I’ve long believed that future generations will marvel with a mix of shock and amusement that we ever worried, or indeed knew, our broadband speed.
In the future, internet access will be there or it won’t. What speed it is - upload or download - will be irrelevant. If you’re online you will have speeds that let you do whatever you want, from online gaming to uploading HD video to holographic phone calls or taking part in virtual reality boxing matches.
We’re a long way from this now. The majority of internet connections in the UK run over copper, and most fibre connections are only to the cabinet before running on copper to the home.
For a proper high-speed internet, where speeds are measured in gigabits or several hundreds of megabits, fibre will have to be at the heart of the network.
This is why it so was refreshing to hear government minister Matt Hancock promote this as his vision for the future of the UK’s digital infrastructure.
"The future is fibre. Interim technologies, yes. Part fibre, great. Satellites, sure, where necessary. But around the world the evidence increasingly points to fibre as the underpinning of a digital nation,” he said.
“The future is about enabling gigabit speeds and high-quality connectivity across the country. Demand is only going to rise, so we need to stay ahead of the curve. When it comes to fibre, it is a case not of if, but of when.”
Is this really a government minister making forward-looking, ambitious statements on the UK’s broadband future?
I was there when Jeremy Hunt said that 2Mbps for all was the government’s aim and even then it was laughable. So to hear the government come out and put fibre at the heart of its vision for the UK’s broadband future is surprising, and welcome.
Now, finally, we seem to have reached an awareness that the UK must see that everyone can get ultra-high-speed services.
This is not just download either, over which the government has always fixated. It may have been right to prioritise this over the past few years, but upload speeds must improve.
Try uploading a short video to YouTube on a basic copper connection and you’re usually forced to leave your computer on for several hours. Even businesses know this pain. This cannot happen in the future as everything becomes more digital.
With fibre we should be able to ensure symmetrical upload and download speeds of hundreds of megabits per second, if not gigabits per second, so that sharing data online, with peer-to-peer or via storage services, is a breeze.
This push to fibre will require a concerted effort from industry, but the signs are encouraging. BT touted a major breakthrough in fibre technology this week that could enable backhaul speeds of 40Gbps, up from 2.5Gbps.
The impact on end user speeds from these breakthroughs could be huge as 2.5Gbps back-haul fibre currently leads to 152Mbps for end-users, so the increase that a 40Gbps fibre back-end could provide would be huge.
Even BT's G.fast technology, while not fibre, has the potential to boost download connections into superfast territory, and increase uploads too.
Meanwhile, Virgin Media is pushing fibre across the UK with its £3bn Project Lightning, most recently announcing a major 360,000-premise rollout in Scotland.
It’s not just about the big two, though. It was pleasing to see the likes of Hyperoptic, Kcom and CityFibre given due praise by Hancock in his speech.
Each has focused on pushing fibre as hard as they can. CityFibre CEO Greg Mesch told me earlier this year that the firm can become a major rival to Openreach because of its wholesale fibre network.
CityFibre’s growth has been impressive, and the company now covers many UK towns and cities with proper 1Gbps connections to businesses, and even homes, in many major areas.
Mark Collins, CityFibre's director of strategy and public affairs, welcomed the government’s fibre focus and said that it should commit to a target of 80 per cent fibre coverage in the UK by 2026.
Ten years is probably a good target as it will take time for fibre to become the norm, and rollouts into many areas of the UK are likely to be extremely costly.
This in turn could increase the costs firms charge for these services and many end users may not be willing to pay that much as, for now at least, a speed of 25Mbps or so is probably adequate.
But this not about the near or even mid-term future. It's about the rest of the UK’s future.
Just as we all now wish that the Victorians had built bigger railways, we have to ensure that the internet networks we lay now provide for hundreds of years.
Of course, we can always go back and fix them retrospectively, but that leaves us playing catch up, and you don't want to dig more ditches as the world gets ever more digital, with smart cities, IoT, AI, VR and so on all set to rise.
I know that for many millions the problem right now is not high-speed fibre connections, but any sort of decent connection that provides a reasonable internet experience.
This should definitely be the number one priority for the short term, and BT, mostly through the Broadband Delivery UK framework, has done great work getting to millions of premises in some of the remotest regions of the UK.
This work isn’t done yet, and won’t be for a few more years, but if all goes to plan it should ensure an adequate base from which to grow.
As that work reaches its conclusion the broadband sector needs to get behind a fibre future, whatever the outcome of Ofcom’s decision on Openreach, so that the UK’s digital infrastructure is ready for the superfast future our descendants deserve.
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