The race to 1Gb broadband

July 5th, 2022
The race to 1Gb broadband

With more and more of our work and leisure activities dependent on reliable access to the Internet, there is a big drive underway, backed by the government, to make fast connections available everywhere. While obviously there is a profit motive for telecom companies, the government is also backing the upgrades with hard cash. The reason is that connectivity has become a vital part of our national infrastructure. According to the OFCOM ‘Connected Nations’ report [1], in 2016 the average household downloaded 132GB of data per month but in 2019 it was 315GB and in 2020, 429GB. Since the lockdowns it has grown even faster and become essential for work, leisure, shopping, education, banking and even government itself.

For mobile phones, the latest technology is 5G but for laptops, desktops and other equipment that can use a wired connection, the fastest technology available is called FTTP or “fibre to the premises”. Strictly speaking, FTTP means using fibre optic cable all the way from your ISP’s exchange straight into the devices in your home. In practice, if you then connect your devices to your router by wireless or Ethernet, you will only have clean FTTP as far as your router but that is a good start.

At the moment, most consumers have FTTC connections, which stands for “fibre to the cabinet”. The ‘cabinet’ means the green metal boxes installed in a street somewhere near your home. We often walk past them without even noticing: they were previously used for wiring domestic telephone connections into the main cable carrying telephone signals to the old BT/GPO telephone exchange buildings (and some still are). FTTC means that although most cabinets are now connected to the exchanges by fibre optic, the run from the cabinet to your house is still telephone wiring (2 pole copper).

Technically these cabinets and their wired networks are still the property of BT but running them has been divested to a daughter company called Openreach which is required by OFCOM to make them equally available to any internet provider. Some of those providers – such as PlusNet and EE – have been absorbed into the BT Group while others are independent but can still use the same wiring to reach you. However, this network is not the only one in town (or at least most towns).

Virgin Media have inherited control of an extensive network that began to be installed in the 1990s mainly to deliver cable television. You may remember ‘Diamond Cable’ ploughing up our streets? After a number of mergers and buy-outs, Diamond Cable became part of NTL and NTL became Virgin Media. Much of this network was built from fibre optic cable from the outset but large parts are still using coaxial (“aerial cable”).

Both Virgin Media and Openreach (and some smaller companies) are busy upgrading and extending these networks in order to reach more people, offer higher speeds and cope with the growth in data traffic.

What is 1GB Broadband?

1GB Broadband – or Gigabit Broadband – is the name the industry has adopted to describe the new very fast connections their networks are making available. Note that although you will often see it printed “1GB” this is fundamentally incorrect – the correct abbreviation for a ‘gigabit’ is Gb (or Gbit) not GB which stands for gigabyte and would be a lot faster if it were true. Still, “Gigabit Broadband” is blisteringly fast – it means your connection can deliver a billion bits of data, or 125MB (megabytes), every second. It should really be abbreviated “1Gbps” – one gigabit per second. To put it in context, the average broadband speed we are currently receiving in the UK is just 80Mbps.

Several recent industry reports highlight the fact that most consumers do not understand the meaning of the jargon or the numbers that broadband providers use when advertising their broadband packages. One of them, commissioned by CityFibre [2], specifically examined whether consumers understood the packages they were already paying for. 80% of those who said they had “full fibre” packages (FTTP) lived in areas where full fibre is not even available yet. 35% thought that “Superfast Broadband” gives speeds in excess of 250Mbps when actually it can mean as little as just 30Mbps. The report warned that the lack of consumer understanding of broadband terms and specifications could hamper their uptake of the new faster packages as they become available.

Following other recent investigations, OFCOM was forced to intervene over how the Broadband providers have been describing the connection speeds of the packages they offer. They discovered (as almost everyone knew already) that customers do not consistently receive the speeds they signed up for. This was not so much dishonesty by deception as dishonesty by omission because the ISPs neglected to explain that every connection is subject to traffic constraints. When there is too much traffic on the cables your signal must travel down, the congestion slows it. Those who live far from their nearest street cabinet or from the exchange are more likely to suffer from congestion than those who live close, and the ISP often intervenes to limit access at peak hours. In future, ISPs have to quote a likely average speed rather than the maximum speed theoretically achievable. Although the networks are being upgraded to carry more traffic, these limitations will apply to “gigabit” packages too.

As well as the term “Superfast”, you may also see “Ultrafast” and “Hyperfast”. Ultrafast is supposed to denote connections capable of over 300Mbps, but because the companies are now supposed to quote the probable average rather than the maximum speed, an “Ultrafast” package may be accompanied by a figure of just 200Mbps. This does little to make what is being offered clear to the average consumer. Similarly, there is consensus that “Hyperfast” can be applied to packages capable of over 500Mbps and “Gigabit” to those capable of reaching 1Gbps but neither is a guaranteed speed and you need to pay attention to all the terms and conditions.

How much speed do you need?

Apart from a few unfortunate locations in distant parts of the country, even the slowest packages today allow you to stream a movie – which is a data-hungry activity. However, the lowest tier packages begin to stumble if two different users are trying to stream different movies at the same time – especially during the peak hours (approximately 7pm to 11pm on weekdays). It will also struggle if you want to stream a movie in HD resolution to a big screen TV or if you like to play a demanding interactive online game.

For businesses, website backups can be virtually impossible without a fast connection and of course the more employees you have using Cloud resources, the greater your speed and bandwidth requirements will become. Whether you are a domestic or business user, the main benefits of a fast connection might include the following:

  • Higher network reliability when operating multiple devices simultaneously
  • Smooth streaming of videos in high resolution (eventually 8K UHD and 3D)
  • Better-quality video conferences and video calls
  • Responsiveness when playing big interactive games
  • The ability to download and upload large files – such as website updates and backups
  • Support for Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality (VR and AR)
  • The possibility of hosting websites or streaming services from your own computer

Even if you have no need for additional speed at present, the new technologies that are fast approaching may change your mind. As we mentioned above, “1GB Broadband” makes delivering movies and television in higher resolution possible and the future may also see a move to 3D. If the whole media industry begins to embrace these standards, there could come a day when you cannot access TV or watch a streamed movie without a faster connection. The broadcasting industry is convinced there will soon be a demand for 4K UHD television. 4K has four times as many pixels as current HD TV sets. Sky, Netflix, YouTube and BT have already committed to providing content at that resolution and the iPhone 6 and Samsung S6 can already record it.

Another thing that might simply become the social norm is video-calling. Tomorrow’s smart TVs will incorporate cameras making video calls to friends, family and colleagues the default. Web browsing experiences could change forever when faster networks make it easy to deliver immersive VR and AR environments directly into your home or to your mobile device.

Operating your own computer as an internet server is not something most people have thought about – we usually lease web hosting space from third party data centres. It has always been possible but in practice, the connection between your computer and the ISP has been the main bottleneck. The reason is that web pages must be delivered very fast to the visitor’s browser and your bandwidth has to cope with traffic surges. A gigabit connection makes it practical and there are many advantages such as the ease of performing updates, making backups, editing the code, writing your own software and protecting your website’s security.

Until recently, the messages and documents we exchanged over the internet were all basically text. Faster connections allowed more pictures, and then actual videos. Today, few people visit text-based news sites but millions frequent vlogger channels on YouTube and other platforms. As a result, content creation is undergoing a revolution. All media (news, movies, documentaries) used to be created by big telecom companies such as the BBC and the public just had to watch but today anyone can become a creator and upload their own material. Most creators are entertaining, many become famous and a few have become rich. The shift from text to video is likely to continue and even more of us will want to create this video material for which a fast connection will be important.

Another incentive could come from operating system suppliers such as Microsoft: in fact, Microsoft was the main driver of computer upgrades for more than two decades – by supplying heavier operating systems and dropping support for older ones. We aren’t sure why computers need ever more bloated operating systems but despite attempts to roll them back (Linux) Microsoft Windows is still calling the shots. Windows 11 makes your private devices even more dependent on a reliable connection.

In case you are still not convinced, the government is planning a “Gigabit Voucher Scheme” that will subsidise both private customers and businesses – especially in rural areas – to install a new faster connection to their premises. Those whose line currently supports less than 100Mbps will get priority. Many households can get up to £1,500 towards the cost while businesses can get £3,500 [3].

Availability

Originally the UK government promised that Gigabit Broadband would be available to every home in Britain by 2025 and BT backed up that view – almost – by predicting that “Hyperfast” would be available almost everywhere by 2025. They have since backpedalled somewhat from that promise.

“Gigabit” and “Hyperfast” Broadband are already available in many areas with packages offered by both BT and Virgin Media, however, the first thing you will need to check is whether those packages are available in your own area. You can do this easily on Free Price Compare (https://freepricecompare.com/broadband/). Inevitably, some geographical areas will have full access before others, and even if your city is on the priority list, it does not mean that every neighbourhood of that city will have access at the same time. Some of the first scheduled to go online are parts of Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Cumbria, Dorset, Durham, Essex, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Tees Valley.

Followed soon after by Norfolk, Shropshire, Suffolk, Worcestershire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

During a BBC Today programme in 2020, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden implied that installing Gigabit access would never be commercially viable for 20% of the country which is why a government fund has been set up to extend it further. So far, the government has stopped short of promising it will ever be available to everyone regardless of where they live. Of the £5 billion fund they originally promised to help build the new networks, only £1.2billion has so far been earmarked for delivery before 2024 [4].

In addition, there is a big difference between having access to Gigabit service and having a choice of provider. Currently, the two main networks have just a 6% overlap which at the moment means that only about 1% of UK homes can choose equivalent packages from two or more providers. That number will expand greatly in coming years. Other companies are also busy building fibre optic networks, including Hyperoptic, Gigaclear and Community Fibre.

Gigaclear is noteworthy in that their packages offer equal upload and download speeds while almost all other companies – BT, EE, Virgin Media – have always provided a much greater download than upload speed. This is of growing importance because activities such as video conferencing, video calls, content creation and website management make equal or greater demand on your upload speed. This is definitely something to consider when choosing your package.

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