UK broadband needs a clear vision to keep pace
During the last week we have seen discussions about next generation broadband services in the UK. The latest report by The Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) reminds everyone that broadband roll-out in the UK is far from done.
So what is 'next generation broadband'? The answer depends a lot on who you are. Many users will be exposed to marketing messages that push ADSL2+ services with its 'up to 24 meg' speeds as the next big thing. In reality most people will not see speeds close to this. ADSL2+ is already rolled out by a number of LLU providers, so is not even new to the UK since around 50 to 70% of households have the option now. Those within the industry, and the authors of the BSG report, are generally looking beyond this to speeds of 50Mbps and higher, like those starting to be offered in Germany via VDSL or via fibre deployments in Japan and South Korea that can connect people at up to 1 Gbps (1,000 Mbps).
In terms of basic broadband services (up to 8Mbps) the UK heads the various G7 countries, but this has taken heavy campaigning and in some areas assistance from development agencies to encourage take-up of broadband. It is easy to think BT Wholesale rolled out ADSL to thousands of exchanges quickly, but in the first four years of this millennium, there was a long process of campaigning with justification needed before money could be invested in enabling an exchange.
We agree with the BSG that the next couple of years are critical--The last 18 months have resulted in major changes to how the local loop is managed and the opportunities offered by 21CN are even greater. Without a clear path forward in terms of a national strategy, we will run the risk of still offering some standard of xDSL to households over a copper local loop that may be several kilometres long in 15 years' time. BT have talked publicly about the use of fibre and there are various trials around, but it seems while the technical people can show what is possible, until someone somewhere is willing to give a clear confirmation of funding, it will remain largely the domain of small trials, like ADSL was for a number of years in the UK which offered a 2Mbps ADSL service in 1998 to a select few.
Of course even if a company rolls out a faster broadband service, it may not necessarily mean much faster speeds if everyone is using it at the same time. In our last speed test round-up we calculated an average download speed of 2065Kbps on the BT Total Broadband service. Excluding users on older fixed speed services raises the average to 2350Kbps, still a long way from the headline speed of 8Mbps used in the marketing.
One fact of life that users need to accept, is if we the consumers want companies to give us faster broadband options we should be prepared to pay for them. Given the explosion in broadband demand as prices dropped into the £15-25 a month zone, there would seem to be little scope for firms marketing an ultra-fast broadband service for £40 or more, but this is the sort of price that new technology roll-outs may need to ensure any interest from those controlling the investment capital. One estimate mentioned for the cost of rolling out FTTH to 90% of UK households is 14 billion Euros.
Of course this talk of 10 to 50Mbps broadband is great, but the roll-out of a reliable broadband service is not complete in the UK, there are areas like E16 in London where some homes struggle to get a 0.25Mbps service. The numbers involved may only be in the region of 50,000 to 250,000 phone lines out of the 29 million in the UK, but the lack of commitment to resolving these issues from providers, BT and various levels of government do not bode well for what will happen as broadband speeds increase in the easy to service areas.