Superfast broadband is nearly here, but will it be available to everyone, and will subscription costs create a nation of web haves and have-nots? PC Advisor investigates.
Broadband Britain: Fibre and the Final Third
Given our dependence on web connections, some communities have decided not to wait around to see how the latest broadband lottery plays out. A whole tranche of the country is unlikely to get these super-fast connections any time soon. A pressure group called the Final Third has been set up to persuade central government of the economic deprivation involved in not giving rural communities access to even 2Mbps broadband. The Final Third refers to the 33 percent of the country for which BT has announced no plans to offer fibre-optic broadband, and which was the subject of the Digital Britain report revealing just how much of the country cannot access even basic broadband.
Several communities have taken matters into their own hands and clubbed together to have fibre-optic hardware installed at their local exchange. For example, Ashby de la Launde in Lincolnshire struck a deal with ISP NextGenUs and ALF Telecomms to have fibre-optic broadband installed this summer.
Given our reliance on internet connectivity for commerce and leisure, it makes sense for outlying communities to stump up for faster connections. They see the economic benefits of investing in faster broadband and have bought directly into BT Infinity.
"BT's fibre products are available to all UK ISPs on an equal basis. This is an important point as our investment brings competition with it and low prices as a result," said BT Openreach chief executive Steve Robertson.
See also: Final Third is absurd
Broadband Britain: Fibre-optic broadband in practice
Faster internet access in itself doesn't sound all that compelling. But it's not just about being able to launch web pages faster and get to your Hotmail messages in just a second or two. It can do a lot more than that, as early fibre-optic adopter Sam Mably explained to PC Advisor. Since June, Sam has been using the fibre-optic service that Zen Internet began offering its existing customers ahead of its wider rollout this September.
Installation and preparation for the switchover was minimal, says Sam, who runs a web-design business in north London
and makes extensive use of online storage services. He found the difference in connection speeds remarkable.
"Before we were averaging around 3Mbps up and around 2Mbps down. Now we are averaging around 29Mbps up and around 17Mbps down," he told us.
"We do a lot of FTP-ing (uploading large files for secure download by a client) and this now works a treat. We can also upload a huge database-driven, content-rich website in a matter of minutes."
Sam also says the connection has been rock solid, "tripping out" only once so far – something a quick router reboot fixed.
He wouldn't go back to ADSL. Real-time remote access using GoToMyPC is now seamless, with no annoying dropouts. The fibre-optic connection has also vastly improved leisure pursuits, such as movie downloads and streaming HD video at full-screen and without hiccup or delay.
Broadband Britain: What's available now?
Speeds of more than 100Mbps are being offered to some Virgin Media customers, with many more being offered 50Mbps connections. The cable company has even trialled 400Mbps services and is now looking into 800Mbps.
Such heady speeds far exceed the connection available to even the best-connected ADSL broadband customer. In the few places where the fastest possible fibre-optic services are being installed, 100Mbps is the maximum. As yet, however, fibre-optic broadband for the masses is a pipe dream.
While you probably can't get a 100Mbps connection, it's likely that you can get faster broadband: 40Mbps connections are being offered direct from BT in some locations.
There's still very little customer choice. The postcode lottery continues to apply, with households in urban areas typically able to choose from an array of 8Mbps to 20Mbps ADSL services (plus cable in many cases), while 2Mbps and 4Mbps are still the limit in the suburbs and beyond. Although fibre-optic broadband will eventually be offered to almost all UK households, it's inevitable that the places to be offered it first are those where the ISPs see sufficient demand and the possibility of an eventual profit.
As a result, ISPs are doing their research, using broadband checkers and registering your interest in getting services that haven't reached your area. Broadband checkers themselves have become more sophisticated and you should be able to get a fairly accurate indication of the speed you will be able to enjoy.
Usually, you need to enter a verifiable phone number and confirm that you are the telephone account holder. Note that registering your interest or merely entering your phone details at an ISP website brings with it the possibility of the firm calling you to discuss your connection requirements and, presumably, attempting to sell you a service.
An ADSL 2+ connection can but may not necessarily bring speed benefits, since it's a flexing service that depends on the quality of the line as well as proximity to an exchange.
In theory it's capable of up to 20Mbps download speeds, but the ‘up to' phrase has proved hard to deliver on.
ADSL 2+'s key advantages are its lesser dependence on the distance from the exchange and the introduction of competition.
Another important aspect is its greater availability than other forms of fast broadband. Nearly three-quarters of BT exchanges that offer broadband are now able to offer ADSL 2+. LLU and distance from an unbundled exchange are still the defining factors for most of us at this stage. Even in London, a distance of a street or two can make the difference between basic 5Mbps broadband and 50Mbps cable connectivity.
NEXT: using mobile Wi-Fi >>
- What's happening in Broadband Britain?
- Fibre and the final third, fibre-optic broadband in practice, and what's available now?
- Using mobile Wi-Fi, fibre-optic broadband, and the waiting game
- Making the switch, super-fast broadband options explained, and the other options