Superfast broadband is nearly here, but will it be available to everyone, and will subscription costs create a nation of web haves and have-nots? PC Advisor investigates.
Broadband never really disappears from the news or advertising. It's big business. And it's increasingly the means through which our entertainment and information needs are fulfilled. TV, music streaming, gaming, social networking and teleworking all depend on a good, solid web connection.
Lose your TV signal and you lose one means of receiving information; lose web access and you can no longer email, Facebook, browse the web for gossip or more meaningful information, or reach out to friends across the globe.
Many of us now spend more of our free time surfing the web and chatting on Facebook than we do on any other leisure activity. The web is becoming the main way we reach the outside world, so more reliable means of using it can only be a good thing.
Our increasing use of the web means our data demands have increased exponentially – and they will continue to grow.
Thankfully, a whole new broadband backbone is coming to a street near you soon. It's fatter, faster and much more reliable than old copper cable – and in the coming months, you'll be hearing more and more about it.
Marketing efforts are about to get much more prevalent as BT and its wholesale partners begin a mammoth push on the back of the fibre-optic broadband rollout. Promising download speeds of 20 megabits per second (Mbps) as a minimum and as much as 100Mbps as a theoretical maximum, the new breed of super-fast broadband is a high-stakes game.
In just a few months' time, connection speeds touching 400Mbps may be launched, while yet faster speeds promise to finally lift at least some parts of Broadband Britain out of the technological doldrums and on to the information superhighway.
Although such heady heights are a long way off, BT has already ploughed £2.5bn into fibre-optic broadband. It says that by the end of this year, such services will be available to four million households or 40 percent of the UK.
By 2015 this reach will be as much as 65 percent of the UK. With the infrastructure well on its way to being in place, it's now time for individual broadband service providers to start convincing customers like you and me that blistering speeds are worth having – and worth paying for.
What's happening in Broadband Britain?
There's still an availability gulf, but UK broadband connections on the whole are getting faster. SamKnows, which telecoms regulator Ofcom uses to help monitor actual broadband speeds, announced in July that since last year the average connection has risen from 4.1Mbps to 5.2Mps.
One of the reasons the UK average connection now runs at more than 5Mbps is that ISPs continue to tweak the hardware and the ADSL telephony to eke the maximum performance they can from it. Consumers can also reap improvements by keeping on top of upgrades and firmware updates to their broadband routers. If you're still using the modem router that came with your original broadband subscription, switching to a newer device can bring immediate benefits.
But the actual web speeds delivered by our 'up to' 20Mbps ADSL2+ connections often fall far short of their headline figures. This failure to deliver has prompted Ofcom to act against ISPs selling broadband in this manner, and consumers will eventually be given the option to cancel a subscription that delivers connection speeds slower than what's been promised. This legislation won't become effective until the end of the year, unfortunately, but at least it gives customers some sort of comeback.
In the meantime, a brave new world of far faster broadband is being rolled out. Based on a fibre-optic network known as BT Infinity, it's a whole new approach to home broadband. Unshackled from the limitations of copper wires, it's less likely to end up being tarred with the same 'disappointing' brush that has dogged ADSL 2+ and local loop unbundling (LLU).
In fact, first impressions from those who have been involved in fibre-optic broadband trials have been glowing, as one customer we spoke to explained (see 'Fibre-optic broadband in practice', on the next page).
And while the number of places where fibre-optic broadband is ready to go is still limited, the number of enabled BT exchanges is now more than 150.
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