The government has promised that nine out of ten of us will have access to next-generation broadband by 2015, but BT recently said that it could be another five or six years - who’s telling the truth?
Among the many other cultural oddities it has kicked up - from being "friends" with people you've never met to revealing humanity's previously repressed obsession with photos of cats with funny hats on - the internet has been a fertile breeding ground for buzzwords since day one. Email, dot-com, Web 2.0, cybersex, LOL - each of these is either now laughably dated or has been absorbed into our everyday lives.
Superfast broadband is a buzzword that's been kicking about for some time now, and it's unlikely to bugger off anytime soon. Why? Because broadband is increasingly seen as a utility like gas and electricity rather than a useful but inessential luxury like a remote control holder. The growing number of internet-connected devices we own and the increasingly sophisticated online activities we partake in, mean we all have one thing in common - sooner or later, we'll need faster broadband.
What is superfast broadband?
So, let's get to the bottom of the buzzword. Unlike "pwn", superfast broadband actually does have a vaguely practical meaning behind it. Regular broadband in the UK is mostly connected to homes through the same copper wire network which provides landline telephones. Given that the technology this network is based on first came about around the time Jack the Ripper was on the prowl, it should come as little surprise that it isn't the most efficient foundation on which to base the digital age.
This brings us to superfast broadband, also known as high-speed or next-generation broadband, officially defined as an internet connection faster than 24Mb, according to communications regulator Ofcom. The current UK average is 6.8Mb. The basic principle of superfast broadband is that by using cable and coaxial cable (copper cable with a conducting shield) rather than the old copper wire telephone network to connect people to the internet, they will be able to surf the web much more quickly.
Why? Because fibre optics are made from pure glass, allowing them to transmit digital information from one place to another using pulses of light, which means that the information can be transmitted over far greater distances and in much greater amounts (bandwidths) than via copper wire. It's kinda like the difference between getting the Eurostar from London to Paris or driving a Sinclair C5. Coaxial cable is used because it is good at carrying weak signals and protecting them from outside interference. Kinda like Max Clifford.
Do I need superfast broadband?
While access to superfast broadband is an increasingly contentious issue - and one that we'll come to soon - an equally relevant issue at present is who actually wants and/or needs superfast broadband. According to Ed Richards, chief executive of Ofcom, speaking at a conference in London last month, interest in superfast broadband in the UK is pretty low and only of real value to households sheltering the bandwidth vampires known as teenagers.
The results of a survey of UK broadband customers by PC magazine Computeractive, also published last month, found that, even with superfast internet access not yet universally available, many of us are already paying for high-speed connections we might not need.
However, while signing up to a superfast broadband package now might be superfluous for you - especially if your online activities stretch little further than checking your emails and window surfing for caravans on eBay (hi dad!) - there's little chance of superfast broadband becoming the next MiniDisc or HD DVD.
While Richards may be right in saying that there is little demand or need for high-speed internet at present, his own organisation's research shows that this isn't likely to be the case for long. Ofcom's The state of the communications nation report, also published last month, revealed that the average home broadband user now downloads the equivalent of more than 11 films a month. It also showed a "substantial" increase in our broadband use over time, while another Ofcom paper - the International Communications Market report - found that take-up of superfast services in the UK is ahead of that in other leading European nations.
This research is backed up by all manner of other stats - we spend more time watching TV online than any other country in Europe, our broadband consumption is also the biggest on the continent, we spend more time online than we do sleeping, we bank online more than ever, we're downloading more music than ever, we're watching football online, video streaming website YouTube is one of the most popular websites in the country and it is predicted that our homes will eventually become one big internet-connected device.
Like the toilet, you might not want or need superfast broadband right now, but you will eventually.
OK, I want/need superfast broadband - where can I get it?
What's that we've reached? Why it's the crux, the heart, the root, the NUB of the matter, dear reader. While you may have decided "yes, this frighteningly fast Metropolitan line to the future is for me," whether you can fulfil that wish currently depends entirely on where you live.
You see, back in the day telephone services sprang up under private companies with quaint names like the Electric Telegraph Company. They were eventually amalgamated and nationalised under the Post Office, and then later under British Telecommunications before finally becoming privatised as BT. This meant that the full roll-out and maintenance of the landline telephone network was once funded and managed by the state.
Fast forward to today, and we now live in a state that rarely likes to own things unless it's forced to (hello RBS) or isn't allowed to get rid of them (salutations NHS). This means that there is no body or organisation responsible for funding or managing the expensive business of updating ye olde copper wired network to be able to support superfast broadband - it's expensive because it requires a whole lot of digging up disintegrating old things and burying expensive new things.
But worry not, for the government has a plan! The state is unwilling to fund a nationwide next-generation network, because, unlike back when landlines were originally being laid, there are a host of companies, both big and small, who stand to make a lot of wedge from superfast broadband. Craftily, the top dogs of Westminster have decided to let capitalism do the job for them, with the broadband providers delivering superfast broadband wherever demand compels them to, with competition being relied upon to keep prices down.
However, the problem with relying on market forces to deliver next-generation internet access is that broadband providers, as commercial concerns, are only ever going to deliver it where it makes commercial sense to do so. That's grand if you live in Chelsea, but not so much if you live in St Kilda. This is why Virgin Media's superfast packages are currently only available to 51% of homes in the UK, while BT's fibre network is currently available to just 20% of households.
I can't get superfast broadband now - will I ever be able to?
Don't worry, the government has a plan for that too! And here is the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt announcing it a year or so ago:
Couldn't be bothered to stick with that all the way through? Of course you couldn't, it was a politician giving a speech. What Mr Hunt was telling us is that the government has a strategy to "make sure the UK has the best broadband network in Europe by 2015". Sounds good, no? Obviously this involves the roll-out of superfast services being driven by demand and the competitive British broadband market, but how does Jeremy suggest we get these kinds of services to areas that make the Falklands look like the throbbing heart of modern economic dynamism?
Well, the government has allocated £530million over the next four years to drive the delivery of superfast broadband in rural communities and other isolated areas that the broadband big hitters ain't likely to be able to make big bucks from, with the aim of ensuring that 90% of homes and businesses can access next-generation services by 2015.
Sounds pretty sweet, right? Those Westminster big wigs got everything covered, right? Well that kinda brings us full circle to the week before last. BT, which has promised to spend £2.5billion to bring superfast broadband to two-thirds of the country by the end of 2014, said that it will actually take five or six years to reach the government's target of 90% superfast access - two to three years later than forecast. BT's chief executive, Ian Livingston, told Prime Minister David Cameron that this is due to a combination of isolated premises and small populations.
Blimey - can this superfast broadband business get any more complicated?
Of course it can! You see, Openreach, the division of BT which manages access to the national communications network for all broadband providers, believes that, with extra funding, BT could deliver its superfast broadband coverage to 90% of the UK rather than 66%.
As such, BT is bidding for the funds the government has made available, through Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), its broadband funding untit, to bring superfast services to those places that the broadband market is unlikely to provide for.
However, this has caused a number of smaller telecom companies - some of which may have more expertise than BT in how to deliver superfast broadband to isolated areas - to walk away from the bidding for the BDUK funds. For example, fibre specialists Geo withdrew in part because felt that the funding model being adopted by BDUK and local authorities "favours" BT.
Virgin Media, one of BT's main competitors, has also raised concerns about BT securing most of the funding available for the financing of rural broadband because of the way the money is being distributed. It suggests that this is allowing BT to become the dominant provider of superfast services in countryside communities.
The government seems unperturbed by these protestations though, as it has given councils a deadline of the end of February to make their bids for a slice of the funding.
Combine this hubbub with the fact that, as yet, no one has identified a foolproof way of how to get next-generation internet access to areas that aren't commercially viable to reach by conventional measures - satellite broadband suffers from latency (delay), while the auction that will allow mobile networks to offer next-generation mobile broadband, or 4G, have been delayed - and it seems that superfast broadband is unlikely to be available to a lot of us supersoon.