Where did broadband come from? And where is it going?
It seems a long time since the nation’s homes echoed to the high-pitched screeches of data being transmitted down a phone line en route to a dial-up modem. Ofcom reported recently that 97% of UK residents now have access to broadband of at least 2Mbit/s following a 2009 UK Government commitment that this should be a minimum speed for every property in the country. Three quarters of the population could adopt superfast broadband (over 30Mbit/s) if they wish, while a combination of fixed and wireless technologies are being rolled out to provide the next generation of ultrafast broadband.
It’s interesting to note that 27% of UK households don’t actually have a broadband connection, yet 95% have mobile phones. That suggests many people are willing to make do with their local network coverage. Many elderly people have yet to establish any domestic internet access, while residents of isolated communities in Scotland and Wales will be among the last to receive a broadband connection worthy of the name. By the time they do, urban regions may be two generations ahead, with today’s superfast broadband giving way to tomorrow’s ultrafast connections.
Ultrafast broadband is defined as delivering speeds of one gigabit per second, which requires something called FTTP,or Fibre to the Premises. This replaces conventional copper cables with fibre connections that can deliver more data than consumers will ever need. By this point, however, broadband will be facing increasingly stiff competition from the next generation of wireless networks, hence BT’s recent purchase of EE. The surviving O2 and Vodafone brands would happily create a world with no landline or broadband access, although at least BT’s biggest rival – Virgin Media – has a vested interest in broadband. This is because Virgin Media is a keen exponent of quad-play packages, combining landline, mobile, broadband and TV services into a single package.
On the subject of mobile networks, the impending arrival of 5G at the start of the next decade may render much of today’s broadband infrastructure irrelevant. If you can download a 4K movie onto your tablet within a couple of seconds through the 5G network, why bother with clunky Ethernet cables and hardwired devices at all? Research is already underway to establish whether domestic 5G connections could completely supplant any fixed connection to domestic premises. In these circumstances, the Government’s pledge that 95 per cent of us should be able to get broadband speeds over 24Mbit/s by 2017 doesn’t seem the technological revolution it once promised to be.
Perhaps of more immediate relevance is the fact that broadband speeds are unlikely to ever match the speeds quoted by their suppliers. Message boards and consumer magazines are awash with people complaining that advertised download speeds grossly overestimate what can actually be achieved, since only ten per cent of customers need to attain a certain speed for it to be advertised. Upload speeds are even worse – an average of 3Mbit/s compared to a download speed that’s typically almost eight times faster. Rapid upload times are insignificant for certain aspects of internet usage, but woe betide anyone trying to save a large file to the cloud or have a Skype conversation (where upload and download speeds need to be equal).
So what does the future hold for the UK’s broadband sector? There’s unlikely to be a revolution equivalent to 4G mobile networks supplanting 3G, although the oft-discussed Internet of Things will require far more dependable connections than have hitherto been provided. Anyone who’s sat and watched their BT Home Hub lazily flashing orange will know that the always-on culture we’ve been promised remains a distant prospect. Until ultrafast broadband becomes widely available, it may be customer service (rather than speed) that provides the greatest area of competition among broadband providers. In recent customer satisfaction results, less than 70 per cent of people were willing to recommend their existing broadband supplier and a third of EE customers described their connection as unreliable.
Rather than racing to deliver 5G-rivalling speeds, it seems most of us simply want our broadband suppliers to get the basics right. A stable and dependable always-on broadband connection could help to persuade people not to depend solely on a fluctuating mobile network signal for data access in future.