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Ferraris for all: Superfast broadband comes to Britain

Rory Cellan-Jones | 15:52 UK time, Wednesday, 27 October 2010

In the British broadband race, Virgin Media has moved into the fast lane, promising to deliver 100Mbps across its whole network by the middle of 2012.

BT is also building a faster network, based on fibre, though its service tops out at 40Mbps. By 2012, so we are promised, UK homes and businesses will have access to some of the fastest broadband in the world.

But just a couple of questions? Is there really a demand for 100Mbps? And is there a risk that the gap between the fast cities and the slower countryside will now open up?



First of all demand. To illustrate the merits of its new service Virgin Media brought a Ferrari to BBC Television Centre this morning. But just how many people really need a Ferrari service - especially when surfers trying to hit 100Mbps are likely to hit the same speed bumps as the Ford drivers negotiating our broadband infrastructure.

Virgin released figures today showing a big increase in customers using what it calls its "top tier" services, so over 700,000 now have 20Mbps or 50Mbps broadband. But of those just 92,000 have opted for the current Ferrari, the 50Mbps meg deal.

Still, once 100Mbps is on offer, there'll presumably be a big rush by customers to upgrade from 20 to 50Mbps. A few years back, we all wondered why anyone would need more than 2Mbps, but from video conferencing to online gaming, people are finding uses for higher speeds.

Virgin reckons that homes packed with smartphones, tablets and other connected devices will find they need the extra bandwidth.

Is there a risk of a new broadband divide opening up? Yes, of course, when Virgin Media and BT between them are making it clear they will only be able to cover two-thirds of the country with fast fibre-based broadband.

There will be around £500m from the BBC licence fee over the next four years to help fund rural fast broadband schemes, but it's not clear just how many homes that will reach. After all, we were told a while back that the cost of covering the whole of the UK in fibre could run into billions.

When I spoke to the redoubtable rural broadband campaigner Chris Corder via an internet call today, she was adamant that the "final third", as some call it, should come first.

Chris, whose excellent video about what digital technology means to her can be seen here, has battled to get her village in Lancashire any kind of broadband connection. Now she says the countryside needs speed more than the cities, and should be prioritised by Virgin Media, BT and the government.

Well, I don't think that is likely to happen, but campaigners like Chris aren't going to go away. Even if plenty of people in the cities don't really see a personal need for 100Mbps broadband, there is a real fear out there in rural Britain that those without the possibility of such a service are going to be disadvantaged.

Ferraris for the many, not the few - now that could make a rallying cry for those left out of the fast broadband era.

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  • Comment number 1.

    For me it's all about upload speeds now. I don't need 100Mb/s down but as I take more video YouTube and upload more pictures to Facebook I could really do with 10Mb/s upload speed and so will definitely be upgrading ASAP.

  • Comment number 2.

    I agree: the immediate issue is to offer 100% coverage so that those who want it can get it. The only way this is possible is with an organisation which is legally required to offer truly BB anywhere in England. The other Nations can do there own thing. So is this investment more important than the other capital projects the government is playing with at the moment to kick start the economy?

    Second all this talk of 100Mbs is just theoretical unless you can afford your own personal fibre. At the moment BT's 20Mbs gives me 6Mbs rising to 10 at 3am. The best BT can promise me in soon to be established fiber to box area (Infinity it is not) is less that 20Mbs. In reality probably at it might reach 10Mbs. at 5pm. (some of my neighbours work at night to get the best speeds!)

    And you shouldn't believe that if Virgin fibre passes the door they will supply. They might in one property I'm concerned with but not in another unless we actually to pay for heavily for our 'one pipe' (eg commercial rates)

    But all this is threatened by Project Canvas and other similar systems. Consumers will have to start paying for their data rather than the connection There will be a steep capital investment required in pipes and as it takes off initial charges for data for family viewing will be high, just like early mobile charges.

  • Comment number 3.

    I can't understand why both openreach and virgin replicate their footprints over the same area, whilst a third of the UK still can't get a decent internet connection, and many are still on dial up, despite the BT hype.
    Copper cannot serve the final third because of distance, and the best answer so far is digital village pumps, ie a connection into each parish for the people to join to. They can come with a bucket or wifi, or fibre, and take as much as they need. The new networks in the rural areas can be built by the people, for the people.
    If the telcos don't want to do it then the rural assets (ducts, poles, wayleaves) should be available for others to use. It is for ofcom to organise a fair price, or government should slap a compulsory purchase order on them.
    Use IT or lose IT.
    Its no use waiting for either Virgin or BT to do the rural areas. They haven't given us 1st gen connectivity, and they won't give us Next Gen.
    Now it is too late. We are JFDI ourselves? cmon the reivers.Fill your gigabuckets.

  • Comment number 4.

    I have recently moved to the US where a 15MB broadband actaully delivers 15Mb day in day out all day, a huge difference from the UK where my up to 8Mb system struggled to do 3 on a good day and everyone else in the neighbourhood asleep.
    However what is the main thing I notice, the same websites that were slow and unusable in the UK, often mainstream commercial ones, are equally slow and unusable. On the good ones it is fine, I can stream multple You tube session and Netflix in HD.
    Are we into the law of diminsihing returns?

  • Comment number 5.

    This is all spin, PR and market positioning.

  • Comment number 6.

    The speed is only part of the equation, it's the download limits they offer.

    High speeds and HD content are just an opportunity to blow your monthly limit more quickly.

  • Comment number 7.

    I pay for a Virgin 50mg cable service. For the past two days I have received just under 7mg download and 377K upload. Customer service is dire and they only read from their 'list'. This is in a student area and they don't seem to acknowledge the usage. They are not fit for purpose now. (I am cabled in and use ethernet so no one is piggybacking on my service.)
    Just an advertising trick.

  • Comment number 8.

    Rory Cellan-Jones.

    Porsche and Ferrari, ah to be a boy again...

    seriously though, the implication by the marketeers is that broadband is a luxury item when, in all fairness, it ought to be a legal right. on that score, Finland is streets ahead of the UK.

  • Comment number 9.

    I am not form UK and i have 20/20Mbit. I actully still don't need that much and i got a bit spoiled. I think most people will still do just fine with 1 or 2 Mbps. I don't know what i would do with 100Mbit option as the current connection is more than enough.
    Even in gaming there is not actually that much data transmiting. and besides having a fast connection there while most others have slower doesn't really help you much.

  • Comment number 10.

    If google are right, and the digital economy in this country is already worth £100 billion, then it is about time we stopped messing about with obsolete copper and got fibre to everyone. If Openreach can't do it then maybe Virgin can?
    The future needs can not be delivered through megs. we need gigabuckets.

  • Comment number 11.

    To continue with cars..

    What is the point of a Ferrari Broadband service when all of the roads are jam packed full of 2CVs. [The servers and congested backbone limit the ability to use the 100MB service.]

  • Comment number 12.

    The one thing I find strange is how Virgin Media are allowed to monopolise their fibre network however BT have been told by Ofcom their competitors are allowed to use their infrastructure?

  • Comment number 13.

    Dexter Morgan #12.

    "The one thing I find strange is how Virgin Media are allowed to monopolise their fibre network.."

    what I find even stranger is how, as a nation, we were never allowed to benefit from an existing, nationwide, and underused fibre optic network.

  • Comment number 14.

    Q) How many people need this service?
    A) A lot by 2012

    Explanation: With the dawn of services like YouView, GoogleTV, Apple TV 3rd Gen, Seasaw, iPlayer, TV Catchup etc a lot of people will be streaming / downloading HD (maybe 3d)content in the near future.

    None of these people will have a deadicated line, they will be sharing exchanges and not wanting buffering when they sit down at 6pm peek time to watch the Olympic highlights.
    iPlayers own stats show how fast demand is growing. As campaigns to get the old etc become successful demand will continue to rise and so will data usage.

    For me the difficulty of this announcement is the postcode lottery of service provision. Virgin should achieve more than 50% nationwide coverage and BT Infinity is far too limited in the number of exchanges being prioritied.

    Show me 5mg with 100% coverage no matter how far from the exhange you are and how many houses inbetween and then I'll be impressed.

  • Comment number 15.

    MyVoice, they can't do 5 meg to everyone without laying fibre. They can't even do 2 meg to semi rural areas over copper, unless they lay new copper, remove the dacs, and bond many pairs together at great expense. That is why they want funding (eg Cornwall) so they can use obsolete BET technology - charge people for multiple phone lines and still only deliver a trickle.
    The only answer to everyone having a next generation access connection is to do fibre to the rurals. This will mean the demand will soar in the cities, and people will clamour for a decent feed. And just like the other utilities it will just work. Once the copper is gone prices will fall, because it is the equipment doing the throttling and the old copper hitting the exchanges that is causing the problem, making scarcity the business model instead of what it should be... abundance.

  • Comment number 16.

    Before they start laying 100MB Fibre Optic Cable, I’m like to get !.5MB regularly and I’m in a City.

  • Comment number 17.

    despite a few vocal calls for high bandwidth Virgin only have about 100,000 users on their 50M service out of 4 million users.

    JFDI = Just give me a subsidy or a grant and a few places will do it until the money runs out, but don't expect widespread coverage as simply this hasn't happened anywhere in human society.

  • Comment number 18.

    My area does not have mains gas yet. I'm not naive enough to expect the market to install gas to me, and I'm not hopeful about getting 1-Meg broadband either.

  • Comment number 19.

    Due to damage on my phone line that doesn't prevent the phone working or reduce the speed below BT's "fault threshold", I'm now getting about 1.8Mbps where I had well over 5Mbps 18 months ago. Neither my ISP or BT will do anything to sort this out.

    At this speed a family of 4 sharing the connection makes for an impossible situation with someone gaming, someone watching Youtube and a bit of surfing at the same time.

    Fibre to the premises is the only sensible solution for the long term, you only need to run the cable containing the fibres once and then you can benefit from improving technology as time goes on.


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