Broadband in the UK

1.21 jigawatts!

May 2008: – Lately I’ve been pondering about broadband in the UK, and it’s present progression. For years now UK Internet service providers (ISP’s) have been under almost constant fire, by it’s customers, watchdog associations and of course the government trying to kerb illegal file sharing. Sod all that though, what really scares me is the state of our infrastructure.

We are constantly being bombarded with news of faster speeds from our two most common internet providers, Virgin Media with their 50Mbits/sec pilot scheme, as well as BT barking on about their 100Mbit/sec trials in Kent, presumably where you have to have your PC situated right next to the exchange…

Whilst this news grabs the headlines and makes gamers, and downloaders glee with delight, it makes me rather concerned. If this really does happen ISP’s will be struggling to cope with demand.

In the old days ADSL was around 256Kbits/sec, which was super quick compared to dialup speeds and ISDN. The side effect of this was that more and more users jumped on the bandwagon thanks to ever falling subscription costs. This allowed users to quickly realise exactly what contention really was, and how a 50:1 contention wasn’t really a good thing. The more people on that segment equates to wildly fluctuating speeds for the end user – not good. Over the years exchanges were to become rather overcrowded.

At present Video on Demand is slowly becoming a commonly used term here in the UK. The BBC have finished off their iPlayer service that allows users to use their PC’s to watch shows they had missed. Channel 4 has 4OD (4 on Demand), which is their equivalent service and Microsoft have their own Video Marketplace, which isn’t a streaming service as such but more of a download service containing a mix of both Standard and High Definition videos. All this equates to a great deal of strain on an ISP’s bandwidth so something has to give. Where is that extra capacity going to come from?

Microsoft are one such company who have constantly seen the colossal Xbox Live service collapse under pressure during the launch of any large game, or if a holiday period is in effect as with Christmas 2007, which saw the service up and down more times than Paris Hilton during her heyday…

Of course ISP’s get around this by limiting bandwidth to a certain amount or capacity. Once you reach their pre-alloted downloads ‘cap’, then you can either purchase more bandwidth at a cost per gigabyte or survive on a reduced speed. With video on demand and hi-def videos available over the web, a year from now ISP’s will really feel the pressure. Cable companies aren’t free of any of these issues either. They can boast greater speeds due to having underground fibre optic infrastructure however at the end of the day they will always hit speed issues.

Mobile Broadband has taken off rather slowly here, but now operators are scrambling to compete with cheaper 3G packages, however most of the time these almost always have ‘fine print’ issues that you really should make yourself aware of. They still have a long way to go to become feasable.

So what I’m getting at is we have a new age approaching on the internet where YouTube and sites like Google Video are small fry compared to video on demand services, which are springing up rapidly. Couple this with the fact that hi-def videos, which are huge filesize-wise will be hitting the P2P sharing scene absorbing up huge chunks of bandwidth. To add to the mayhem, content game distribution platforms like Valve’s Steam are in full swing and there are many websites in which you can purchase and download games from in minutes over a fast connection. I recently purchased The Witcher on the PC and had it downloaded in just 8mins flat. Where is all this extra capacity we need going to come from?

H20 Networks have come up with a system that utilises existing sewers as a conduit for fibres. These fibres then break out into ducts that are situated close to buildings. Of course this means that huge amounts of cash aren’t spent on digging up streets and it should be easy enough to install links everywhere. Of course this is all in it’s early stages.

The UK is miles behind Europe and Asia when it comes to internet speeds, and I just can’t see things changing for a long time over here. NTL almost went bankrupt trying to upgrade London with their underground fibre optic cable network – digging up our streets hit them hard financially – it took them years to do and they never fully completed it either. How would BT (British Telecom) fare? If they’re not doing this already that is. It would take years and a huge injection of money to do.

It just makes me ponder how much more can our twisted copper telephone lines really handle.

Supporting Articles: BBC News Technology, BBC News Technology #2