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 never really disappears from the news or advertising. It's big business. And it's increasingly the means through which our entertainment and information needs are fulfilled. TV, music streaming, gaming, social networking and teleworking all depend on a good, solid web connection.

Lose your TV signal and you lose one means of receiving information; lose web access and you can no longer email, Facebook, browse the web for gossip or more meaningful information, or reach out to friends across the globe.

Many of us now spend more of our free time surfing the web and chatting on Facebook than we do on any other leisure activity. The web is becoming the main way we reach the outside world, so more reliable means of using it can only be a good thing.

Our increasing use of the web means our data demands have increased exponentially – and they will continue to grow.

Thankfully, a whole new broadband backbone is coming to a street near you soon. It's fatter, faster and much more reliable than old copper cable – and in the coming months, you'll be hearing more and more about it.

Marketing efforts are about to get much more prevalent as BT and its wholesale partners begin a mammoth push on the back of the fibre-optic broadband rollout. Promising download speeds of 20 megabits per second (Mbps) as a minimum and as much as 100Mbps as a theoretical maximum, the new breed of super-fast broadband is a high-stakes game.

In just a few months' time, connection speeds touching 400Mbps may be launched, while yet faster speeds promise to finally lift at least some parts of Broadband Britain out of the technological doldrums and on to the information superhighway.

Although such heady heights are a long way off, BT has already ploughed £2.5bn into fibre-optic broadband. It says that by the end of this year, such services will be available to four million households or 40 percent of the UK.

By 2015 this reach will be as much as 65 percent of the UK. With the infrastructure well on its way to being in place, it's now time for individual broadband service providers to start convincing customers like you and me that blistering speeds are worth having – and worth paying for.

What's happening in Broadband Britain?

There's still an availability gulf, but UK broadband connections on the whole are getting faster. SamKnows, which telecoms regulator Ofcom uses to help monitor actual broadband speeds, announced in July that since last year the average connection has risen from 4.1Mbps to 5.2Mps.

One of the reasons the UK average connection now runs at more than 5Mbps is that ISPs continue to tweak the hardware and the ADSL telephony to eke the maximum performance they can from it. Consumers can also reap improvements by keeping on top of upgrades and firmware updates to their broadband routers. If you're still using the modem router that came with your original broadband subscription, switching to a newer device can bring immediate benefits.

But the actual web speeds delivered by our 'up to' 20Mbps ADSL2+ connections often fall far short of their headline figures. This failure to deliver has prompted Ofcom to act against ISPs selling broadband in this manner, and consumers will eventually be given the option to cancel a subscription that delivers connection speeds slower than what's been promised. This legislation won't become effective until the end of the year, unfortunately, but at least it gives customers some sort of comeback.

In the meantime, a brave new world of far faster broadband is being rolled out. Based on a fibre-optic network known as BT Infinity, it's a whole new approach to home broadband. Unshackled from the limitations of copper wires, it's less likely to end up being tarred with the same 'disappointing' brush that has dogged ADSL 2+ and local loop unbundling (LLU).

In fact, first impressions from those who have been involved in fibre-optic broadband trials have been glowing, as one customer we spoke to explained (see 'Fibre-optic broadband in practice', on the next page).
And while the number of places where fibre-optic broadband is ready to go is still limited, the number of enabled BT exchanges is now more than 150.

NEXT: Fibre and the Final Third >>


  1. What's happening in Broadband Britain?
  2. Fibre and the final third, fibre-optic broadband in practice, and what's available now?
  3. Using mobile Wi-Fi, fibre-optic broadband, and the waiting game
  4. Making the switch, super-fast broadband options explained, and the other options

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 >>


  1. What's happening in Broadband Britain?
  2. Fibre and the final third, fibre-optic broadband in practice, and what's available now?
  3. Using mobile Wi-Fi, fibre-optic broadband, and the waiting game
  4. Making the switch, super-fast broadband options explained, and the other options

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: Using mobile Wi-Fi

Being able to buy into a faster broadband service may not be possible, at least not for a few more months. However, there
are ways of getting online that can be used in a pinch.

The first is to get a 3G (mobile broadband) USB dongle.

This also depends on the availability of coverage in your area and may not be a viable alternative to regular broadband, depending on how much you're likely to use it. Data limits still tend to be restrictive, so make sure you check the terms and conditions of any such product at the mobile operator's site or a broadband-comparison website before you buy.

Another 3G option is the one on your mobile phone, if you have an unlimited data tariff and the ability to tether your handset for web access. It's not the most elegant solution, but allows you to get online when you wouldn't otherwise be able to. Essentially, you connect your laptop and smartphone by USB or Bluetooth and set the handset to share the web connection and act as a modem. The larger screen of the laptop is, of course, more convenient for prolonged web surfing sessions.

A similar concept is used by the 3 MiFi and the Vodafone 3G Mobile Router. Both make sharing web access using the 3G connection of an iPhone or other mobile device relatively straightforward. The web access can be shared by up to five devices, although you'll need to keep a check on your data usage.

For more on mobile connectivity, see page 'How to: Set up a Wi-Fi router and home network'.

Broadband Britain: Fibre-optic broadband

Fibre-optic broadband is offered from two main sources: BT and Virgin Media. Already more than 650,000 Virgin Media customers enjoy very fast broadband connections of either 20Mbps or 50Mbps. Not only that, but cable connections are free of the contention issues that afflict ADSL connections. The main drawback has been that you can only enjoy such smooth connectivity if there's a cable infrastructure in place – something not enjoyed by all of us.

However, Virgin Media also has a big piece of the ADSL broadband-provision pie, and has also been rolling out connections to customers beyond its cable network's scope. Virgin Media is in direct competition with BT to acquire current broadband customers. It has been looking to extend its reach to locations where decent broadband connections are not yet available. Last year it began trials using telegraph poles to string broadband cables up in the air.

Two types of fibre-optic broadband are being rolled out. The one that's likely to be of most interest is fibre to the home (FTTH), also known as fibre to the premises. In contrast to fibre to the cabinet (FTTC), FTTH replaces the entire broadband connection rather than stopping short of your home connection. It can provide connection speeds of up to 100Mbps and uploads of 40Mbps.

Having fibre all the way means you need a BT engineer to visit your home and install the service, replacing the existing copper line in your house. This takes a couple of hours and demands a £50 setup fee. Apart from this, it's simply a matter of arranging a date that suits – or will be once anyone can actually take up the offer of the service. While BT is trumpeting fibre-optic broadband as the future for us all, there are precious few locations where FTTH services are available.

For most of us, fibre-optic broadband means FTTC or fibre as far as the green cabinet somewhere on the street outside.

The same caveats about a one-off installation fee of £50 and the need to book in an engineer's visit still apply, but you do at least stand a chance of getting fibre-based home broadband this side of the London Olympics. Some 40 percent of the country ought to be able to choose fibre by the end of the year, but almost all will be via BT.

Only a couple of other broadband providers have begun trials so far, let alone offer fibre to their customers. Zen Internet and Demon are among these ISPs, and believe that being early to the fibre-optic broadband party will earn them greater market share and lots of new business.

Fibre-optic broadband of this sort promises download connections of 40Mbps as a theoretical maximum. Your ability to take advantage depends on whether your local telephone exchange is geared up for it. There also needs to be an available cabinet that can provide that crucial last few yards of cabling to your home or small business.

Broadband Britain: The waiting game

The number of broadband exchanges enabled for fibre is getting bigger all the time. Head here to see BT's updated list of exchanges scheduled to be upgraded and when, as a PDF.

If you know the name of your exchange, look for its name in the checklist to see if it's already enabled or for the projected date for services to commence. Note, however, that an enabled exchange isn't necessarily a guarantee that you can get fibre-optic broadband. You also need your nearest cabinet to be ready to deliver it.

While it's good to know if and when fibre may become an option, it's also useful to find out what's currently available to you and to get a realistic idea of the connection speeds you'll actually be able to enjoy. An online checker such as PC Advisor's Home Broadband Comparison, or will show you the best deals available for your location. You can also enter your postcode and home telephone number into the checker facility on an ISP's website to see what it can offer you.

Another useful resource is the real speed checker and analysis tool at This offers a street-by-street look at actual broadband connection speeds achieved and via which ISP. Results are offered for the past one to three months, but bear in mind that the usefulness of the Street Stats data may depend on your neighbours having recently checked their broadband performance.

You won't necessarily need to pay more for your broadband in order to enjoy a faster web connection delivered over the fibre-optic network. BT has temporarily halved its Infinity subscription costs as an incentive. An up-to-20Mbps ASDL connection with a download limit of 40MB per month costs from £17 and includes some HD TV content. A new two-year contract needs to be taken out and you must have a BT phoneline.

By comparison, the cheapest BT Infinity home-broadband offering costs £19, with the same download cap and an 18-month minimum contract. BT Option 2, meanwhile, provides unlimited (within reason) downloads on a 40Mbps connection for £24 per month.

NEXT: Making the switch >>


  1. What's happening in Broadband Britain?
  2. Fibre and the final third, fibre-optic broadband in practice, and what's available now?
  3. Using mobile Wi-Fi, fibre-optic broadband, and the waiting game
  4. Making the switch, super-fast broadband options explained, and the other options

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: Making the switch

The methods involved in changing from one ISP to another are largely the same as they've always been. The one change has been the adoption of a voluntary code of practice by broadband service providers that will see them make good on their connection speeds claims or make it easy for you to take your custom elsewhere.

The change itself still involves giving notice to your current provider and receiving a MAC, or migration code, that you pass to the new ISP. The migration needs to take place within a 28-day timeframe from receipt of the code. If you're having new hardware installed, as you will need to do if you're moving from ADSL to ADSL 2+ or BT Infinity, an engineer's visit will need to be arranged.

You need to give notice to your current provider – or tell BT you want to move over to BT Infinity from your existing broadband service. Note that only a handful of ASDL ISPs (those that use BT phonelines and sell packages based on the BT infrastructure) currently offer fibre-optic packages. In general, you'll need to become a direct customer of BT Broadband – or wait until your current ISP begins to offer fibre broadband services. You may also need to complete the minimum contract period of your current broadband service before you can switch to a new provider.

Once you've got a migration code releasing you from your existing ISP, you can arrange for a BT Openreach engineer to visit and install the BT Infinity hardware. As well as arranging the high-speed router, you need to consider its location. The connection from the cabinet outside your home needs to be direct to the master telephone entry point – unlike ADSL broadband, you can't bounce the connection via connecting cables to another part of the premises. Extension cables are possible from the main connection point, but the BT engineer is only allowed to tack cables along the skirting board and not under carpets or through walls.

Broadband Britain: Super-fast broadband options explained

The best options are currently those offered to Virgin Media customers. Having been a fibre-optic service from the off, the cable network has always been in a better position to ratchet up the connection rate. BT, meanwhile, has had to install a whole new infrastructure and leave behind the 'plain old telephone service' (POTS) we've depended on for the past decade's broadband. But the picture may not stay the same for long.

BT is allowing rival ISPs to offer both LLU or ADSL 2+ broadband and fibre-optic services. However, it's not giving the likes of Demon and Zen Internet an easy ride. In August, BT began aggressively marketing its own BT Infinity product with a no-cost installation and half-price subscription offer for three months.

Even so, it may be worth registering your interest in fibre with your existing provider. Given enough interest, many will offer next-gen broadband and are likely to work hard to keep and acquire new users prepared to take out a lengthy subscription with them. Given that they'll then be looking to sell you TV and phone services further down the line, your business is valuable to them. And as the mobile phone market attests, competition makes for some great deals for customers.

Once you've got 40Mbps broadband, reports suggest you won't want to go back – and the initial connection rates are only going to get faster and faster, so 100Mbps may be only a short wait. In fact, with the rate at which Virgin Media is upping the speed and market-share stakes, it's a safe bet.

Virgin Media trials of 100Mbps in 2009 were sufficiently successful for an initial rollout of services to begin being offered to existing cable customers this year. As of this summer, Virgin Media said it had 50,000 subscribers on its 50Mbps cable broadband service. By Christmas, Virgin Media says subscribers using the special router required for the Virgin XXL 50Mbps service may be offered 200Mbps or even 400Mbps connections. With trials in Ashford, Kent, having proved the viability of such connection rates, other metropolitan areas are now being offered such speeds.

As we've already outlined, you can get a good idea of the speeds that can be achieved where you live using the real-world data displayed at's Street Stats site. Here, you can see on a map the recently measured connection speeds achieved by neighbours in the surrounding streets. The nearest telephone exchange location is also shown, since this affects most users' ability to get online. You can allow the site to detect your current location or type in a postcode you want to view.

Broadband Britain: Other options

The fastest broadband is yet to come, but that's not to say you can't already get a very fast web connection. Business users have options in the form of the 21CN leased line network that BT offers, while BSkyB partner company Easynet offers 100Mbps business broadband too. Where fibre broadband isn't available, ADSL2+ of up to 24Mbps is likely to be offered instead. Some 20 million homes and businesses should see such offerings by next year – double the number that will be able to access fibre-optic broadband.

Further options for both business and home users are offered in select metropolitan and urban areas. In Manchester there's a city council-funded 100Mbps service being installed in the Oxford Road area of the city. In Bournemouth and Dundee Fibrecity has set about signing up business interests to help justify its OpenCity initiative. When this comes to fruition (dependent on sufficient people committing to joining the service), 100Mbps fibre-optic broadband will be offered for as little as £9.99 a month and come bundled with TV and phone services.

Another workaround we've heard about is to install multiple ADSL lines and bond them together to achieve improved throughput. For most people, this will be a prohibitively expensive option, but it can be done if you really need faster broadband and it's not otherwise available.


  1. What's happening in Broadband Britain?
  2. Fibre and the final third, fibre-optic broadband in practice, and what's available now?
  3. Using mobile Wi-Fi, fibre-optic broadband, and the waiting game
  4. Making the switch, super-fast broadband options explained, and the other options