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 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

    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

    Comment number 22.

    How can we be racing ahead, when the final part of the internet connection (from the roadside cabinet to the home) is still a lousy copper or in many cases aluminum cable rather that fiber? other countries have had FTTH for decades whilst BT has sat there trousering the money that should have been used to provide this.And nothing will change whilst BT are allowed to maintain the monopoly they have

  • rate this

    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

    Comment number 1.

    but what about upload speeds? Virgin sure keep their 20M download promise, but upload is never more than 0.7M, severly mismatched!

    Lets hope 'superfast' means both ways are fast, not just one.


Comments 5 of 61



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