De-mystifying broadband…and what happens next
There’s been a lot of talk in the press over the past few weeks about UK Government’s plans for the future of telecommunications. A key element of this strategy for connectivity is improving the availability and performance of broadband services. However, before we get on to talking about this, it makes sense to run through an explanation of what ‘broadband’ actually means.
Back in the ‘olden days’, before Facebook was a thing, you know, when people actually used to talk to each other at the dinner table, your connection to the internet was delivered via a dial-up connection – which generally meant lots of bleeping noises and web pages taking an age to load. Move forward a few years, and telecom operators started rolling out faster internet services based on a new technology called Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line or ‘ADSL’ for short. ADSL and it’s slightly faster offspring ‘ADSL+’ continue to be account for ‘not very broadband’ services for many subscribers. With ADSL/ADLS+ service maximum download speeds are limited to 8Mbps and 24Mbps respectively. Furthermore, in common with the old dial-up services, ADSL and ADSL+ are delivered over the ‘POTS’ or plain old telephone system, using copper wire, but with something called a DSLAM (Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexer) installed in the telephone exchange. Connection speed is severely limited by this rather antiquated wire network, in part due to the fact that the signal passing down the line weakens (attenuates) over distance. So the further your home or business is from the telephone exchange and the green Street Cabinet, the worse your internet connection speed is likely to be. According to UK telecom regulator Ofcom, ASDL/ADSL+ still account for more than 40% of broadband services in use today. ADSL technology has been improved further with the introduction of VDSL technologies (Very High Bit-rate Digital Subscriber Line), but the signal from the telephone exchange attenuates even more quickly than with ADSL, which means that beyond 300m from the exchange performance drops off significantly.
The great hope for increasing performance is fibre optics. In simple terms this means that the data being transmitted is travelling at high-speed through a glass fibre rather than via a copper wire. The big advantage with fibre is the the signal does not attenuate (weaken) over distance, and is not subject to interference either, so performance is greatly improved. Today, BT’s domestic fibre broadband service is called ‘Infinity’ and it’s generally a lot quicker that the ADSL services, with peak downlink speeds in the region of 46 Mbps.
However, all is not as it seems, as there are actually different types of fibre broadband service available. At the present time, the majority of BT Infinity subscribers are utilising something called ‘FTTC’ or ‘fibre to the cabinet’ – which is sub-optimal because the fibre bit of the network only extends from the telephone exchange to the street cabinet, with last leg to the home being delivered over copper wire. Compare this to full-fibre or ‘FTTP’ (fibre to the premises), where the connection from exchange to street cabinet and from cabinet to home are both running over fibre optic cable. Maximum downlink throughput speeds for FTTC are typically in the 40Mbps to 80Mpbs range, whereas FTTP offers maximum speeds in the range of 100Mbps to 300Mbps range. Virgin Media’s cable broadband ‘up to 200Mbps’ offering is an example of a alternative hybrid offering, where fibre optic cable runs up to the premises, but the very last leg, i.e. from the little box on the outside of the home/business is actually coaxial cable. Virgin Media’s Project Lightning is intended to increase availability of full-fibre FTTP services.
As an enhancement to existing FTTC services, where the last leg is delivered over ADSL or VDSL services, BT is rolling out a new technology called G.Fast. The term FTTdp (Fibre To The distribution point) is commonly associated with G.fast. Deployment scenarios involving G.fast are intially focused on bringing fibre closer to the customer (within 250m) than traditional FTTC, via a ‘distribution point’. These can be positioned in a number of ways, for example in a mini-cabinet, under a manhole or perhaps on a pole. G.Fast technology has the potential to increase peak downlink speeds from 80Mbps with FTTC to around 300Mbps.
The UK Government’s Department for Digital, Communication, Media & Sport (DCMS) July 2018 ‘Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review’ (FTIR) focused heavily on the delivery of fibre-based broadband services and called for 15 million premises to be connectable via full fibre broadband by 2025, while targeting nationwide coverage by 2033. According to the Financial Times, citing a letter sent to customers of BT’s Openreach network unit, BT is aiming to upgrade 5.7 million copper lines to G.Fast over the next couple of years. During the same timeframe, Openreach is seeking to connect three million premises with full fibre connectivity.
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