For over half a century, Milton Keynes has been a proving ground for new technologies. This was the first place in the UK to introduce dedicated public transport busways, the first to receive a multiplex cinema, and the first to host an active solar house. And today, Milton Keynes is becoming the first city to boast a comprehensive rollout of full fibre broadband.
Until recently, residents in north Carlisle enjoyed the UK’s fastest average broadband speeds. Their crown has now been switched from Cumbria to Buckinghamshire, with residents of Milton Keynes receiving gigabit fibre broadband services courtesy of Vodafone. Businesses are also able to tap into a 162km fibre network extending beneath the city, while another enthusiastic recipient is the headquarters of one of Milton Keynes’ other national innovations – the Open University.
So what is gigabit fibre broadband?
To accomplish speeds of 1,000Mbps, several elements are required. Foremost among these is a fibre broadband infrastructure extending up to individual buildings, which isn’t always as straightforward as it sounds. Historically, high-speed connections would terminate at the local telephone exchange – a green cabinet on the pavement. Old-fashioned copper cabling then took over en route to individual properties, in a process known as Fibre to the Cabinet, or FTTC. However, copper cabling is an inefficient data transfer material. The end result has always been disappointingly slow domestic speeds, regardless of how quickly data was being piped to and from the exchange.
Extending high-speed cabling directly into homes and offices is known as Fibre to the Premises, or FTTP. By eliminating the throttling effect of copper wiring, it maintains a consistent speed between server and screen. Gigabit fibre broadband goes from a theoretical possibility to a matter of public record. But what does it all mean in reality?
Using gigabit fibre broadband
The first difference you’ll notice with a gigabit connection is its smoothness. Streaming media content doesn’t start displaying in a pixellated low-resolution format before gradually improving in quality, rather it instantly displays in the highest resolution available. There is also very little latency – the delay between issuing a command and a response occurring. Latency of just 50 milliseconds is enough to scupper online gameplay, but ultrafast broadband effectively eliminates it as an issue.
Powerful internet connectivity brings other benefits, too. It means every member of a family could stream the same content simultaneously, without any buffering or crashing. It’s capable of underpinning numerous Internet of Things devices, which are increasingly reliant on wifi connections to perform online functions. Home working is easier to justify (and complete) if internet connections are delivering lag-free video conferencing and seamless access to cloud-hosted documentation. And thanks to the law of unintended consequences, gigabit broadband reduces pressure on local 4G networks, as people learn to rely more on their hardwired connections. This makes it easier to use mobile data when out and about.
The mobile challenge
While 4G users will benefit from less pressure on their networks, it’s ironic that the forthcoming 5G infrastructure might ultimately render broadband redundant. Potentially a thousand times faster than the current generation of mobile communications, 5G is designed to maintain always-on connectivity. Conventional cell towers will be joined by a huge array of smaller satellite transponders, ensuring there are no blackspots or gaps in network coverage. And if it’s possible to access data as fast as we’ll ever need it without wires, why continue bolting telephone sockets to the walls of our homes or installing expensive subterranean cable networks? Milton Keynes residents would probably be delighted not to have any more roads and pavements dug up.
Nevertheless, the rollout of ultra-fast broadband is continuing across the UK. As part of its commitment to make FTTP available to ten million homes and businesses by 2022, the Government recently launched a voucher scheme worth £67 million. Employers and residents will receive help towards the cost of connecting to FTTP. A separate £400 million Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund is encouraging firms like Hyperoptic and Gigaclear to invest in full fibre networks; the latter recently achieved broadband speeds of up to 900Mbps. For anyone used to sluggish FTTC infrastructure, such performance will feel revelatory.
Incredibly, gigabit broadband is only the beginning. Earlier this year, Hyperoptic established a 10Gbps connection speed in a test property in East London’s former Olympic Village. Clearly, no home (or business) has any need for such staggering connection speeds at present. But with consumer analysis suggesting average UK internet data usage increases by 50 per cent every year, 10Gbps connections are at least future-proof. After all, in the age of dial-up internet, even the forward-thinking residents of Milton Keynes wouldn’t have foreseen 4K video streaming being piped down their phone lines…