When will you get superfast broadband?

In Ebbsfleet, Kent, it takes only seconds to download the latest episode of QI on the BBC iPlayer. In parts of Cheshire it takes several seconds to download the logo on the Google homepage. Such is the widening disparity between Britain’s broadband Haves and Have Nots.

While a lucky few are enjoying download speeds of 100Mbits/sec on BT’s new fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) services, others struggle to squeeze
sites designed for the broadband era down narrow dial-up pipes.

In this feature, we’re going to explore the real-world effects of living with this country’s wildly variable broadband network. We’ll cover the full gamut of headline speeds and broadband technologies that will be available in the UK in the near future, and reveal what they will (or won’t) do for the homes and businesses connected to them.

We’ll also help you find out what broadband speeds you can expect to receive in your area over the next few years. Maybe it is time to move after all.


Those fortunate enough to live in areas where fibre-optic cable stretches from their local telephone exchange right to their front door are enjoying the fastest download speeds available in Britain today. Virgin Media may be experimenting with 200Mbits/sec cable services, but customers on BT’s FTTP network are already enjoying 100Mbits/sec connections.

However, to say that those on 100Mbits/sec are the privileged few is a vast understatement. BT recently complained to Britain’s advertising watchdog when Virgin claimed its 50Mbits/sec cable was “Britain’s fastest broadband”, protesting that it was serving customers at twice that speed. The complaint was summarily dismissed after Virgin pointed out that BT had only 38 houses connected to 100Mbits/sec lines at the turn of the year.

BT had only 38 houses connected to 100Mbits/sec lines at the turn of the year

Why so few? Because laying fibre to the front door involves digging up roads, a costly process that BT isn’t willing to bankroll except on green- or brown-field sites such as the Ebbsfleet testbed, where BT has delivered the FTTP connections to a new housing estate.

Other providers claim you don’t have to dig up the roads to deliver three-figure download speeds. Start-up company H2O Networks is currently laying fibre in the sewer networks of Bournemouth to bring 100Mbits/sec broadband to the residents of the South Coast resort. The company is undertaking further rollouts in Dundee and Sheffield.

But why should we care? What types of applications will download speeds of this magnitude deliver? “Multiscreen TV will be transformational,” said BT’s corporate strategy director Tim Whitley, who points out that several PCs in the house will be able to connect to HD iPlayer streams simultaneously on 100Mbits/sec connections, with plenty of bandwidth to spare. Whitley also predicts a surge in “in-line computing”, where homes and businesses rent processing power from servers in the Cloud, and access those services using low-powered client devices.

However, it’s improvement to upload rather than download speeds that could make the most dramatic difference to the way we use the web. BT is talking about upload speeds of 5, 10 or even 15Mbits/sec on FTTP, which is a sea change from the low hundreds of kilobytes most people receive on ADSL services. “It means you can upload video content in a reasonable time frame,” said Whitley.

Professionals who struggle to work from home because of the time it takes to upload large files could also reap the benefits, while bandwidth-intensive services such as VoIP and video conferencing could become viable on home or small-business connections. “Businesses will be in a better position to implement VoIP communication strategies, removing the requirement for traditional telephony services such as ISDN, and be confident that the volume of calls can be handled without any impact on call quality,” said Andrew Saunders, Zen Internet’s head of product management and marketing.

Who will get 100Mbits/sec?

For now, only those who move into new housing estates, or those lucky enough to be living in an area covered by H2O’s sewer broadband scheme. BT says it’s continuing to assess demand for 100Mbits/sec FTTP, but that “economics are very much the key factor”. The company says it may consider employing “trigger models” like it did with the launch of ADSL, where BT demands that a certain number of customers on a telephone exchange express an interest in FTTP before laying the necessary fibre.


For the vast majority of people who aren’t going to see BT’s fibre running up to their door any time in the near future, Virgin Media’s cable network offers the next-best alternative.

Virgin unveiled its new DOCSIS 3 network earlier this year, offering speeds of up to 50Mbits/sec to around 40% of its customers. The DOCSIS 3 upgrade should be completed by next summer, making those speeds available to the entire Virgin network, which covers roughly half of the country’s population.

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