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BT: Super-Fast Broadband Will Change Business

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

Government plans for super-fast broadband need a lot of work – but BT is pushing ahead with its own roll-out

Many people will have higher broadband speeds, even before the government sorts out its plans to fund a roll-out using a broadband levy, according to a senior BT executive. Those plans have a lot of issues to resolve, while BT’s plans are already under way, according to BT’s corporate strategy director, Dr Tim Whitley.

Like it or not, BT is at the centre of Government efforts to deliver broadband to the masses – and in Part 1 of this interview Dr Whitley discussed how the Government’s universal broadband proposal needs some clarification of what exact service all users will want to have – and the role of wireless may have been overstated.

What will people do with super-fast broadband?

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Now, we turn to the higher speeds that business will need, and the roll out of so-called “super-fast broadband”, which starts out at speeds around 20Mbps, and goes up from there. As with consumer-level services, there’s a chicken-and-egg situation here. It is not clear until people get the faster services, just what they will use it for, says Dr Whitley – but BT has some shrewd ideas.

Apart from the speed, the main difference with these services will be their high up-stream throughput, which could readh 15Mbps, says Dr Whitley: “That’s really important for a variety of reasons, and it heralds a whole range of service propositions.”

With reliable upstream bandwidth, firms will make more use of rich content including video, he says. “Think about the amount of video content and downloads today – if uploads equal today’s downloads, then two-way HD video conferencing, or video surveillance, can be done very comfortably.”

In its labs, BT is looking into allowing PCs to shrink to a simple screen, keyboard and mouse, with everything else held remotely. “You can’t do that on ADSL, because the network must ape the PC’s bus speed,” says Whitley.

Superfast broadband will differ from today’s broadband in its underlying features, he points out. Most importantly, it will free business broadband from the problem of misleading “headline rates” where speeds are “up to” 10Mbps or whatever.

When users get a next-generation 20Mbps or a 40Mbps service, it will be backed by guarantees, says Dr whitley. “If you have a headline rate of 30Mbps downstream, you will have an assured minimum of 15Mbps,” he says. “that is a guaranteed minimum, and it is monitored, so it will trigger trouble report to [BT’s infrastructure arm] OpenReach if it’s not delivered.”

This is a new model for British broadband, he says, and unusual in the world, as it’s being deployed, unbundled, from day one: “OpenReach is deploying a wholesale product, unlike anywhere else on the planet. It’s competition-ready.”

A range of service providers will be able to take and resell generic Ethernet services from OpenReach – and, according to Whitley, they will have a say in which exchanges have super-fast services.

Twelve communications providers are expected in the eventual roll-out, and four – Sky, O2, Carphone Warehouse and BT Retail – are involved in pilot projects currently running in London and Glasgow.

Fibre to the Cabinet

The basic technology here is fibre to the cabinet (FTTC), which extends BT’s fibre-optic network to enlarged cabinets in the street, from where a short-range high-speed version of ADSL, called VDSL, can take the signal to individual homes and offices.

“We’re riding the optics to the customer,” says Whitley. BT has sponsored a UK-specific tweak to the frequency usage of the VDSL standards for the UK, based on what it expects users to want: “We have a different split, one that give a significant proportion of the capacity to upstream traffic.”

A trial in Muswell Hill in London will pass about 30,000 premises, as will one at the Whitchurch exchange in Cardiff, and the Halfway exchange in Glasgow was added – because objections in London limited the size of the Muswell Hill trial. “Part of Muswell Hill is a conservation area, so a handful of cabinets had issues with local planning permission, because of the physical size of the cabinet,” says Whitley.

That may be disappointing in the short term, but the success of the pilots has given the company confidence to plan FTTC for another hundred of BT’s 5600 phone exchanges. The full list of 100 doesn’t seem to be on the BT Openreach site yet, with the most recent list adding 26 exchanges to the three in the trial.