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Progress. It’s what we all work for and it seems there was quite a lot of it last year in terms of broadband availability. ADSL coverage increased by 1% nationally, while FTTC saw a 6% increase and FTTP coverage grew by 1.7%. It’s no surprise that FTTC – or superfast broadband in layman’s terms – saw the biggest increase given that the Government is quickly coming up on its self-imposed deadline of 95% coverage by the end of this year.

The question now is of course where BDUK and BT will look to upgrade cabinets in order to achieve their 95% coverage target. The logical answer is that they’ll focus on the low-hanging fruit – that is cabinets that are easy and therefore more cost effective to upgrade than those requiring lots of engineering works. This will likely mean that the focus remains on urban and semi-rural locations, leaving those in the countryside to wither on a sub-par service until the Universal Service Obligation (USO) gives them something a little better – if they request it and it won’t cost too much to provision… As you can see from our infographic ‘Connectivity in the UK’, Ofcom’s Connected Nations Report 2016 says that there are 1.4m premises in the UK that can’t currently access a minimum speed of 10Mbps, the proposed minimum threshold speed of the USO.14% of these – or 200,000 premises – are small to medium-sized businesses and 69% (that’s 960,000 buildings) are in rural locations.

BT steps up…
Ofcom has submitted it’s advice to Government on ‘Achieving decent broadband connectivity for everyone’, but the programme is still being pondered by MPs. BT Openreach has been the only infrastructure provider to step forward to provide the necessary infrastructure, which it claims can be done without any public funds.

This is uncharacteristic of the incumbent. The approach typically taken by infrastructure providers in planning service rollouts – BT Openreach in the case of standard and superfast broadband; Virgin for cable and the likes of Gigaclear and Hyperoptic for ultrafast services – is to favour potential profits to keep shareholders happy, rather than to consider egalitarian principles of society, something that we discussed in our blog last year ‘5 truths about the broadband rollout’.

…And reverts to type
Behaviour more typical of Openreach is their approach to achieving ultrafast speeds using G.Fast, which they claim can deliver speeds of 500Mbps in the aggregate and can be rolled out to 10 million premises by 2020. G.Fast uses Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) technology (that’s copper to you and me), so is in effect an enhanced FTTC product. As such it will be subject to the same issues that come hand-in-hand with both FTTP and FTTC services. In addition to running on a contended backhaul, speeds will also vary according to loop length whereby faster speeds can only be achieved on shorter loop lengths. This means that almost no-one will achieve the speeds that have been reached under lab conditions – where the DSLAM was at the user end with very little copper involved – versus the real-world implementation where the distance between the premise and the cabinet has a significant effect on what is possible. And when you consider that the speeds quoted are “in the aggregate”, it seems that BT are really trying to embellish the facts. Although we concede that “500Mbps in the aggregate” does sound a lot better than “up to 500Mbps minus whatever the upstream is, depending on the loop length”. Vodafone recently threw their tuppence worth into the conversation on G.Fast, saying that it “will only help about 5% of country” and that the Government should back a fibre-based infrastructure in order to keep up with international counterparts.

Keeping up with the Johansen’s
Although BT is focused on G.Fast, it has started a modest further rollout of FTTP (see infographic) and not just to say that it has invested in fibre. We’re all using more data (2016 saw an increase in average monthly downloads of 132Gb from 97Gb in 2015) and require ever greater download speeds to keep up – and BT can’t afford to put all of their eggs in the G.Fast basket. (You could argue that having access to greater speeds (average download speeds last year were 37Mbps, up from 29Mbps the year before) is driving up the amount of data we’re consuming, but we’ll leave that to you to debate…) Whilst by “connectorising” rather than custom splicing each FTTP connection, Openreach are exploring whether the cost and lead time of delivering FTTP can be reduced; looking at the figures in our infographic, we don’t expect a vastly increased roll out any time soon, likely leaving the UK behind its European cousins.

Have your say
What do you think about the state of our broadband? Do you think BT is right to sweat its existing copper assets, or do you think that fibre is the future? Are you a business or domestic user in a so-called ‘not spot’ – do you think the USO will help you? Whatever your view, please leave a comment in the box below.

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