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
    +3

    Comment number 21.

    Agree with many other comments here. We may have started with a legacy of older infrastructure, but that means the UK needs to make a bigger step now to stay in the digital game. Looking at the future potential demands on broadband, we have to aim for well over 100 Mb/s to the premises and most likely nearer 1Gb/s in 10 years. The only investment that would deliver this is fibre end to end!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 20.

    Just had fibre installed. As a small media business, upload speed is the biggest improvment (8Mb) for sending files to clients.

    A nightmare installation from BT OpenReach though: offline for 8 days! We fell into a black hole of confusion and internal processes.

    We need competition. However it should be available everywhere, no cherry-picking the profitable areas and ignoring the rest.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 19.

    We have cable in our village of 2500 homes, however the network was never completed. Virgin media told us "Unfortunately to make this area serviceable would cost around £1681.65 for each property. Our business rules only allow us around £300 per home - so we cannot proceed at this time."

    So even with infrastructure already present, it is still not viable to increase the size of the network.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 18.

    I moved from 17Mbps cable to a house with BT with a speed of about 1.2Mbps (frequently only giving 0.7Mbps).

    I have enquired about it with Virgin, who say they have no plans to extend to this area, and BT who say just keep your ears out for news.

    The fact is, the transparency is the problem for me. If they told me when we would get upgraded even if it was years away, I'd be happy!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 17.

    the national broadband rollout in Australia is turning into a bit of a political shamozzle. apparently our interweb is going to get too big for our work force.

    http://www.smh.com.au/business/nbn-wasted-without-more-it-workers-study-20110512-1eklq.html

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 16.

    people forget (or don't realise) that the UK started with the Internet many years ago, Many of these countries with true "super-fast" connections had the benefit of starting later in the game.. when technology was better.. we are still playing catch-up.

    However, I do wish they would stop calling these UK products super-fast, they aren't, they are "fast" at best. Marketing and hype. Bah.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 15.

    @14 John

    You are absolutely right about the network and server congestion. Here in the US my laptop runs at 100Mbps. But it all depends on those two things.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 14.

    Yah boo sucks my BB is faster than yours!

    It is not the speed that matters it is the network and server congestion!

    However fro reasoned discussion the 400 character limit means that reasoned discussion on the BBC's blogs has been abolished - the thought police have won. The establishment have silenced the voice of the people!

    SCARP THE LIMIT!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 13.

    Slow but it's getting there. The big problem in the UK is probably little competition but FTTC is most of the way there it's just the last couple of meters from the cabinet but that will come soon (I hope).

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 12.

    I live in Holland and currently have 120M download (measured). Why do you call the Virgin 50M product 'superfast' when it is actually less than half the speed of the Dutch product? BTW, costs about 50 pounds per month...in addition, I think that Korea has even faster products. You should compare proposed UK products with other nations...

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 11.

    I think every home should have super-fast broadband regardless of whether it is commercially viable or not this is an example and reason for not privatising everything including the royal mail before you know it it will not be commercially viable to send mail to certain parts of the UK.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 10.

    I've just moved from Virgin to BT infinity. Virgin (cable) speeds were only half of what I should have been getting, and their customer services were shockingly bad. Now I've got 37Mbps download and 8Mbps upload, plus it's cheaper than Virgins 20Mbps download (2Mbps upload).

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 9.

    Virgin delivers on their promised speeds, BT can only ever offer 'up to' speeds and from experience this is often pretty poor. But BT offer much greater coverage. I say bring on the competition! 90% coverage is incredibly unlikely but with the new power line trials and other rural initiatives there may be some hope. However these guys are running businesses and it's all about the money...

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 8.

    I'm still waiting for fibre optic from BT and I live in central London! They keep saying June is when they'll role it out but we'll see...

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 7.

    It's such a shame that Rory has descended to using Americanisms such as 'a big ask' and 'I ran that past....'. This is sloppy. Are such standards prevalent in the rest of the contribution? Are the figures thus to be trusted? 6/10 - must try harder.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 6.

    I'm using wi-fi on a 30M connection and regularly getting 15M download and 3M upload. No complaints here.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 5.

    Pigs will fly before any of the providers supply rural houses, we live 200m from an A road in the heart of kent and there is no chance of fiber to our location for years!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 4.

    Download speeds are on the whole fine, sure they're not as fast as other countries but you can live with it. The problem is upload speeds, less than 1mb/s? Something is very wrong here.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 3.

    I have signed up for the new RSS feed. I can no longer read the article in my RSS viewer, I have to click on the link to here. Anyway I can change this?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 2.

    20Mbit certainly appears fast enough for most people's requirements, you can load a Facebook page pretty quickly with that amount of bandwidth. It is sufficient for a house of 10 people all watching different things on iPlayer. I tend to wonder if the high speeds are touted in the knowledge that they will be used to Torrent music and films...

    Please revert the character count, this is not Twitter

 

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