There are now more than two million broadband subscriptions in the United Kingdom that can be described as “superfast” — that is with a downstream data rate of over 25Mbps. There is still a long way to go, with a total of over 21 million fixed broadband lines in the country and many homes that remain unconnected.
In the last quarter there were over 600,000 new superfast subscribers in the United Kingdom, while the total number of new broadband subscribers rose by only 175,000, which is lower than the previous rate of growth. The first half of 2012 saw the tipping point where traditional DSL broadband delivered over telephone lines, for the first time, started to lose subscribers overall.
“Copper isn’t finished, it’s still an important part of the UK’s broadband strategy,” notes Oliver Johnson, the chief executive of the broadband research company Point Topic. “Super high-bandwidth options whether delivered over co-axial cable by Virgin Media or over an hybrid copper/fibre network by other players are now where the consumer sees the future.”
Virgin Media is responsible for the majority of the gains in Superfast broadband, successfully upgrading and upselling within their customer base.
The number of Virgin Media customers on broadband packages offering 30Mbps or above rose over the last quarter by nearly 460,000 to reach 1.3 million, out of a total of 4.1 million broadband customers, representing approaching a third of the broadband base. Of these, 590,000 customers are on packages between 50Mbps and 100Mbps. Over 40% of new broadband subscribers selected packages of 60Mb or higher during the last quarter.
BT added 150,000 new superfast customers in the last quarter, bringing its fibre to the cabinet service to over 700,000 customers, out of 6.3 million retail broadband lines, or over a tenth of its broadband base.
Superfast broadband is a key target for the United Kingdom and Europe. The stated objectives are for the whole of Europe to have superfast broadband available for all consumers by 2020. The United Kingdom government has a declared objective to have the “best broadband in Europe” by 2015.
Superfast is simply a relative term, intended to refer to connections that exceed the performance of current ADSL telephone lines. Cable television systems can comfortably deliver this, while existing copper phone lines require fibre to be extended closer to the subscriber to reach this level, as with the BT Infinity product.
A recent report by the House of Lords Communications Committee was critical of the current focus on short-term speed targets and the lack of vision for broadband as a key part of national infrastructure.
For some of those in urban areas, access to superfast broadband is already a reality, although still falling far short of the gigabit speeds that fibre can deliver.
“There are parts of the UK today that are on a par with the most complete coverage available anywhere in the world,” observes Oliver Johnson. “Challenges remain though. How will we reach the millions still without any broadband at all? Where are the plans for measuring the UK against the rest of Europe and the world? And how are we going to make high-speed internet access affordable for all? Until we can answer all of these satisfactorily we won’t be parading a gold medal for broadband any time soon.”