The Plan to Fix Britain's Worst Broadband Speeds

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Over 90 per cent of the UK can now order superfast broadband delivering speeds of 24Mbps or more. By the end of 2017, 95 per cent of the UK should be able to order such speeds. This leaves five per cent of homes stuck in the digital dark ages.

Stuck in the slow lane

Of the 28 million residential properties in the UK, around 1.5 million risk being left behind. The 2-3 million people in those households will find it harder to apply for jobs online, access online video, and keep in contact with distant friends and relatives. They'll also find it harder to access essential government services, as these services switch over to becoming digital by default.

Snail paced speeds

Under the previous Universal Service Obligation, the government designated 2Mbps as the minimum speed that households and businesses should be able to request. However, average speeds have improved since then, and people's expectations have risen, so the government is planning to raise the USO from 2Mb to 10Mb.

This will have a significant impact. Nearly 2.4 million premises are unable to order 10Mb connections, according to research released by Ofcom in late 2015. More than half of the homes affected are in rural areas.

Long-reach VDSL to the rescue?

Upgrading telecoms networks so that ALL of these 2.4 million properties can receive higher speeds is extremely expensive. However, for many of these properties there's likely to be an affordable, relatively painless way to improve their broadband speeds: deploy long-reach VDSL.

Most 'fibre broadband' providers are really selling a hybrid product that relies upon a mix of fibre optic cabling (from the local telephone exchange to a green box in the street) and copper cabling (from a green box to the home of the customer). The technology used over the copper phone lines is called VDSL2.

VDSL2 is largely used on short bits of copper phone line. But it can be used on longer wires too, replacing ADSL2+ and improving broadband speeds in the process.

Trials are currently taking place to figure out the practicalities of deploying VDSL2 on these longer lines. If these trials go as well as expected, it's likely that many areas adversely affected by slow broadband speeds will be able to order a faster service from early 2017.

Alternative options – satellite, mobile, community broadband

However, long-reach VDSL isn't going to be able to help everyone. What about the homes and businesses that are too far away from their local telephone exchange to benefit from it? There's hope for them yet.

The Government is looking at alternative options, including subsidising Satellite broadband, boosting rural mobile coverage, and making it easier for local community groups to set up their own rural ISPs. 

Some of the latter (like B4rn) install genuine fibre broadband using the labour of volunteers. Others install a high-bandwidth connection to a central location then use that bandwidth to offer a wireless Internet service to homes and businesses in the surrounding area.

The 10Mb universal service obligation isn't here yet

Minister Ed Vaizey expects the new 10Mb Universal Service Obligation to be introduced "towards the end of 2017 or 2018," even though the legislation to underpin the new USO is expected to become law in late 2016. There are pragmatic reasons for the delay.

BT's infrastructure division Openreach currently has its hands full extending its roll-out of FTTC from 90% of households to 95% by the end of 2017. This Government-subsidised project will eliminate around half of the UK's remaining broadband not-spots. If the new USO were to be introduced too soon, it could interfere with that important project.

The trials of long-reach VDSL also need to be completed before the new USO is introduced. The trials are expected to run for many months, so that problems can be ironed out prior to a large-scale commercial roll-out.

10Mb is just the beginning

The Government says its ambition is for "the minimum speed for a USO to be 10Mbps, which we will look to raise over time.”

The Business Secretary has already announced a review into business broadband, which will look at the speeds businesses will need in the future. With urban areas in the UK set to see broadband speeds of 300Mbps over the next decade, pressure will grow for the Government to improve the broadband speeds available elsewhere.

MPs are already getting restless. Early in 2016, 120 MPs (out of 650) signed an open letter demanding that far more be done to improve Britain's broadband speeds. For now, the Government is resisting this pressure, allowing Openreach to focus on finishing the 95% roll out of FTTC 'fibre broadband' and the introduction of long-reach VDSL.

This temporary period of indulgence is unlikely to last. By the time the new 10Mb USO finally arrives, there will be considerable political pressure on the Government to do more.

The Government has indicated that it intends to set the 10mb level in secondary legislation, not primary legislation, so the 10Mb figure to be easily changed. Adjusting the USO could become the default way Governments 'do something' about broadband speeds, without having to pick up the full bill themselves.

Next step, fibre?

Over the next few years, most of the homes and businesses with Britain's worst broadband speeds will be celebrating their new, faster connections. But they may not be celebrating for long.

Many of these improvements have come from figuring out ways to send more data over decades-old copper cabling. Such improvements are welcome, but mean that the speeds offered are approaching hard limits set by Physics. Further improvements may require a switch to wireless broadband or wired fibre-optic based services. The former tend to have patchy availability, variable speeds and low data transfer quotas. The latter can be expensive to install, and most people who require higher broadband speeds simply can't afford to pay thousands of pounds to install fibre-optic services.

For the rest of Britain the picture is brighter. Many areas are likely to benefit, eventually, from G.fast bringing download speeds of up to 300Mbps. In some cities, the density is high enough that fibre-based network rollouts may be economically feasible. These will offer a step-change in broadband speeds.

Fixing 'slow' broadband is a never ending story

Improving Britain's broadband speeds is a job that never ends.

512kbps used to be the standard broadband connection speed, but before long 'up to 8Mbps' rate-adaptive ADSL took its place.

ADSL2 was introduced, offering speeds of 'up to 24Mbps,' in theory if not always in practice.

FTTC was rolled out to much of the country, delivering speeds of 'up to 40Mbps.'

FTTC2 followed, offering 'up to 80Mbps' in some places.

It's easy to assume that the next broadband speed boost will be the last. That it will finally offer more than enough bandwidth. A lot of people will be looking at the G.fast trials and wondering whether they will ever need 300Mbps.

Yet, as users, we always find a use for more bandwidth. A connection that was once considered fast quickly becomes tolerably slow. The supply of bandwidth seems to create its own demand.

This never-ending race for higher speeds affects cities and suburban areas directly. Other areas of the country benefit indirectly, as politicians feel the need to stop the rest of Britain being left too far behind. They hand out anywhere from a few hundred million pounds to a few billion to subsidise broadband upgrades that would otherwise be commercially unviable.

Five years later, the whole process begins again. So fixing Britain's worst broadband speeds is a job that will never end. And that's a good thing.

Each rise in speed opens up new opportunities. From banking online, to working remotely, chatting with friends via FaceTime, to streaming Netflix's House of Cards, more bandwidth enriches our lives.

Fixing Britain's worst broadband speeds involves a lot of work, but it's an investment that's likely to be worth making.

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