LONDON, March 12, 2010 - The United Kingdom’s largest cable operator, Virgin Media, has started a six-month trial of broadband services delivered by fiber attached to overhead telephone poles installed almost a century ago.
The current trial, which uses a speed of 50 megabits per second, is confined to a few hundred inhabitants of a small village called Woolhampton about 50 miles west of London.
If the trial is successful, it will pave the way for other third parties to pile in with similar services to more remote communities. Virgin’s scheme has been stimulated by the government’s determination that the advent of ultra fast “super” broadband will not open up a new digital divide just when the old one was being fixed.
Currently 18.3 million U.K. inhabitants have Internet access. About 90 percent of those have broadband speeds usually defined as 2 mbps or more – the U.K. government’s target figure for universal access by 2012.
But this is nowhere near enough for emerging broadband requirements including downloading video from the country’s TV services such as BBC iPlayer, which allows consumers to find and play programs that were aired within the prior seven days. The iPlayer soon will be available in high definition.
The surge in bandwidth-hungry services has prompted the government to consider setting a new higher target, probably 50 mbps, for around 2017, and to adopt policies that stimulate deployment of fiber.
The Virgin trial is able to avoid the cost of trenching to lay fiber by using existing overhead poles, reducing deployment costs. This makes it economic to drive into more remote, less densely populated areas where the cost of trenching cannot be justified. Equally significantly, it soon may not be necessary to drive all the way to every home to provide 50 mbps or even 100 mbps, since emerging spectral management techniques will enable copper to run at VDSL2 (Very High Speed Digital Subscriber Line) speeds over greater distances than had been thought, perhaps up to 5 kilometers compared with then earlier estimates of 1.5 kilometers.
This could create an alternative avenue for serving rural communities in the United Kingdom, given that almost every household has access to the copper infrastructure for telephony.
Separately, national carrier British Telecom is in discussions over opening its fiber ducts to third parties to stimulate super broadband roll out. Third party operators already have access to BT’s own fiber network through its local access division called BT Open Reach, but this limits their flexibility to deploy new services quickly in selected areas.
Now BT is trying to establish a regime where all operators, including rivals such as Virgin Media from the cable side, practice an open-access policy to their ducting. This move will be most relevant in more densely populated areas where ducting is widely available.
Back in the United States, local operators likely will eye these U.K. plans with some envy. There is an absence of readily available overhead poles for fiber in many remote communities, while major providers have so far tended to resist federal pressure to build out their networks to rural areas.
The distances are greater and the communities often very small, with the most promising candidate perhaps being VDSL2 since this would only require deploying a fiber to a technology known as a DSLAM, or Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexer, in each community. DSLAMs allow telephone lines to make faster connections to the Internet. However it remains to be seen to what extent the Federal Communication Commission’s upcoming national broadband plan will change the situation by subsidizing the upfront capital investment.