The future of broadband

Synopsis:

Published in early 2006, this feature looks at the current state of the broadband market in the UK, and what new developments can be expected over the coming months and years.

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Broadband is fast; ask anyone who's just made the switch from a dialup connection, and they'll be full of enthusiasm. If you've been using it for a little longer, you might have forgotten quite how great the change is. But things move on in the internet world, and there's an ever growing stream of announcements about Broadband, with companies like Wanadoo offering bundles that include home phone calls, Sky making an offer for Easynet, more and more firms announcing their plans for connections of over 20Mbps - a far cry from the 512k that BT thought most home users would be happy with when they launched their ADSL service at the turn of the century.

Even now, in some areas of the country it's hard to get connected to even a basic broadband service, so how are some firms offering speeds forty times as fast? And is there a catch? What's the benefit of these superfast speeds for the ordinary user - is it simply a way to download the next mammoth Service Pack for Windows in record time, or are there exciting new ways to use broadband on the horizon?

The story so far

Before looking at where broadband is going, it's important to understand how we got to where we are now. Leaving aside cable TV-based services, which are only available to a relatively small number of people in the UK, broadband largely relies on one company - British Telecom. They own the network of phone lines that links just about every building in the country; though there have been a small number of firms operating networks in areas like the City of London, by and large, if you want a wire to come into your building, it's going to be provided by BT; their cables are there, under the street, and few other people have the resources to dig up roads and lay fibre or copper cables unless they know there's a guaranteed profit at the end of it. So, for ADSL to appear in the UK, it had to be provided over BT's existing network.

To enable competition to happen, as well as providing a service itself, BT offers a wholesale ADSL product, which other companies then resell, either as a more or less identical carbon copy, or changing features - providing web space, or limited capacity, to differentiate their services. But at the core of it all is the BT network, offering a choice of three speeds - 512k, 1Mb and 2Mb - and two contention ratios, 20:1 and 50:1. That looks decidedly conservative, when other companies are now offering 20Mb connections, but there is arguably some sense in BT's technological conservatism, in that they can offer most of their services to most of the country; while it's still tricky in some rural areas - not least because ADSL technology itself depends on distance from the nearest exchange - it causes fewer headaches than if BT were to offer superfast connections in some areas, but not others, or offer services that might be unreliable on longer rural lines.

A new hope

If much of the UK's ADSL service is built on BT's network, how do other companies provide different speeds, contention ratios and other options? The answer is Local Loop Unbundling, or LLU It means, simply, that other companies have the right to request access to the wires that lead into your home or office, and to connect to them in your local phone exchange; they don't need to dig up the street, and you're no longer stuck with BT for access to high speed internet services. After a bit of a rocky start, with many companies complaining that BT was making it hard for them to participate in LLU as fully as they'd like, that's changing. Firstly, BT is reorganising, so that the local network is a separate company, which should deal with the rest of BT on the same terms as it does with other companies, and secondly the possibility of offering new and improved services over the network is encouraging more companies to invest in LLU, and on a much wider scale than before.

With first generation ADSL, while BT may have been conservative in the services it offered, it wasn't that conservative - the technologies that make TV over broadband - see box - weren't as well developed as they are now, and the chief interest was in picking off the most lucrative business and high spending home customers for broadband internet services, so LLU typically happened in wealthy city areas, where investing in equipping a single exchange could net a company a reasonable return.

Now, though, there are other reasons to invest. Not only should the changes to BT's structure make it easier for companies to connect up to the local loop, but new technologies make it potentially more lucrative.

One of the most obvious of those is Voice over IP (VoIP), something with which regular PCW readers will be familiar, but probably it's not itself enough of a reason for companies to invest. BT itself is planning a major network overhaul to built what's called 21CN - the 21st Century Network - which will be based on IP technologies. In essence, instead of ADSL piggybacking on a voice line, your voice phone service will be just one service provided via the internet connection.

Although none of the LLU operators is - yet - running a VoIP service, many of them are offering to route your phone calls through their networks; France Telecom's Wanadoo - shortly to take on the Orange moniker - is one of the most prominent, and is aiming to provide LLU-based services to exchanges service 40% of the population within the next 12 months.

With their unbundled service, Wanadoo will be offering speeds of 8Mbs, in line with many other LLU providers, who have been steadily upping the speeds available over ADSL, but from next spring it's likely that you won't need to switch ISP to get that sort of speed. BT is currently trialling 8Mb service in some areas, and aims to roll them out across the country.

Although the smaller ISPs - who have to rely on BT's network - that we spoke with hadn't yet been informed of pricing and availablilty, once BT formally launches the service, it'll have to be available to all the ADSL service providers.

Speed it up

That, though, is still only 8Mbs. So where's the extra twelve coming from? The answer is ADSL2 and 2+. As the name suggests, these are enhancements to the standards used to provide ADSL. There are numerous tweaks and improvements in ADSL2, including better power management, faster start-up and special modes to assist with simultaneous delivery of voice services over the DSL connection - as opposed to over the internet connection that it provides.

But the most important features for many users are the improvements in range, thanks to better tolerance of interference, and in speed, with a maximum rate for ADSL2 of around 12Mbps. That can be doubled with support for bonding, where two lines are used together, or by using the latest standard, ADSL2+, which uses twice the bandwidth for carrying data, with a potential maximum speed of around 26Mbps.

It's important, though, not to get carried away with the maximum speeds - in many cases, it's only those who live close to the exchanges who'll see the maximum speed; as the graphs show, the speed of ADSL2 particularly ADSL2+ does fall off quite dramatically as the length of the phone line increases.

Even so, though, the opportunity to provide unbundled connections appeals to many companies - AOL, Be, Bulldog, UK Online, Video Networks and Wanadoo are just some of the companies investing in installing their own equipment, hoping in most cases not only just to provide high speed net connections, but also cheaper phone links. New entrant to the arena BSkyB - see boxout - is hoping to complete the hat-trick with their purchase of Easynet, allowing them to offer the same 'triple play' of telephone, television and internet connection as the cable companies.

Even where a service provider isn't looking to provide all these extra services themselves, as products like Skype become more popular, and users become used to services like the video downloads from the iTunes music store, existing broadband speeds quickly start to become frustrating, especially if you have several PCs at home, competing for the bandwidth.

Perfect symmetry

While faster ADSL is great for downloaders, it's not the only broadband technology out there, however, and along side it some companies are offering SDSL too. Despite a flurry of near identical press releases for each area where they've enabled an exchange for SDSL, BT's traditional reluctance to damage its leased line business means that installing their SDSL service still costs hundreds of pounds. As more companies provide unbundled services, the cost of SDSL connections should drop, just as ADSL has, and that will make it easier for home workers who need to send large files, or those who want to use remote backup systems, for, despite the large increases in download speeds on offer, even the fastest tend to offer little more than double the upload speed of a standard BT ADSL connection.

Making any predictions about the state of the internet is always a tricky business, but after a slow and stumbling start, it's clear that there's serious momentum building behind the LLU process. That in turn should mean that - at least for a significant number of people in the UK - a wider range of faster connection options, making it easier to use media-rich internet services.

Don't expect plain sailing though; it's still early days for ADSL2 and ADSL2+ in the UK; many companies are just starting to dip their toes in the LLU water, and it could be several months before they reach an exchange near you. And experience shows that where two or more companies have to deal with one another to get your net connection working, there's ample opportunity for confusion and buck passing, as customers of some LLU providers have already discovered. Twelve months from now, many readers will have access faster broadband, but we can't promise that the journey there will be entirely smooth.

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