BT: we won’t need Gigabit broadband for a long time

Steve Robertson is a man with what many might regard as an unenviable job.

BT: we won't need Gigabit broadband for a long time

He’s the CEO of Openreach, the BT division charged with building and maintaining the nationwide broadband network. Not only does he have to try to keep pace with innovative start-ups offering 1Gbits/sec broadband, he’s also charged with ensuring that the entire country has access to a decent connection.

In the first installment of our two-part interview, he talks about Britain’s obsession with broadband speeds and why BT won’t be rolling out gigabit networks anytime soon.

Q. With Virgin Media announcing its 100Mbits/sec service will be live by the end of the year and initiatives such as Fibrecity offering bursting speeds of up to 1Gbit/sec in some areas, how confident are you that BT can compete with those speeds?

A. I think we will be able to keep up with Virgin and Fibrecity. Clearly our [up to 40Mbits/sec] fibre-to-the-cabinet offering is more limited than Fibrecity. However, we know that we can achieve peak information rates of 100Mbits/sec on fibre-to-the-cabinet. We know that, if you take the full quoted speed on fibre-to-the-premises, we know we can do a Gigabit.

There’s an obsession with access speed, but the last thing I’ll actually be worried about is access speeds

There’s an obsession with access speed, but when I look at the world from an Openreach perspective, the last thing I’ll actually be worried about is access speeds. Even if we’re talking about 20, 30, 40Mbits/sec access speeds, to actually give the end user a true 30 or 40Mbits/sec experience on an end-to-end basis, you very quickly get to issues around the backhaul network, the way that the server structure that supports the internet works, and a whole bunch of other things.

Access speed is really important… but it’s a lot more complex and richer discussion than just the obsession about headline speeds when it comes to the real end-user experience.

Q. You say the fibre-to-the-premises service is capable of a Gigabit. Can we expect to see those speeds soon?

A. Probably not. From our point of view, if there’s a market demand for it, we would look at taking that to the market.

When you look at, say 100Mbits/sec, which will be standard across our portfolio for the fibre-to-the-premises product, the thing that worries me most is making sure that my customers – when they’re consuming a product that can offer 100Mbits/sec – that they’ve got the capability of using all those 100 megabits.

There is no piece of CPE [computer premises equipment] that is even remotely on the drawing board that could even begin to consume a Gigabit. Not even close to it. Even the most advanced HD type of experiences don’t consume 100Mbits/sec, never mind a Gigabit. I don’t see the market requirement for it.

Demand for higher access speeds will come along, but I think it’s going to be a long time before all the back-end infrastructure is there that’s going to be pushing towards a Gigabit.

Q. What are the main differences – if any – between your fibre VDSL network and Virgin Media’s DOCSIS 3 network?

A. They are fundamentally different technologies. One of the main things is it’s much easier in our environment to drive high up speeds as well as down speeds. When we look at things like high-speed gaming, sharing content, stuff like that, there are advantages in our technology.

DOCSIS 3 has certain characteristics, VDSL has certain characteristics, and one of the characteristics of VDSL technology is that it’s easier to deliver higher up speeds, on balance.

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