21CN: the 21st century nightmare?

The marketing maestros may have dubbed it the 21st Century Network – or 21CN for short – but all the indications are that the broadband speeds on offer from this multibillion pound investment will owe more to the last century than this. While the minority could see their speeds double – or even triple – under 21CN, many customers will see limited or no improvements to their connection, according to industry experts. A few may even see their speed decrease.

As other countries already boast broadband connections in the tens or even hundreds of Mb/sec, BT is suddenly keen to play down the importance of speed. Hardly surprising when its new network (which is now rolling out across the Midlands but won’t be completed until at least 2012) is already far behind even UK rivals that offer 50 or even 100Mb/sec. BT’s “next-generation” will top out at 24Mb/sec.

Worse still, BT will attempt to paper over the cracks – and make a profit while doing so – by selling businesses and bandwidth-hungry consumers “assured” connections guaranteeing periods of elevated bandwidth. Want to be sure you’re getting sufficient bandwidth to watch your streaming movie service tonight? That’ll be £3 – on top of your regular monthly connection fee.

We’ve spoken to ISPs who’ve been in the thick of the 21CN trials and respected industry watchers, as well as BT, to get a clear picture of the network set to dominate Britain’s broadband for the foreseeable future – and that picture looks disappointingly morbid for surfers hoping for a decent boost in broadband speeds. “The people who are going to benefit most from the 21CN rollout is the BT corporation,” said James Blessing, chief operating officer of 21CN trialist ISP Entanet. You’re about to find out why.

Plainly not up to speed

Before we dig any deeper into the limitations of 21CN, it’s important to put the network in context. 21CN was never designed to revolutionise Britain’s broadband. Its prime intention was to wipe away layer upon layer of complexity that has gradually built up on BT’s network over the years, and replace it all with a simplified IP-based network that can handle both voice and data services. It’s a grandiose cost-cutting measure – any improvements to the speed of broadband connections are almost a happy side-effect.

21CN allows BT to bring ADSL2+ technology to its network for the first time. ADSL2+ isn’t a new technology, of course. Local loop unbundling (LLU) ISPs who’ve installed their own equipment in telephone exchanges – such as Be, Sky and Tiscali – have been offering ADSL2+ for more than a year. BT, despite its enormous resources, isn’t at the bleeding edge of technology: it’s merely playing catch-up with the rest of the industry.

Yet, even ADSL2+ won’t offer BT parity with its faster-moving rivals. Virgin Media says it will offer 50Mb/sec connections to nine million homes by the end of the year, following successful trials of the technology in Kent. Innovative start-up H20 plans to double that with 100Mb/sec home-broadband connections delivered by pushing fibre through Britain’s sewer network, although this literally shit-hot speed will only be available in three towns across the country within the next 18 months before an anticipated nationwide rollout.


In fact, the evidence from early 21CN trials suggests BT will struggle to even get close to its modest headline speed for the majority of its broadband customers. BT Wholesale’s managing director of products and strategy, Cameron Rejali, recently told journalists: “We think 50% of lines will have 12Mb/sec or better.” However, those figures are contradicted by BT’s own labs test results, which claim that 50% of households are expected to achieve minimum speeds of between just 6.3 and 9.3Mb/sec.

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