BT: Digital Britain Needs New Thinking

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BT has plenty of ideas to help meet the Digital Britain plans for a universal broadband service – but the government needs to work out what services users need, says BT’s corporate strategy director

BT is proud of its plans to roll out super-fast broadband – meaning 20Mbps or better – but the company has warned that the Government’s Digital Britain plans may need some new thinking.

“The next couple of years could be genuinely transformational in the UK,” says BT’s corporate strategy director, Dr Tim Whitley. But while the speeds available get faster, the government – and service providers – will have to be more precise about what services people will use, and what performance is needed.

The Government has demanded a universal service of 2Mbps broadband anywhere in the country, and at the same time pushed for increasing coverage of 20Mbps “super-fast” broadband. BT is moving towards that, as well as offering Ethernet services up to 100Mbps or even 1Gbps.

But how much of this is BT’s upgrade plan, and how much is the Government’s Broadband Britain initiative? It’s possible to confuse the two. BT is the major provider of the underlying services for broadband, so any government plan is heavily dependent on it – and on its only real wired infrastructure competitor, Virgin Media’s DOCSIS (data over cable service interface specification) network, a consumer-oriented descendant of cable TV networks.

BT’s current plans for rolling out broadband services predate the Government’s Digital Britain initiative. Digital Britain, announced in April, proposes that some money leftover from the switchover to Digital TV could be used to bring everyone in the country up to a universal service of 2Mbps, while a £6 levy on all phone lines will go towards rolling out the next generation of “super-fast” (20Mbps) services.

So, while the Government considers how to deliver on those plans, BT is busy on its own account, rolling out faster services. To get a feel for the two parallel stories, we spoke to Dr Whitley.

BT’s roll out and the Digital Britain plan

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“We have a mixed economy,” says Whitley. BT is pushing fibre out towards users, while making the best of the copper in the final mile to the premises. He talks a range of abbreviations, with FTTP (fibre to the premises) the goal for big businesses, and FTTC (fibre to cabinets in the street) the preferred way to get super-fast broadband to consumers and smaller businesses.

The proposed 2Mbps universal service obligation comes below those things, and will be put together using a traditional British string-and-sealing-wax approach or as Whitley puts it: “a carefully honed use of a range of technology, maximising and finding the sweet spot for each particular technology, area by area.”

“We’re not in bad shape in reality,” says Whitley. At the moment, the Digital Britain report estimates that 89 percent of people could potentially receive 2Mbps either from DSL providers working through BT exchanges, or through cable operators, and that “sounds about right,” says Dr Whitley. That leaves about ten percent of the population to cover.

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