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Labour’s gigabit broadband plans: The industry responds

Following Labour party activists calling for every UK home, hamlet and Hobbit-hole to have access to gigabit broadband by 2020, ISPs have come out of the woodwork to tell us how they really feel. 

Hyperoptic welcomed Labour Digital’s plans, telling Recombu that the UK needs a nationwide programme to deliver pure fibre connections to more doorsteps. 

The London-based FTTP (Fibre to the Premises) provider is already bringing symmetrical gigabit broadband – 1,000Mbps download and upload speeds – to cities across the UK, so it’s unsurprising that they applauded the announcement.  

Ed Miliband giving his first speech as party leader in 2010. Can Labour deliver 1Gbps for all?
Ed Miliband giving his first speech as party leader in 2010. Can Labour deliver 1Gbps for all?

Managing director Dana Tobak said: “Hyperoptic welcomes proposals from the Labour Digital group for nationwide access to gigabit broadband. 

“With investment in Fibre to the Premises there are immediate employment opportunities to build the infrastructure, and long term economic and social benefits to be gained from having future-proofed connectivity, which enables businesses and consumers to take advantage of all the internet has to offer.”

The technology Hyperoptic uses is certainly capable of delivering the speeds Labour Digital wants. But how does the vision of 1Gbps (1,000Mbps) for all align with the Hyperoptic business model?

Hyperoptic currently targets big apartments and new build developments in the UK’s biggest cities. So far it’s rolling out or plans to roll out its wares in London, Reading, Cardiff, Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds and eventually Glasgow

Unfortunately for folks living in smaller cities, towns and rural areas, you don’t currently fit into the Hyperoptic business plan. In a recent interview Tobak told us that Hyperoptic will leave the sticks and the suburbs to other companies. 

While Hyperoptic isn’t going after smaller cities, others are. CityFibre, currently setting up a fibre network for Peterborough-based businesses, welcomed Labour Digital’s plans but was dubious about the delivering gigabit broadband for everyone. 

Is 1Gbps for all by 2020 feasible?

Mark Collins director of strategy and public affairs for CityFibre said: “As a builder of gigabit cities, CityFibre is fully supportive of Labour’s ambition for nationwide access to 1Gbps broadband connectivity in homes, businesses and public buildings. However, to achieve Labour’s 2020 target, construction of fit-for-purpose gigabit fibre infrastructure must start now.” 

Collins added that if Labour won the next election, it should work with CityFibre and others to bring gigabit broadband to all major towns and cities across the UK. 

The company is currently delivering gigabit broadband to parts of Bournemouth via Gigler as well as York, Peterborough and Coventry. CityFibre will soon start bringing gigabit broadband to Aberdeen. 

The Number One in Digital report, penned by Labour activists also calls for business parks and development hubs like east London’s Tech City to have access to 10Gbps services as standard. 

“Our fibre networks are delivering 10Gbps and above and this bandwidth is available now in our Gigabit Cities making out networks a perfect fit for tech clusters and innovative data hungry digital businesses,” Collins added. 

Following £16.5 million of investment cash raised in an IPO at the start of 2014 plus £30 million of secondary fundraising, CityFibre plans to set up fibre networks in 20 other cities, which Collins says will reach over 1 million homes by 2016.  

Like CityFibre, BT says that it’s already able to deliver 10Gbps services to businesses if they need it, via leased lines. 

BT: Businesses can get 10Gbps broadband already

Joe Garner, CEO of BT’s network arm Openreach, said: “Businesses obviously demand even greater bandwidth [than residential customers] and can already access speeds of up to 10Gbps via dedicated business lines that we provide across the country. 

“Customer needs will continue to change, and that’s why we’re deploying a mix of current technologies as well as testing new ones. We will continue to innovate so that we meet our customers’ needs today, and in the future.”

BT has spent £2.5 billion on upgrading two thirds of its commercial network. This has seen last-gen ADSL broadband connections upgraded to FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet) lines, capable of delivering download speeds of up to 80Mbps. It’s also snapped up every BDUK (Broadband Delivery for UK) contract going. 

BDUK is a scheme set up by the current Government and it aims to deliver superfast broadband – defined as 24Mbps or higher – to 95 per cent of the country by 2017

The majority of properties under BT’s own commercial upgrade and the BDUK plans will be able to order FTTC broadband which in most cases will easily meet the at least 24Mbps stipulation. 

But is it capable of delivering gigabit speeds? Right now, FTTC is limited to 80Mbps and even then you’ll only get that if you’re living very close to a cabinet. 

But BT is running a series of trials which it hopes will allow it to offer much faster download and upload speeds over an FTTC connection. 

BT recently posted the results of a G.fast trial. G.fast is a new technology that greatly ramps up the speeds possible on FTTC lines. This would see most people able to get download speeds of 700Mbps and upload speeds of 200Mbps

Nothing but a G thing

This is impressive, but way short of hitting Labour’s gigabit target. G.fast can potentially deliver even faster speeds, but technical limitations mean that you probably won’t be able to get this, unless BT extended the reach of a fibre optic connection to within a few metres of your house – by which point you might as well ask why isn’t BT building a full FTTP connection. 

Hyperoptic’s Dana Tobak isn’t convinced that G.fast can deliver what Labour Digital wants. “While G.fast technology is impressive in a test environment, bringing it to reality will require significant investment in street cabinets and will be limited to high density areas,” Tobak said.   

“No need to wait for G.fast, these areas are being upgraded today by gigabit providers like ourselves. The future of broadband is FTTP, extending the life of copper is a costly exercise that is just delaying the inevitable.”

The reason BT hasn’t rolled out FTTP everywhere is because it says upgrading its copper network, which serves some 30 million customers, is expensive. Hyperoptic doesn’t have a legacy network to maintain. 

Should Labour win the 2015 election and cash starts coming out of that hypothetical £5 billion pot, the landscape could change. BT could bring FTTP to more areas or drop the high prices of its Fibre on Demand service and Hyperoptic and CityFibre could go further. Until we hear more about Labour’s gigabit plans we won’t know for sure.  

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