Rory Cellan-Jones

Broadband Britain - how fast, how far?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 8 Sep 08, 10:09 GMT

How much is it going to cost to bring ultra-fast broadband to Britain? Well, BT and Virgin say they're both doing just that over the next couple of years, for an investment of a couple of billion pounds between them. But, according to today's report from the Broadband Stakeholders' Group, the final bill could mount as high as £29bn.

So why do the two companies most likely to build a next-generation network think it can be done for so much less than the government's advisory group has calculated? Well, it all depends on what you mean by "ultra-fast broadband" - and by "Britain". BT's recent announcement was a step-change in its policy towards fast broadband - previously it had been highly sceptical - but it was still only talking of covering 40% of the country, and relying mainly on "fibre-to-the-cabinet" not "fibre-to-the-home." Similarly, Virgin's plans involve building on its existing infrastructure rather than digging up half the country.

What the Broadband Stakeholders Group does in today's report is look at both ends of the fast broadband spectrum. The £29bn bill is for a full fibre-to-the-home option for the whole of Britain. It puts the bill for fibre-to-the-cabinet - the cabinet being that box you see on the corner of your street with the trailing wires and a BT engineer pulling his hair out - at a far more manageable £5bn.

So which are we going to get? Well the BSG doesn't really have any answers to that but it does warn that we are staring at a new digital divide of enormous proportions whichever route we take - and the faster the broadband we choose, the bigger the gap between town and country is likely to be.

To illustrate that, it's produced two maps showing which areas of Britain will get fast broadband quickly and which face a very long wait. One map involves the fibre-to-the-home option, the other fibre-to-the-cabinet. The BSG, unusually for a rather staid government advisory group, is also issuing a rallying cry. It's telling people in far-flung parts of Britain, where the bill for extending a fast broadband network will be eye-wateringly expensive, that they need to start making a noise now. The message seems to be "make enough fuss and you can make sure policy-makers don't leave you out when it comes to building the future of Broadband Britain."

So have a look at the maps - and work out which side of the digital divide you will fall in.

Maps showing areas which are getting faster broadband

PS. You can see the maps in greater detail here (in pdf format).


  • Comment number 1.

    It is all very well BT and Virgin talking about bringing ultra-fast broadband to Britain, as defined by the map but here in rural Cumbria all BT can supply is a dial-up service that, at best, works around 16kbps (yes, that’s right 16kbps!). How about some investment in rural communities to bring them up to date first. From the map, it looks as this new investment is going to create an even bigger digital divide between urban and rural communities

    Thank goodness, for private investment and microwave broadband that affords us a dedicated 10MB connection and all for £19.99 a month. The availability of broadband was a deal breaker for us when deciding where to live and I am sure, in today’s world, it would be for many others.

  • Comment number 2.

    I am so sick of this argument every time we talk about broadband!

    So people in rural areas have to put up with slow internet access. I live in London and have sky high rent while having to deal with the eternal joy that is London Underground.

    While we are having this debate, I suspect we we slowing down fibre optic delivery to well over 80% of the population. Where is the sense in that?

  • Comment number 3.

    I would believe all this if I did not know that Virgins fibre is connected to the commercial property below our apartments, but they are not interested in offering to deliver to us option one of the Broadband Stakeholder Group's proposal (nearby fibre to wire).

    The innovation period for BB is over.Market penetration is high. It is now a utility which needs commitment to universal delivery

    I don't think the commercial people or OFCOM want anything like that. Just like in the mobile market they like to confuse us with complex price plans rather than ensure we can have the product anywhere, any time at the advertised level of service.

  • Comment number 4.

    Why do people constantly expect a business to invest in something that they almost certainly won't get a good return from.

    If it is the government providing the money for the fibre deployment then I am all for every citizen getting equal access where ever they live, but seeing as BT/Virgin have absolutely no requirement and they are looking out for their shareholders then I don't think rural customers have any right what so ever to demand they get cheaper access or any access at all.

    One of the aspects of living out in the middle of no where I'm afraid.

  • Comment number 5.


    It's not always the middle of nowhere, quite a few large villages struggle to get anything at all, not just isolated houses 'In the middle of nowhere'

    And large parts of suburban areas away from town centres also struggle to get anything over (upto 1.5meg)

    I have 20meg virgin, but am moving to a village which isn't on their grid, I'm not sure how I'm going to manage after being spoilt for so long, but I'm sure I will it's only the internet

    I might even find time to talk to my wife and kids instead of spending hours scouring the internet looking at rubbish

  • Comment number 6.

    I feel that the cable cos are only going to invest in where they are going to make a profit not subsidise other areas at a loss.

    I live in a suburb of a town thats got virgin cable around me but for the 8 houses in my street as it was on an unadopted road and the cable co would not cable it up, as one house said no and now the other 7 houses are suffering.

    I contacted virgin many times and get the same old answer, it would be too expensive to cable the 8 houses, as we would not get a return on it. so its me on DSL running at a paltry 5 meg connection for ever it seems forever

  • Comment number 7.

    Some suggestions, Broadband needs to be defined.

    Broadband services need to be labelled properly ..try this for starters

    Broadband Britain needs objectives, it's a bland blairite sound bite at present. It has no meaning. By defining it and the underlying objectives you would write the case for NGA.

    Fibre for HD TV iPlayer and Bingo on line is not practical. A plan to transform the delivery of Care services, or reduce motorway miles would underwrite NGA or focus minds on improving what's there!

    Gov sponsored bodies should look at what we do with the technology, not attempt to push a technology. Outcomes need defining not pushing a particular input.

  • Comment number 8.

    It would be disastrous for the country to leave this to the commercial sector. Cabling up Britain is about the most important investment we as a nation have to make, and we need to do it now. (Actually, we probably needed to do it 3 years ago, but now is better than never). If left to 'the market', country areas will be grotesquely disadvantaged - especially as connectivity gains in importance as the lifeblood of the country's infrastructure. I'm sorry it's a bit more expensive putting a connection into Thribble-under-Wibble than it is into Sydenham, but this is why we are a country, why we pay taxes. This is the government's primary duty, and it's about time they took a stance. They talk endlessly about 'investment' when what they really mean is just spending. But this would be genuine investment - with the payback stretching out endlessly into the future.

  • Comment number 9.

    95% of the UK lives in a city of sorts. The 5% that do live in the country are either a) farmers, who don't much care b) yuppies who wanted a house in the country, cake and the ability to eat said cake. Tough luck.

  • Comment number 10.

    @ various posts. I find some peoples views on the future of UK BB quite annoying to say the least. In fact most people that live in rural areas of the UK are NOT farmers and are certainly NOT yuppies who want a house in the country and the ability to eat cake(WTF). I live in rural England, I'm not a farmer or a yuppie. I live where I live because its peaceful and a great place to bring your kids up without the fear of being stabed as soon as you step out the front door.
    I'm not keen on the fact that my family may have to wait years for next gen BB, but I'll happily plod on with my 7Mb connection to save my kids from becoming the lastest stab victims.

  • Comment number 11.


    What utter tripe. I was born in rural Dorset, still live here, and work in the technology sector for a multi-million£ company.

    Your stereotype is pathetic at best.

    PS. Anyone know what map is what? On one we are Yellow, on the other Red, so without that info, the maps are pointless.

  • Comment number 12.

    I live in the city and have no desire to pay for people in rural areas to get next gen broadband. And don't say it isn't going to cost me because it would - either through higher telecoms bills if BT pay for it, or higher taxes if the Govt pays. The property market is in the doldrums. If you want next gen broadband quickly then do the market and yourself a favour and move.

  • Comment number 13.

    @Camholder (#2) This is typical short-sighted, London-centric thinking.

    The availability (or not) of fast rural broadband has a direct impact on the level of your rent and the overcrowded state of the tube. Fast broadband allows people to work remotely from urban centres and head offices. It releases people from having to live in overcrowded cities and reduces their need to commute.

    I'm working from home, connected by VPN to my employer using a broadband connection that only exists because the Scottish Executive paid for our telephone exchange to be upgraded. BT had judged it, along with many others in Scotland, to be not commercially viable. Prior to this, working from home wasn't an option for me.

    I use a number of bandwidth-hungry applications that are fine (just) on my 2-meg connection but in a couple of years, with upgrades and the inevitable march towards even hungrier applications, I may struggle. If this happens, then my flexibility to win contracts, earn more money and pay more tax is compromised. I have to commute again, helping to exascerbate congestion which has its own knock-on effect on the economy due to time lost in traffic jams.

    Investment in a nationwide, high-speed network infrastructure will be to the benefit of the entire economy and might just affect the level of your rent and the amount of time you spend strap-hanging on the Tube.

  • Comment number 14.


    You have a good point there, why should you pay for rural area's to get fast internet.

    And also, why should anyone pay for you to get fast internet. In fact, why should everyone in the UK pay for your selfish self to get medical treatment? Perhaps allowing your kind to die out whould be the best thing for a stable and caring society.

  • Comment number 15.

    #14 - No-one other than myself if paying for my internet connection - there is no need for your or anyone else to subsidise broadband for me because my ISP is able to provide on commercial terms. That is not true for some but that doesn't mean that the rest of us should pay for it instead.

    If the Govt has some spare cash around (which it doesn't) then it would be far better spent on other things: teaching kids to read, abysmal transport, tackling climate change, to name but three.

  • Comment number 16.

    12, 14 and 15: I believe I've answered your question, essentially "why should I subsidise rural broadband?" in my response above, at 13. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

  • Comment number 17.

    I think that it has been missed that laying down fibre is not the only way that BB could be brought to more rural areas, currently 3G is growing in popularity, with Vodaphone currently the fastest at 7MBps, although usage caps stop it from being useful for VPN or multimedia. Wimax is also a possible future development; as with less work involved laying down cable etc it may be more viable.

    However I do not believe that this "We cant get it in rural areas so you cant have it in the city" attitude is on.

  • Comment number 18.

    What is the point of super broadband if they throttle your bandwidth? My line is great and rated for 8MB/s but BT insist on throttling it to dial up levels. If this keeps up I will leave the internet.

  • Comment number 19.

    #13 Still not convinced I'm afraid. What you're saying is that there are benefits to you from having next gen broadband but these benefits are not big enough for you to pay the costs of it being provided to you. So you want society to pay for it instead.

    Now there might well be some knock-on benefits for society (what economists call externalities) from you having next gen broadband. But how big are these? Are they bigger than the costs involved? And could they be achieved in other ways? To take your example, a cheaper, more effective and efficient way of reducing traffic congestion is to impose a congestion charge - far better than spending billions on providing broadband.

  • Comment number 20.

    Just moved to a "rural" area - although we are only 7 miles from Lewes, the county town of East Sussex we can not get broadband via a BT line and have to resort to mobile broadband via 3. Even that is pretty slow and subject to frequent loss of signal. Does anyone know if any of the advertised signal boosters really do work?


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