How long until superfast is the standard? Do users know enough about its benefits? And how can comparison sites help get the message across? Eclipse Internet head honcho Clodagh Murphy speaks to Broadbandchoices.co.uk.
It feels like fibre broadband has been about for a long time now, with adverts for superfast services now commonplace on billboards, on buses and on the box. Serious money is being spent on espousing the benefits of next-generation internet access via the likes of fist-pumping babies and slightly cringeworthy student collectives.
However, it is still a very new technology, and, while superfast services such as BT Infinity and Virgin Media Cable are now widely available, a recent poll of broadband users by Broadbandchoices.co.uk found that only 12% are willing to pay what providers are currently charging for such services.
With the UK's four biggest broadband providers - BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media - all now pushing fibre packages, along with many smaller providers, this raises a number of questions about superfast broadband. Do we want or need it? Do we even know what we'd be getting for if we were willing to pay what it currently costs? And, if no one is clamouring for it now, what will change that?
Last but by no means least, how will the government fulfil its promise that the UK will have the best broadband network in Europe by 2015 if no one wants to pay for the technology that is central to achieving this?
Total Eclipse of the heart
These questions and more make it the ideal time to talk to Clodagh Murphy, managing director of Eclipse Internet (www.Eclipse.net.uk). Why? Because Eclipse first began offering superfast broadband packages over two years ago, long before big guns Sky (www.Sky.com) and TalkTalk (www.Talktalk.co.uk) and not long after the biggest of the big guns, BT (www.BT.com).
This makes Eclipse something of a fibre veteran, yet as a smaller broadband provider, and one that prides itself in listening to its customers, it is uniquely placed to comment on the government's pledge and superfast broadband from the users perspective, as Westminster's not relying on it to drive the commercial roll-out of fibre that is integral to them keeping their promise.
Also, again in contrast to the big boys in the broadband playground, Eclipse has been involved in this whole internet business since it began to take off. The company was founded in 1995 in Devon by Mark Lang for just £20,000, supplying dial-up internet access in the south-west.
Eclipse soon began employing broadband, then an emerging technology, and became a national provider, before being bought by the KCOM Group, the company behind KC, the only broadband provider that serves the Hull area, for £12.5million in 2004. The deal enabled Eclipse to retain its independence, and remain at its headquarters in Exeter, but take advantage of the KCOM Group's large internet network.
Life in the fast lane
While Eclipse mostly sees itself as a business broadband provider, serving home office workers and small businesses, just under half of its customers are home broadband users. Following the launch of two business fibre broadband packages in February 2010, the provider made its residential fibre service - Lightspeed - available in September last year.
But, with most of us seemingly unwilling to pay extra for the increased speed that next-generation internet access offers, despite most of us also saying that our current broadband connection doesn't meet our expectations, where does Eclipse see demand for fibre coming from? According to Murphy, who joined Eclipse in 2009, it's all about the "adoption curve".
"There's a whole load of dynamics going on here," she explains. "You'll get early adopters in an area that can't have it, so they might go out and find someone else who's interested in doing something different technologically, or work with a provider to try and get faster broadband."
Murphy said that the "reasonable take-up" of fibre services in areas where they are available will inspire and provoke "early adopters" in areas where they are not available to spread the word among other internet users and talk to providers.
She also believes there is a lot of "pent up" demand for fibre in these areas: "If you want something and you can't have it, it creates a frustration - there are a lot of emotions going on with consumers."
Scream if you wanna go faster
Murphy knows that word of mouth alone won't be enough to get superfast flying though - we need to be told why it's worth shelling out more of our hard-earned cash for, just as we did in the early 2000s when we made the jump from dial-up to broadband. She credits BT (www.BT.com) and Virgin Media (www.Virginmedia.com) with doing a "really good job of elevating the profile of what you can get from the technology" through their advertising campaigns.
In her view these campaigns also fuel the frustration about broadband in rural areas and other places that can't get fibre by painting a "very simplistic" picture of the availability of superfast services: "What they're saying is 'here is what everybody can get', whereas the roll-out and the footprint [of fibre] is a lot smaller than that".
However, Murphy points out that the roll-out of fibre in towns and cities will also create demand for it by making users "more aware of the services that they can get access to" and lead people in areas without it to engage with the likes of their local council, local providers and their MP to let them know they want it.
Supply and demand
It isn't just providers that can inform users about fibre and how it could benefit them though. According to Murphy price comparison websites like Broadbandchoices.co.uk can help make users aware of what is out there, as well as help them to understand issues that might affect their decision-making when choosing a provider, such as the new guidance on advertising broadband speeds that recently came into effect.
"This is where the likes of Broadbandchoices.co.uk can play a pivotal role in the industry in actually being that fountain of knowledge for consumers and being that place where you always get factual information," she said. "Some of that is what's missing in the industry - you look at the up to speeds discussion and that sort of stuff, and who is actually saying 'how are we going to educate consumers on what's right for them?'"
Murphy agrees that the availability, and enthusiastic adoption, of increasingly sophisticated online services, such as those that enable us to watch movies and listen to music online will also drive demand for superfast services: "The way people consume content is shifting. It will be interesting to see how far it shifts and how fast it shifts."
Ultimately, despite the apparent reluctance among us to shell out for fibre broadband, Murphy believes there is a "growing level of demand" for fibre that will eventually see it replace the copper wire connections most of us use today: "There is a tipping point coming. I'm not sure when the level of footprint that's out there gets to a place where it becomes the norm that people move to fibre - that's a couple of years away."
So, will enough of us sign-up for fibre for that tipping point to come within the next three years, thus allowing the government to achieve its aim? "Will we get there in 2015?," asks Murphy. "I haven't got a crystal ball, so I don't know."
Despite this cautious response, she sees the target as a positive as such aspirations will help drive the roll-out of superfast broadband by giving those involved an idea of where they want to go. However, she is sceptical about how much money is available to fund fibre in areas where it isn't cost-effective for providers to pay for it given the current economic situation.
It isn't all down to the government though - smaller broadband providers, which often specialise in a particular area, can play a part in improving the country's broadband by "trying to shift the technological environment in the right way," according to Murphy. For example, she cites how Eclipse has delivered faster broadband speeds to small businesses in rural areas with its bonded DSL product, which combines four standard broadband lines in a single connection.
Keep the customer satisfied
Eclipse Internet has always based its business model on the quality of experience it offers, as proved by the provider being named a Which? Recommended Broadband Provider for the third consecutive year in February, but would it consider focusing on price instead given our disinclination to pay what is currently being charged for fibre? In a word, no: "Quality of experience is more important, absolutely. There is no shift in our thinking or our philosophy there."
Murphy explains that, rather than direct customer calls to an outsourced centre overseas as many companies now do, Eclipse refers them to one of the specialist teams at its headquarters. The company has also developed its own broadband monitoring tool, Eclipse Sentinel, which is designed to pre-empt any problems on business broadband connections, enabling customers to deal with them before disaster strikes.
It's this customer-focused approach which, according to Murphy, sets Eclipse apart from other providers, and also gives it an avenue through which it can influence the broadband industry. Like many providers, Eclipse doesn't own the network it uses, limiting the impact it can have on major broadband issues, such as the roll-out of fibre in rural areas.
"We can't necessarily influence that," said Murphy, "but what we can influence is the service we provide to customers - consumer and business alike - by being the best we can possibly be".