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Cameron pledges 10Mbps broadband for all by 2020 – too little, too late?

The Prime Minister wants every British home to be able to get download speeds of at least 10Mbps by 2020. But how will this actually happen and is it enough anyway? 

Since 2010, the UK government has spent millions on BDUK – Broadband Delivery for the UK – a scheme designed to bring the country’s communications networks up to speed for the 21st Century. 

The public-private partnership aims to make sure 95 per cent of UK premises will be able to get ‘superfast’ download speeds of at least 25Mbps by 2017, with those in the so-called ‘last five per cent’ making do with a basic service guaranteeing at least 2Mbps at all times. 

By the end of 2015, the government will have upped the current USO – the Universal Service Obligation level of service that incumbent provider BT is legally required to deliver everywhere – from a measly 28.8Kbps to 2Mbps. 

But 2Mbps is barely adequate in this day and age. That’s just about enough to get one Netflix stream working and not much else, hence why within the next five years, David Cameron wants to kick this up a notch to 10Mbps. This conveniently happens to be when the next general election is going to be held. 

10Mbps? SRSLY?

Will 10Mbps really be enough to meet the rising demands of 21st Century use? Defra and the Federation of Small Businesses seem to think so and have been consistently calling for the government to raise its benchmark speed game. 

Others are less sure that 10Mbps will even begin to be enough. Dana Tobak, managing director of gigabit broadband provider Hyperoptic, predicts that customers on next-gen services will get accustomed to streaming media instantly and would find it hard to go back to anything slower.  

Tobak said: “I was on Virgin’s 100Mbps service in the past, now I’m on [1,000Mbps]. Before when it’d take five minutes to download a movie or whatever it now takes a minute. Could I live by waiting an additional four minutes? I probably could! But now I’m used to stuff only taking a few seconds.”

Mai Fyfield, Sky’s chief strategy officer also thinks that the government can do better, saying in a press release: “This is a welcome initiative and fits with Sky’s belief that the UK needs to be more ambitious in its digital infrastructure. 

“However, it is unthinkable that government would hand an even bigger role to BT given problems with the current roll out, its history of poor service and the risk of declining competition.”

While BT has put superfast services within reach of over 80 per cent of British addresses, decent broadband access in the UK remains a postcode lottery. Due to the technical limitations of FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet), the technology behind most of these superfast connections, your speed will be greatly determined by the proximity of your house to one of those green cabinets. 

Virgin Media’s cable network now offers customers download speeds of up to 200Mbps, but it currently only passes around 12.5 million premises, less than half the number passed by BT’s near-nationwide Openreach network. 

As well as just catering for those with a need for speed, will 10Mbps be enough to cater for the needs of average customers in 2020 anyway? Should the USO be much higher? We think so. 

Enter Perseus: Slayer of gorgons, sea-beasts and minimum bandwidth requirements

This year we’ve seen BT launching the UK’s first 4K TV service, BT Sport Ultra HD. While this looks incredible and is obviously only available to folks who can afford to splash out on Ultra HD TVs, it’s also very bandwidth-hungry

In other words, if you live in an area where you can’t get a decent broadband connection, it doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got – even if you’re a well-to-do Hollywood screen actor, unless there’s superfast broadband coming in to your manor, you’re not going to be able to stream UEFA Champions League games in next-gen high definition.  

By 2020, the price of 4K tellies will have dropped to a such a level that people who aren’t lottery winners and Premier League footballers can afford them. But it’s unlikely that a 10Mbps connection will be enough to give you BT Sport Ultra HD or any of the 4K content currently available on Netflix or Amazon for that matter.  

It’s entirely possible that V-Nova’s Perseus software, which has successfully delivered live 4K video over a weedy 3G connection in trials could rectify this. But the testing of this software and that of rival company COGO, is still ongoing; there’s currently no indication if, let alone when, this kind of stuff will hit the market. 

As well as 4K streams, the ever-growing ‘Internet of Things’ markets of smart heaters, smart meters, kettles, cars and toasters also has the potential to place extra strain on already creaky connections. 

When all that’s said, the government hasn’t detailed exactly how it plans to acheive this state of 10Mbps for all nirvana, but BT reckons it’s got this covered. 

Does this mean that Ofcom isn’t going to break up BT?

David Cameron’s 10Mbps for all pledge makes for interesting reading in light of the ongoing strategic market review that’s being undertaken by telecoms regulator Ofcom. One possible outcome of this is that BT’s network arm Openreach could be separated from the rest of the company, something that rivals TalkTalk and Sky would obviously like to see happen. 

Almost certainly in anticipation of this, BT announced back in September that it would happily bump the universal minimum speed to around 5-10Mbps over the next five years, but only if ‘the right regulatory framework’ and ‘a collaborative effort across industry and government’ was in place. 

BT spokespeople reiterated this stance today, saying: “We welcome this announcement. As we said in September, we stand ready to work with government to help deliver faster minimum broadband speeds universally if the authorities make this commercially viable. We look forward to further detail and to consulting with government. 

“A supportive regulatory environment will be critical in order to make delivery of a faster universal service commercially viable, something we know ministers understand.”

The Prime Minister’s comments shouldn’t at all be taken as a clear sign that Ofcom will let BT to continue to exist as is. Current Ofcom head Sharon White is painted as someone keen to move fast and break things in this Guardian profile and fight a corner for the Great British Customer. 

When BT’s chief executive Gavin Paterson hinted at the decade of litigation that could follow in the wake of separating Openreach earlier this year, White coolly dismissed the threat, saying:  “I can’t say I’m easily intimidated. Our drive is what is going to be the best possible deal for the consumer.”

From a technical point of view, BT says that it’ll be able to put 5-10Mbps in reach of everyone with a combination of ADSL2+ lines, satellite broadband and something new called ‘long reach VDSL’. It’s unclear if BT would be happy to do this under its own steam, or whether ‘a collaborative effort’ means another public-private love in. 

If a new USO is negotiated between the government, Ofcom and BT, the company would be required to make that commitment, regardless of the shape of the company. 

Ofcom is expected to announce preliminary conclusions of its report by the end of the year. 


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