Date posted: 20 March 2020 – Category: Fibre Optics
The world may be hyping wireless 5G, but full-fibre is still the next true step in internet connectivity. It’s fast–faster than wireless 4G LTE. And while fibre can’t compete with predicted 5G speeds, it’s far superior in reliability and accessibility.
Having said that, fibre is no slouch in the speed department, either. With a full-fibre connection you can download movies in under a minute and the boons for entertainment and consumers pale in comparison to the transformative effects on business and work. A UK turbocharged with full-fibre connectivity could expect to see up to £59 billion more in productivity. Around half a million people will be enabled to work remotely, allowing our cramped megacities to breathe as employees find alternate ways to work closer to home.
However, this blazingly fast wired network of the future is spooling out much slower than we hoped. While we will all eventually switch to full-fibre, some areas are reaching gigabit speeds sooner than others.
To understand how far the UK is from nationwide fibre broadband, it’s important to understand the infrastructure needed to bring the network online. Full fibre connections use optic cables–wires made of transparent glass–to connect the entire infrastructure, from the telephone exchange to individual homes and buildings.
The UK’s network infrastructure is due for a much needed overhaul. A decade ago the country was on par with its European neighbours in broadband coverage and ahead of many countries, including Spain and Japan.
However, we have since fallen behind, held back by a reliance on copper. The majority of the UK’s data still travels along the backbone of old copper wiring used by telephones. Only around 3 million properties use fibre optic cables from end-to-end. That’s only 10 percent of our homes and buildings. The rest still use a mix of fibre and copper. These hybrid networks usually average at 66Mbps. Theoretically, a full-fibre connection should be able to deliver 1000Mbps.
Switching off these old connections will be crucial for finally driving the demand for full-fibre. Currently the global average for full-fibre coverage stands at 20 percent, with leaders like Japan and the Nordic countries going well beyond 50 percent. At only 10 percent coverage, it’s clear that the UK’s full-fibre industry has far to go.
Two years ago the UK was the one of the laggards in fibre broadband, with only Greece, Cyprus, and Belgium reporting lower coverage, according to a 2018 report from the European Commission. But the uptake has shown marked improvement since then.
The country has finally broken into Europe’s top list of countries on fibre broadband, albeit at the bottom. The UK is still far behind other developed European nations. Countries at the top like Spain report full-fibre availability to as many as 8.3 million homes.
Currently the fastest connection available to UK subscribers is through Virgin Media’s 1Gbps speeds. You can download high definition movies in 45 seconds. However, that’s already a slow day in Japan. In some parts of the country, users can get up to 10Gbps in both uploads and downloads. Access has grown by leaps. Only 23 percent of the population had access to full fibre in 2009. Today, just 5 percent don’t.
In Korea, the pace is already starkly different. On the back of a robust fibre infrastructure, the East Asian nation has already started moving onto 5G connectivity, with plans to roll the service out to 90 percent of mobile users by 2026.
The biggest barrier to going full-fibre is the logistics of installation. Costs are high–around £200,000 for laying underground cables–as is the disruption to the day-to-day lives of citizens. Internet service providers (ISPs) have to coordinate with local authority, private landowners, and the general public to install equipment.
Yet as more of the world hops onto lightning fast speeds, the country can’t afford to delay any further if it wants to stay competitive. Going full-fibre is a matter of when, not if. The economic benefits are undeniable, even at the micro level.
In Grimsay, a remote island to the north, full-fibre is allowing small to medium businesses to operate on a global scale. “Being able to work online and at a distance is hugely important – it means you can live where you want to live, but still do a city style job,” says one of the residents in an interview with BBC.
And the push for full-fibre is already underway. Overhauling the country’s digital structure is one of the key focuses of the government as part of its efforts to bring about the UK’s “year of renewal”. In partnership with Britain’s biggest ISPs, the Conservatives have pledged full fibre coverage across the entire nation by 2025, committing £5 billion to the plan. “We’re determined to go further by investing £5 billion to make sure no-one is left without access to gigabit speed broadband, and are close to a £1 billion deal with industry to make poor mobile coverage in rural areas a thing of the past,” says Minister of Digital and Broadband Matt Warman.
The private sector is adding their own promises to the pile. Openreach aims to bring full-fibre to 15 million premises by 2025. Virgin Media, which services around half of UK’s broadband connections, has sunk over £3 billion into its full-fibre Project Lightning network.
It’s not only the big players getting into the race to rewire the UK. Altnets–smaller, independent network companies untethered to a reliance on old copper systems–are driving growth and pushing into areas much faster than less agile megacorporations like BT. Together the sector is predicted to get full-fibre into 15.96 million homes in the next five years.
The increasingly aggressive competition is good news for consumers. Providers are already racing to get a foothold in high-demand areas. For instance, if you find yourself in St. James in Central London, you’ll be looking at three different full-fibre options.
The rest of the country may be looking at a few more years before such options become the norm. But with both public and private sectors pushing to get the whole of Britain rapidly up to speed, things can only get faster from here.
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