There is a proportion of the UK population known as the ‘final third’. This rather ominous term defines an increasingly frustrated group of people unlikely to receive superfast broadband in the near future. It appears that their needs are not of sufficient commercial interest to private suppliers, so they do not feature in roll out plans. However, this could be about to change.
Developments in broadband infrastructure predicted to take place in the coming year, combined with growing consumer demand for data-hungry products and services, such as smart-TV and internet-enabled connectivity between computing devices, are helping to make additional investment in superfast broadband and speed upgrades of existing solutions commercially viable.
The close of 2011 saw plenty of criticism of the current effort by Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) to provide superfast broadband to all, with the procurement process taking most of the flack. Looking back it is clear that the funding sources, a mix of public and private investment, meant there was always going to be a long project timeline involved.
2011 also saw Openreach continue its investment of £2.5bn into superfast broadband, and there are more announcements expected in 2012 on the exchanges that will get one of their two fibre solutions (FTTC or FTTP). Openreach plans to roll out superfast fibre to two-thirds of the UK by the end of 2014.
In addition, Openreach is set to upgrade the maximum speed of its FTTC service from 40Mbps to 80Mbps early in 2012. The Openreach FTTP product that brings true fibre into people’s living rooms saw some delays in 2011, but will get a headline speed upgrade from 100Mbps to 300Mbps in 2012.
Hopefully more areas will be added to the roll-out. Virgin Media will also be progressing forward with its own plans to upgrade user connection speeds, with most consumer speeds doubling and those on 100Mbps being upgraded to 120Mbps.
BT Retail is currently viewed as the main retailer of superfast broadband beyond Virgin Media, and it does have the lion’s share of FTTC customers. I am expecting other providers to start selling the Openreach product in 2012, particularly the likes of Sky and O2.
The number of options for fibre-based broadband will increase considerably in 2012. Hyperoptic is a name to watch. It is aiming to corner the market for urban flats by providing residents with Gigabit services. Hopefully, Fujitsu with its BDUK fibre plans will win contracts for some parts of the UK, which will then result in a situation where, at a regional level, market towns may actually have a faster and more future-proof solution than the big cities.
Mobile broadband became increasingly popular during 2011, mainly due to the rise in smartphone ownership, but has unfortunately not progressed. Limited trials are underway which will tease us with the potential speeds from 4G services, but no actual roll-out is expected in 2012.
This delay to 4G means that any illusions the mobile operators had of competing head to head with fixed-line broadband in cities are quickly vanishing. Once 4G gets moving, new proposals from Ofcom should help see coverage reach 98 per cent of the population from at least one provider, although this level of coverage won’t be required until 2017.
Convergence of social media and TV viewing took off in 2011 and, with the rise of smart TV ownership, will continue in 2012. The idea of posting a letter to Points of View will seem archaic to modern viewers. Feedback and opinions about TV shows will be shared during and immediately after they are aired, through both the TV itself and the generation of mini-tablet smart phones that people use during the advert breaks, making public opinion instantly accessible.
I hope that these exciting developments will enable the UK to finally compete with the likes of Sweden and the Netherlands in terms of internet connectivity. However, we will have to wait until the end of this year to see if the UK has been able to achieve Lord Carter’s ambitious target as set out in the Digital Britain report back in 2009: broadband for all in 2012.