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Diversity in UK Broadband is here to stay

Posted on: August 29, 2017, by Nic Elliott

Copper line cabinet

We live in an age where there is more diversity in how you can get an internet connection that ever.

It’s partly because the technology continues to evolve and providers innovate, but its also because, here in the UK, we never actually finish a roll out to all of the country.

We started with dial up, where anyone with a phone line could get on the internet, and then embarked upon a series of projects which never actually completed, and started revealing how the way the BT network has grown over time has not fit how we come to expect broadband to be delivered.

19th century technology

Making a phone call on a copper wire (technology that has been around since the 19th century) has, if we are to simplify, no bearing on the length of your phone line. Obviously it is more complex than that, but I’m sure no one ever said to you “I’m going to have to talk slower because I live miles away from my telephone exchange”.

The advent of what has come to be known as broadband, or more correctly the group of connection options under the banner DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), changed all that.

Sweating the investment of copper lines already laid in the ground has been vitally important for BT.

The junction boxes in our area still bear the name P.O. from when it was Post Office Telecoms and not BT.Post Office TelecomsIf you can make copper continue to work without digging up every single cable, then it’s a change in economics that’s basically astronomical.

DSL is the cheap option, and it certainly wasn’t dreamed of when the Post Office installed the copper lines down this street.

But because it creates a digital signal over an analogue phone line, there are limitations.

Broadband doesn’t like distance

I think its still surprising, although is an indictment to the industry, that the idea that your location is the determining factor in how much bandwidth your line can deliver, is still not widely understood by the population.

In particular the distance from a network node (exchange for ADSL, cabinet for VDSL/FTTC and how it determines the throughput is a matter of pure physics, and one that isn’t going to change any time soon.

What BT (and, let’s be clear, lots of other incumbent providers the world over) have been doing is start to move the DSL hardware closer to the customer. This means that you start shortening that length of copper, while not having to dig as much fibre optic cable into the ground.

Shortening the copper line means increasing the bandwidth.

Copper isn’t going anywhere

But copper is here to stay, and the so-called digital divide is just going to get wider.

The latest incarnation of DSL is termed G.fast. It’s designed so that even shorter runs of copper give even greater bandwidths.

It’s designed so that it can mounted in a small remote node and distributed widely, getting closer to subscriber properties and so reduce the amount of copper.

But that isn’t what BT are doing. They are merely upgrading their existing green cabinets with G.fast DSLAMs.

By only upgrading the current cabinet infrastructure, they will only be improving the broadband of those customers closest to them.

If you already get FTTC that’s 10mbps (not the blistering 80mbps that is advertised), then if your cabinet gets upgraded to support G.fast, you will see absolutely no improvement.

And if the roll outs of ADSL2+ and FTTC are anything to go by, then G.fast won’t be put everywhere.

In fact I’m betting that less cabinets will be upgraded than were in the FTTC roll out.

So copper broadband is here to stay, and for all those who won’t have access to FTTC or G.fast at meaningful bandwidths, combining multiple connections together is the only viable way of improving that.

Make the most of diverse broadband connections

We can use this diversity to our advantage though. EFM, FTTP, Ethernet, along with metro scale Wi-Fi can all contribute to a bespoke range of connectivity options.

EFM for upload, ADSL for superior download.

FTTP is great for high bandwidths on the download, but multiple FTTCs can beat it on the upload.

We’ll always bond any technology that comes along, and certainly copper is going to play a vital role in the delivery of broadband in the UK for some time to come. We might as well use as much of it as we can.

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