Japanese and South Korean consumers are used to receiving broadband rates of up to 1Gbit/s, UK rates are a snail's pace in comparison. So why are we so far behind?

Recent research by Ofcom suggests the average UK broadband rate is around 4Mbit/s and the regulator claims most consumers are 'happy' with that figure. But Ofcom may well have got a different response if it had surveyed Japan or South Korea, because consumers there are being offered rates of up to 1Gbit/s. What's more, these services are fully symmetrical, giving the same rate upstream as downstream. How can these countries achieve such staggering broadband speeds? The answer is simple: taking optical fibre right to the home – FTTH. Japan is leading the way. Until a few years ago, Japan's broadband services were surprisingly poor and overpriced so the government decided to subsidise a huge FTTH programme. It is now the world leader in FTTH with 13.2million households connected. Korea, meanwhile, has the highest proportion of users with FTTH, with more than 40% of homes connected via fibre. Not surprisingly, in a new survey, consultancy Ovum forecasts a steep increase in FTTH. 'The time for the access fibre vendor is finally coming', says the report. 'However, there is always a victim in such transitions and, in this case, that is DSL (ADSL in particular), as the worldwide market grinds to a halt and even goes into decline in a number of countries'. Ovum says take up of next generation access technologies like FTTH and FTTB (fibre to the building, for instance an apartment block) will see traditional DSL technologies saturate at around 320m lines in the residential market by 2014. FTTH/B, by contrast, will still be growing rapidly, with more than 160m lines in place by the end of the same year. In Asia-Pacific, the move to FTTH/B will be even more pronounced, with FTTH/B connections likely to be the leading technology in 2014. But in the UK and much of Europe, typical targets for the next mainstream phase of broadband are much lower – in many cases 20Mbit/s at most. Why such a huge difference? The answer is simple: these services still feature copper, at least somewhere. Over the last decade, the electronics industry has performed some amazing feats with copper, achieving multimegabit speeds over standard telephone lines. When those lines were first adopted as the standard for telephony services, most engineers would have said this was impossible. But copper is reaching its limits. The problem is that, even when 20Mbit/sec is achieved, it will soon become outdated and we will look on it as we now look at 56k modems. Greater use of fibre is the answer for the long term, because it can provide virtually unlimited capacity. It is estimated that internet traffic is doubling in volume every two years, but access speed is doubling every 21 months. Continue that for 10 years, and you can see why studies are already looking at what is needed to achieve 10Gbit/s. One thing is for sure: no technology other than FTTH will provide this. That is why the number of economies where FTTH has established a significant market presence (defined as 1% of households) has nearly doubled over the past 18 months, according to the FTTH Council, a worldwide industry backed body promoting FTTH. Now, 20 economies meet this threshold, with South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan holding the top four places. So, how about the UK? Not long ago, BT was sounding negative about fibre in general (see New Electronics, 26 February 2008, p14-16) and you can see why. BT estimates that implementing a complete FTTH strategy for the UK would cost £29billion, with 80% of this simply going towards digging up roads. However, there is an alternative – fibre to the cabinet (FTTC), where copper handles the short connection from cabinet to home. The cost for this is a mere £5 to 6bn. While FTTC is a compromise, BT is attaching greater significance to fibre than previously. In July, its first two trials of FTTC started, involving 15,000 premises in Muswell Hill and Cardiff. These use Generic Ethernet Access over FTTC, which can support downloads at up to 40Mbit/s and uploads at up to 5Mbit/s. Another 29 exchanges will start by January 2010 and, by 2012, the plan is to cover 40% of the UK population – some 10m homes – with FTTC. "Fibre is the future, so we're speeding up the pace of our plans," says Steve Robertson, ceo of BT's Openreach division. "We had aimed to get fibre to 0.5m homes by next March, but we're now aiming to double that." Virgin Media is even more ambitious, having started tests in Ashford of an FTTC system that aims to deliver 200Mbit/s. While the trial is small – just 100 users – the aim is to explore the potential uses of such a service. One problem faced by countries like the UK is that taking fibre right into the home is more difficult and costly than it is, say, in the Far East, as Mike Biddle, a lead technologist for the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), explains. "That is because there are far fewer huge apartment blocks and UK population density in many areas is typically lower. Even so, the long term future is clear when you look at some greenfield sites, where putting fibre into new homes is no more difficult than putting in copper. For example, BT has installed FTTH at a housing development in Ebbsfleet with 100Mbit/s available and a larger pilot involving 40,000 homes is set for March 2010." BT has also announced it is planning its first brownfield FTTH pilot in North London. Property developer Quintain Estates operates the Velocity1 network, which is being built into all new homes at its Wembley City site, giving residents guaranteed speeds ranging from 8 to 100Mbit/s. Fibre links the homes to the Velocity1 data centre, eliminating the need to use a telephone exchange, so delivering exceptional broadband speeds and reliability. The service is also available to businesses based at Wembley City. Quintain plans to roll out Velocity1 across the UK to its other mixed use development schemes, as well as to those developed by other organisations. That is the good news. Perhaps not so good is the Government's position. Lord Carter's recent Digital Britain report has generally been seen as too conservative in its view of the future, talking of 2Mbit/s rates by 2012 – despite the fact that Virgin says its current fastest rate of 50Mbit/s is already available to half of all UK homes. "Lord Carter has gone ahead with plans to provide Britain with outdated technology at a speed akin to a snail's pace," says Richard Heap, head of Telecoms at BDO Stoy Hayward. Even Gordon Brown says all households should get broadband speeds of 10Mbit/s. To add insult to injury, Carter has said he's going to tax every phone line in the country £6 per annum to fund this inaptly named 'next generation' network." So what of the future? And what will dramatic increases in access speeds mean? Looking forward is one task for the TSB. "Our remit is to look 10 years forward and we are trying to create an environment in which new applications and business models can be tried," said Biddle. "Things happen very fast – the BBC's iPlayer was launched in December 2007 and at peak times is now responsible for 5 to 10% of internet traffic in the UK. Even though many people still say they don't want broadband, they typically think of sitting in front of a pc. If the broadband connection is coming through a set top box onto their tv, the situation becomes very different." The TSB is now running a series of 13 technically challenging projects to investigate the development of devices that will be needed to achieve access speeds of 10Gbit/s. Examples include uncooled high speed reflective semiconductor optical amplifiers, a single chip optical wireless picocell interface and wave division multiplex access networks based on arrayed waveguide gratings. Even if we have ultra high speed broadband, what will we do with it? Some applications for 100Mbit/s are already obvious, like video on demand and online gaming, both in HD or 3d, as well as video telephony. Recent developments, like the link between Universal Music and Virgin, point in one clear direction: vast archives of content will be put online. It is certain to happen because it will be a huge money spinner – as long as sufficient numbers of people can access and purchase the content in a satisfactory way. Recently, Microsoft has started MSN Video, a free web tv service which allows people to watch old tv programmes for free. The US service Hulu, which does much the same via a huge library of tv shows, is planning to launch a service in Europe. Project Canvas, a venture between the BBC, ITV and BT, aims to enable viewers with Freeview or Freesat and broadband to access catch up and on demand programming via their tv from services like iPlayer and ITV Player. Eventually, discovering a piece of 'content' of any kind that has not been digitised will be big news, like finding a lost symphony from Mozart or a painting by da Vinci. But next generation access is not just about entertainment. FTTH Council Europe president Karel Helsen claims the era of fibre will improve people's quality of life significantly. "The last sounds abstract, but it means far better care for the elderly, for example. With ultra high speed data access, we will build new kinds of measurement equipment and provide excellent remote assistance from doctors and nurses, located anywhere – this is already happening in places like Sweden, which has the largest installed FTTH base in Europe. Also, individuals and SMEs will benefit significantly from the greater possibilities for people working from home." One truly new feature of FTTH, which most home users have not yet experienced at all, is that it can offer fully symmetrical rates. "When a high speed fibre based service was launched in Hong Kong, upstream traffic was three times greater than downstream," Helsen says. "Why? Partly, we think it was because people were experiencing something they had never had before." Rapid upstream rates will be crucial for applications like video telephony, software as service and cloud computing, where computing power and functionality does not reside on the user's desk but is provided remotely, as and when needed. "It's true that no one really knows what to do with 1Gbit/s access, yet," Helsen says. "Potential applications are limited by people's imagination. But the last two decades have shown that once you put in new technology, people will make use of it. As Walt Disney said, 'Give us the glass and we will break it'."