is a problem a lot of people are suffering from all over the country, so sort this first.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Articlea about this make me want to scream. There are communities who can't get broadband at all on our landline. I'm lucky I've got satellite broadband, but that has it's own issues.
    People who already have broadband will again be able to get a faster connection but BT won't upgrade the lines in rural areas so that others can get broadband. It's businesses in this area especially which suffer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    @54 chriswiltshire
    By law (national security), BT has to have a wired connection to all buildings. Be that home or business.
    What gets me is that BT are going to spend 16billion pounds on replacing all their copper cables. Why? replace the lot with fibre optic cable. Copper per tonne is much more expensive than Fibre. And fibre is as tough as copper.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Paint dry's quicker aka 0.25mps....Carluke (Scotland) Those who spin the yarn that all house-holds will have super-fast whatever are exactly the spin merchants hailing from CONDEMS and others....LOL...

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    "Britain will have the "best" superfast broadband in Europe by 2015"
    Not a chance !
    I have friends in Holland who have fibre to the house, this was compulsory even if the home owner did not want broadband the fibre connection was run into the building.
    They currently have 70Mbs to play with, I cannot see Britain ever catching up with this type of service let alone by 2015
    Pie in the ether !

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    We have over 1million uninployed, the cost of running fiber to the home is not the cost of the fiber but the man power required in digging trenches to lay it, which is a low skill job.

    How about using the unimployed to do two MAJOR jopbs IE fiber to ALL homes and upgrading the insulation for all homes.

    This would massivily redues the UKs CO2 footprint and our dependancy on imported oil.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Do we need super fast broadband? Is this just so people can watch TV etc across the internet?

    Also what are the implications of having these networks running all over the country. Are they good for our health or other living things. For example the EU is looking at the safety of wireless and there are many studies that are taking place looking at the safety of wireless in the home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    BT and other suppliers can do the fibre to cabinet not a problem it is the link to the end user (copper line) which reduces spead - HOWEVER we appear to have BT wifi popping up all over the place therefore a solution would be to link the cabinet to a wifi system which ALL broadband modems (all have own passwords and connections) can link in securely, lines can be removed and all BT customers happy

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    When will it arrive in Lincolnshire I have bt broadband at the suggested speed of up to 3 megs only to find when BT tested my line it would only deliver 1 meg and we are lucky if we get 1/2 a meg speed

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    BT state they have beaten Virgin recruiting new customers but customers with Sky boxes take a service using BT t/phone lines (thus the increase in BT customers). Virgin have stated to that they have no intention of opening their services into rural areas. High Speed internet - ha!! BT said they are installing a modern exchange to allow high speed internet 3 years ago in our area - todate nothing

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    When Thatcher privatised British Telecom in the 80s, it was banned from providing data and media services for years. This was done to allow other companies to compete but actually had the effect of damaging the industry and holding us back in the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Currently I sync at 8Mbit/s on a 8M product, but during the day it can slow below two.... The product has words like MAX and Premier thrown in, and is declared as non-traffic shaped, meaning they don't shape traffic, just the infrastructure is too slow.... Fiber to the home won't solve this. BT has a problem, the infrastructure is a mess of ad-hoc deployments and to date has lacked management.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Back in 99 we suggested to our bosses at Cable and Wireless to install fibre in the sewer network direct to our clients (business) but were told it would never work!

    shame really Cable and Wireless became Clueless and Witless after that

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    What id like to see is a definative listing from BT with dates and areas throughout the UK of when these "said" exchange upgrades are happening.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    This rollout has been a bit of a mishmash. (Is that a word?)

    There are 5 exchanges close to me. One to the North, one to the South, one to West, one to the East and one in the middle of all of them.

    Only one is not cannected to Fibre, the one in the middle. The one I am connected to.

    I am sort of gutted by that!

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.


    Oh, I understand the technology - after all the same FTTC connection would be used by BT, Plusnet, TalkTalk and anyone else offering fibre via BT wholesale - however, most seem to be limiting the upload to less than 2 in their packages - I am wondering why.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    I live in a town where they upgraded the exchange, but forgot all the cabinets, hence I'm still stuck on a max of 3.5 Mbps, much to slow for me.

    My property is 3 years old, but they didn't put fiber in the ground then. Now it most likely will take years before I will have fast internet.

    They should put fiber in the ground when they building a new area, will make the roleout a lot faster.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    to go. And with HDTV becoming the norm. Then highspeed connection will be needed. Of course that all depends on that old excuse "we won't get enough profit back for a 'shareholders'".
    @40. Hastings
    If you have a full fibre connection, once again there is no technical reason for a slow upload speed. The connection can be synchronous.
    I could go on, but the masses believe the marketing. So lose out

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    As to why Virgin are not laying cable around the country, is that they are not by law allowed to. As they could create a monopoly (BT/Openreach anyone?).
    As to why we may well need higher speed? The trend is that more and more media is being transmitted across the net. EG: Youtube, Applestore....but the biggy will be TV! With ethernet enabled TV's becoming more prevalent, this will be the way.TBC

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Virgin do not have a full fibre network, it is a hybrid of fibre and copper.
    There is no technical reason that a full fibre network could not be installed across the UK (Phone Poles,ducting and sewage pipes).
    If a full FTTH were installed, then there is no limit as far as the fibre is concerned with speed. It depends of the routers/switches that are used + software. Fibre works on light..tbc


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