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Will 4K video and the Internet of Things drive us to speeds of 165Mbps by 2020?

While the current UK average download speed is a wimpy 17.8Mbps, by 2020 most of us should be enjoying just under ten times that – 165Mbps. 

That’s according to a report conducted by cable operators association Cable Europe and Dutch ISP NL Kabal, which predicts that download speeds will need to climb to such lofty heights in order to meet demand from an ever-increasing number of phones, tablets, smart watches, smart TVs, smart heaters, 4K streaming and the growing Internet of Things

The report predicts that growth in demand for bandwidth is expected to grow exponentially over the next seven years and fingers video as the chief driver of demand. 

The Internet is a series of tubes - and we're going to need some bigger tubes
The Internet is a series of tubes – and we’re going to need some bigger tubes

As more people in homes take up streaming services, the need for more bandwidth to support 4K – which requires at least 20Mbps from Netflix – becomes more apparent. Cloud services, accessed by people working from home, automated devices communicating with phones, tablets and desktop apps and smart heating systems will all need bandwidth, along with general web use, file downloads and social media.  

Would we really need 165Mbps for this? Disappointedly, the report says that a chunk of demand will be driven by ‘future revolutionary services’, but did not speculate what these would be.

In 2020, NHK plans to broadcast the Tokyo Olympic Games in 8K Ultra HD and Skype has predicted that HD video calling will be the norm by then. 8K and Skype get a cursory mention in the report. 

If 165Mbps were needed by everyone in Britain by 2020, would we be able to get this? 

BT’s mammoth £2.5 billion upgrade and the various BDUK (Broadband Delivery for the UK) contracts it has won have focussed largely on connecting premises to FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet) which, for the moment, can deliver top speeds of up to 80Mbps – and that’s if you’re living within spitting distance of a street cabinet. Tests with vectoring and G.fast could greatly improve things, but BT has yet to publish any results from its trials. 

Virgin Media is already close to delivering 165Mbps – it’s currently rolling out speed boosts taking customers up to 152Mbps. This rollout is currently expected to be finished by February 2015 – but if you recontract now you can jump-start your service and get the new speeds before they roll around to your manor. 
The problem is that Virgin Media’s network covers roughly 55 per cent of the UK. While BT’s work is pushing out faster speeds, the current limitations of FTTC mean that if you’re living several miles away from a cabinet, you might as well be using an ADSL service. 

Under the terms of BDUK, 95 per cent of the UK will be connected to superfast broadband – speeds of at least 25Mbps – by 2017. The UK Government is currently trialling a number of technologies in order to connect those living out in the final 5 per cent to superfast speeds. 

A small number of ISPs and community projects including Hyperoptic, CityFibre, Gigaclear, B4RN and Fibre GarDen, are either currently selling or are looking to set up FTTP (Fibre to the Premises) networks providing top download and upload speeds of 1Gbps (1,000Mbps). 

While many of these groups are delivering such speeds already, their reach is comparatively small. 

Hyperoptic sells services in seven UK cities and has plans to launch in six more, but it primarily focuses on big cities and even then, it supplies gigabit fibre almost exclusively to new developments and apartment blocks, not suburban areas. CityFibre focus on smaller cities and towns, including Bournemouth, York and Peterborough and Gigaclear goes even further out to the sticks, connecting remote villages and parishes. 

BT offers an FTTP service – which currently delivers top speeds of 330Mbps – but this is only available to order from a small number of exchanges right now. 

More recently we’ve seen Sky and TalkTalk announce plans to run a gigabit broadband trial in York with CityFibre and Sky running a 950Mbps trial service in Basingstoke

Will the average speed in the UK hit 165Mbps by 2020? It comes down to a number of factors and not all of them down to the Government, BT and others spending stacks of cash on next-gen tech. 

Not everyone will need a 165Mbps service in 2020, just as the kind of user who only checks emails and Facebook in the evenings doesn’t need a gigbit fibre connection today. 

Former Freeview boss Ilse Howling expects that 15-20 per cent of people won’t have broadband by 2020. Research from Point Topic argues that education and accessibility are issues that need as much attention as actually creating the infrastructure in the first place.  

Building high-speed services is all well and good but if people won’t – or can’t – pay for or use them, there’s little point – something which South Yorkshire taxpayers and those involved in the Digital Region learned to their cost

Image: Flickr/Manchester Monkey

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