What’s happening in Broadband Britain?

There’s still an availability gulf, but UK broadband connections on the whole are getting faster. In July 2010, SamKnows, the company telecoms regulator Ofcom uses to help monitor actual broadband speeds, announced that since 2009 the average connection has risen from 4.1-5.2Mbps.

One of the reasons that the average UK 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 same 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 ‘up to’ 20Mbps ADSL2+ connections often fall far short of their headline figures. Even if your broadband package promises ‘up to’ 20Mbps, you are unlikely to get that speed all the time, if at all. Ofcom has called for ‘up to’ speeds to be banned and “replaced by some type of typical speed descriptor” also recommending “concentrating on a single speed obtained by the majority of customers”. 

Infinity and beyond BT Infinity is being rolled out and is enabled in 836 BT exchanges right now, find out how soon it will be coming to you at www.bt.com/broadband/faster

While some struggle to get the advertised speeds, 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 be as disappointing as ADSL2+ and local loop unbundling (LLU) have been. It’s also futureproof as it will support even faster speeds in the future.

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 836 (as of 12 January), which equates to eight million premises, according to BT; about half of the company’s planned fibre-optic rollout plan. BT expects to cover two-thirds of the country with at least 40Mbps broadband by 2015.

Fibre and the Final Third
Given our dependence on internet connections, some communities have decided not to wait around to see how the broadband lottery plays out and are taking things into their own hands. A whole swathe of the country is unlikely to get these super-fast connections any time soon, and in response to this a pressure group called Final Third First has been set up to lobby central government on behalf of rural communities that won’t have access to even 2Mbps broadband. The Final Third refers to the 30 per cent of the country for which BT has announced no plans to offer fibre-optic broadband.

Some communities have even 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 AFL Telecoms to have fibre-optic broadband installed last summer.

What’s available now?
While BT is rolling out the technology to make 110Mbps broadband possible, speeds of more than 100Mbps are already being offered to some Virgin Media customers (at the last count, 350,000 homes in the UK, with full network deployment expected by 2012). Other Virgin customers are being offered 50Mbps connections. The company has even trialled 200Mbps services and is looking into 800Mbps. “We are trialing 200Mbps, but that’s a very commercial trial in the sense of working out in real life what you can do with 200Mbps,” Virgin Media’s Jon James explained, while Ashley Stockwell, also of Virgin Media, said, “Ultrafast broadband, like our 200Mbps service, will enable a household to enjoy cutting-edge entertainment, not just via computers, but through an array of gadgets all over the home.”

Such heady speeds far exceed that currently available to even the best-connected ADSL broadband customer. While you probably can’t yet get a 100Mbps connection, no matter where you live, it’s likely that you will still get faster broadband: 40Mbps connections are being offered from BT in some locations.

There’s still very little customer choice, though. The postcode lottery continues to apply, with urban households typically able to choose from an array of 8-20Mbps ADSL services (plus cable in many cases), while 2Mbps and 4Mbps are still the limit in the suburbs and beyond.

How fast? Test your ISP and find out just how fast your connection is

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. This is why ISPs are doing their research, using broadband checkers and registering your interest in getting services that haven’t reached your area.

Broadband checkers should be able to give you a fairly accurate indication of the speed you’ll be able to enjoy. Usually, you need to enter a verifiable phone number and confirm you are the telephone account holder. Registering your interest or entering your phone details on an ISP’s website may bring with it the possibility of the firm calling you to discuss your connection requirements and, presumably, attempting to sell you a service.

An ADSL2+ connection 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.

ADSL2+’s key advantages are its lesser dependence on the distance from the exchange. 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 ADSL2+.

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.