As with any project there has to be a start point, and for the BT 21st Century Network (21CN) project that place is Wick, a village outside Cardiff. Paul Reynolds, CEO of BT Wholesale, has been talking with the Financial Times about 21CN and other changes to the UK broadband landscape.
Apparently the people using 21CN in Wick have their telephone and broadband working with no reported faults. The next step will be a larger roll-out around Cardiff to allow BT to get more information on running 21CN at a larger scale.
Key points of the item for broadband users around the UK are the talk of broadband speeds increasing by up to three times. This is referring to the roll-out of ADSL2+ by BT Wholesale which will follow on as 21CN technology is rolled out around the country. The new broadband products under 21CN will revolve around a new set of wholesale products termed 'Wholesale Broadband Connect' (wBC) - the acronym has changed from wBBC to wBC to avoid any confusion with the BBC. There is little public documentation of what wBC will offer but a few snippets can be found on the BT Wholesale website.
If BT Wholesale only rolls out ADSL2+ at the exchange level it will only offer large speed improvements to perhaps 25% of households. As we showed in October 2006, 25% of telephone lines will probably manage 6.5Mbps or more under ADSL, which would put them in line for 11Mbps or more under ADSL2+. Speeds of 6Mbps to 8Mbps are what will be needed to support HDTV or multiple standard definition streams over broadband. If BT Wholesale is really serious about using the wBC product to provide a truly rich media experience then the network architecture will need to change to adopt Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC) technologies. This is where a small MSAN (Multi-Service Access Node) is installed at the green cabinet in the street serving a small number of properties. The shortened length of copper to the home means speeds of 12Mbps and higher are possible under ADSL2+. One enhancement would be to use VDSL or VDSL2 which outperforms ADSL2+ on the sort of line lengths FTTC produces.
Rolling out FTTC will be no small project. BT has around 85,000 street cabinets and it has been doing trials of the technology used so knows most of the problems and costs involved. If BT Wholesale does simply roll-out exchange based ADSL2+ in 2008, it will be competing with other providers such as Be, Sky and UK Online, who in a years time should have ADSL2+ available to 70% of households. Not to mention competing with broadband speeds of 20Mbps from Virgin Media, where it is available.
So while France and Germany start to enjoy higher connection speeds, the UK appears to have no clear road-map for faster technologies beyond ADSL2+ at present. The faster broadband services are less about satisfying the demand for faster downloads than they are about increasing the availability of digital media to the average TV owner via things like broadband connected TV set-top boxes. One big difference between the UK and countries like France and Germany is the take-up of cable modem services which reflects the much wider availability of cable based TV services. This will effect the economics for any company looking to provide a TV over DSL service.