Within a decade, high speed internet access has gone from being a novelty to a necessity for millions of families. In the United Kingdom, broadband speeds are still highly dependent on location. Even reaching universal coverage of 2Mbps will be a challenge. Investment in a digital Britain is now an economic imperative and that will require a firm commitment to fibre optic connections. A new regulatory regime could facilitate that.

Most homes in densely populated areas can already receive speeds of at least 2Mbps, which reaches around 84% of the population.

In London, nearly 99% of households can receive 2Mbps and 93% can get more than 8Mbps. However, in Northern Ireland nearly a third of homes are unable to reach 2Mbps.

The proposals for Digital Britain recommend a universal service commitment to offer at least 2Mbps access to virtually all homes.

“Some people say this is too little too late, but we believe that investing to deliver 2Mbps could provide the platform for much higher-speed broadband services in areas where it wouldn’t otherwise happen for many years,” says Tim Johnson of broadband research company Point Topic.

Bringing fibre to street cabinets will not only improve speeds in slow areas but it will support much faster speeds where homes are closest.

The communications regulator Ofcom is now expected to announce a regulatory regime that could enable BT to build out its fibre network and allow wholesale access for others while still seeing a return on its investment.

There could be over four million homes and businesses on fibre connections within four years, according to Point Topic forecasts.

Although Virgin Media heavily promotes its fibre optic network, this also only extends as far as the street cabinet, which is connected to the home by a conventional coaxial cable. Nevertheless, cable television technology can already deliver speeds of 50Mbps or more.

The cable TV network is expected to retain around a quarter of the broadband market. The proportion dependent on DSL telephone line technology will drop from over 78% today to only 57%.

In the future, Point Topic expects a combination of cable and fibre connections to dominate. In ten years time it forecasts that over 90% of homes in the United Kingdom could have broadband access, almost all with speeds of over 30Mbps.

“But to achieve this there’s got to be some focused and vigorous action by both government and industry,” Johnson believes. “There needs to be a strong commitment to universal service, and serious investment in getting no-net homes online. It might seem a big step today, but I think that it’s one of the best things we could do to restructure our economy as we emerge from the financial crisis.”

With the increasing political and business pressure to make a national commitment to fibre, the prospects for a major step towards high-speed next-generation access look much more realistic than they did even a few months ago.