The Communications Management Association conference in London this last week has produced a lot of discussion, and the latest is from Ofcom talking about the issue of Fibre to the Home (FTTH).
"For customers who live too far from an exchange, technically this is a problem that could be solved by fibre. But the services are not yet defined, the technology is not yet stable, and so it is too early for a regulatory approach. The case for digging up the road is a rather weak one."Lord Currie, Ofcom Chairman at CMA conference
It is easy to get the impression from an article on ZDNet that Ofcom is saying no to companies rolling out FTTH, but what it is really saying is that Ofcom sees no need for regulations to force or actively encourage such services.
The UK is blessed (depending on your viewpoint) with the Virgin Media cable network covering some 40 to 45% of households offering potential download speeds of 10 Mbps. This fibre/coax hybrid network offers potential for faster speeds, with some people having trialled 20 Mbps services already, and talk of a 50 Mbps one in the next year or so. While the DSL providers do suffer from the problem of speeds falling off the further you get from an exchange, the roll-out of ADSL2+ will give many households speeds that can cope with IPTV in standard definition, and even a reasonable number that could manage high definition. Standard definition video with modern encoding methods runs with a picture as good as Freeview at around 1.5Mbps and high definition should be possible with around 4 to 5Mbps bitrates.
So where does this leave us with the holy grail of Fibre to the Home? BT's approach seems to be to consider this for new developments only. Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) which would reduce the length of copper to less than 1km for the vast majority of homes, offers a cheaper solution and would reduce the amount of disruption that otherwise would be involved in getting fibre to 29 million homes. This makes this the most likely upgrade to the last few miles from exchange to premises in the next 5 to 10 years.
One concerning figure to arise from surveys at the CMA conference is that 41% of businesses cannot get broadband where they need it. This represents a large gulf between the statistics for availability of the various forms of broadband in the UK. Among consumers the amount of people complaining about lack of broadband has plummeted in the last two years. When talking to businesses about SDSL things get worse with 75% saying they cannot get it where they are - to some extent this is expected as SDSL has a much more limited reach than ADSL and is not available from all exchanges. One technical option is for the broadband provider to bond two or more ADSL lines to improve speeds to some areas, and while this is not something offered by services like BT Total Business broadband plenty of the smaller business-focused providers can meet this need. It can be presumed businesses have decided the cost of leased lines, which can provide almost any speed in the majority of the country, are not cost effective in most cases.
Perhaps the figures from the CMA conference illustrate the size of the gap that broadband providers need to bridge to show what is technically possible without burying a business in lots of techno babble. We suspect that with some help plenty of businesses that think they cannot get broadband could be found a solution that actually meets their needs.