We Need More Fibre

Update: 28 May 2015

For anyone who doubts the importance of high speed internet services, Cisco have released a detailed report on internet traffic. The headline details are that:

  • Video accounted for 67% of all internet traffic last year
  • That video will be 80% of all internet traffic by 2019
  • That worldwide internet traffic will double by 2019


Original article: 22 May 2015

If there's one thing we all need in our lives, it's more fibre.



Fibre Intake

Ok, so not that kind of fibre.

Over the past decade, internet use in the UK has doubled. Over the same time period, internet speeds have more than doubled, but now the services outstrip the speeds on offer. We live in an era of HD TV and film downloads/streaming, an era in which games have become the most popular form of entertainment.

Digital services from Steam to Netflix aren't cutting edge, they're routine, a day-to-day reality. As a result, we need to download not megabytes, but gigabytes. The Witcher 3, for example, is a 35 GB (gigabyte) download. Before you wonder whether this is some kind of outlier, Grand Theft Auto V was 60 GB. Also, as of last year, game downloads for PCs accounted for 92% of the market. This is just the PC market too. By the second quarter of 2014, the number of Netflix subscribers in the UK had tripled in just 18 months. Users therefore need fast internet connections to use the internet in the way they wish to use it. At my current speed, which is the fastest possible at my exchange, it'd take about 7 hours to download a 50 GB game. This assumes a constant download speed and me not needing to use the internet for anything else in that time. Even the slowest fibre internet connection could bring that time down to about 3 hours 8 minutes.

Don't forget that these are also just the download speeds. Factor in upload speeds and the picture gets even worse. With my service, my upload speed is about 1.2 Gb (gigabits), so uploading a 5 GB video to YouTube could take about 11 hours 25 minutes. There are a tonne of people online uploading videos to YouTube every day in the gaming sector. One of them who I've mentioned before, TotalBiscuit, has over 2 million subscribers, more than double the number of subscribers the New York Times has. It's worth mentioning that he isn't an outlier either, as this list of YouTube channels with the most subscribers reveals.

So modern internet speeds are materially harming the online experience of both users and businesses with access to fibre internet connections inconsistent at best. For example, a third of the Scilly Isles have signed up to superfast internet connections within 6 months of it becoming available there. However, in Soho, the heart of London, no superfast internet connections are available. None whatsoever. The Openreach site reports that at my local exchange they're still 'exploring solutions'. In practical terms, this means that there's no possibility of me receiving a fibre internet connection from or resold through BT/Openreach within the next 18 months. It's ridiculous that a W1 postcode should be left behind. There's clearly more to this than some of the simplistic urban vs rural comparisons that get made.


The UK's internet is constipated, courtesy of  SimplyWellBlog

The UK's internet is constipated, courtesy of SimplyWellBlog

Avoiding Constipation

It's clear then that we need a speed boost to get things moving again, to resolve the problem of trying to use 21st Century services with 20th Century technology. After all, even fibre services are usually only fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) with the 'journey' being completed on old copper wires. So what's holding us back? If you live in the UK then you probably know what I'm going to say next.

The internet/telephone infrastructure of the UK is owned by Openreach. Openreach is a division of BT. This means that most telecoms companies obtain their services through BT and resell them to their customers because there's a huge network in place, diabolical though it may be. If telecoms companies don't want to take that route, then they have to take the Virgin Media route of installing their own network from scratch. No, they're not available here either. As BT own the whole existing network, two issues result:

  1. BT are faced with the mammoth task and cost of upgrading the whole network,
  2. BT can manage the way in which they upgrade the network for their own benefit.

To be fair, upgrading a network of this scale is no small task. However, BT's had a privileged position for a long time, and I have to wonder if it's been slow out of the blocks in updating the network. The more worrying aspect is what happens when a single company owns an entire network, and I'm not the only one that's worried.

OFCOM, the UK's telecommunications regulator, could be about to force BT to open up access to its fibre network to try to increase business access to fibre internet services whilst providing them with a choice. If you're feeling sympathetic towards BT at being forced to open up their technology, then stop right there. We were in the same position with BT regarding broadband a decade ago, so lets have no pity for them. They've had more than enough time to learn from that experience.

For other ISPs (Internet Service Providers) it's a question of competition. BT own the network and have sole access, so they decide what gets rolled out where and when. Even when it finally does happen, every ISP has access to the same services, so there's little or no difference between each one. So OFCOM getting stuck in is good news? Up to a point. There are some points worth remembering:

  1. This relates to businesses so...
  2. Home users may not benefit
  3. BT can fight this
  4. We won't learn what's happening until 2016
  5. BT has until April 2017 to implement this

That's a big set of limitations. Even if BT choose to comply, they could still string this out for almost 2 more years.


Alternative Remedies

If ever there was a market in need of some shaking up it's the UK's internet services market. With slow rollout of high speed internet connections and little in the way of difference between services when they do, it's clear that we're on a very slow road. If you're still not convinced, London, the capital city of the UK, is over 10 Mb (megabits) slower than the European average. Whilst it's true that this study has been produced by an interested party, the numbers, if correct, are shocking.

Internet connection speeds across Europe, courtesy of  ISPreview

Internet connection speeds across Europe, courtesy of ISPreview

London's position is appalling, and I hate to think what a study of major, non-capital cities would show. The UK is Europe's weakling when it comes to internet connection speeds. This market must get shaken up before we slip any further.

Are you also in a fibre-free zone? How do you think the UK compares to the rest of Europe and the world? You can let me know in the comments.