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Copper not dead for super-fast broadband, says BT

The UK could get speeds in excess of 100Mbps out of its existing copper broadband network, reducing the need to deploy full fibre-to-the-premises
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor on

The UK could squeeze extra speed out of its copper broadband network rather than depending on full fibre-to-the-premises connectivity, a Westminster e-Forum heard on Thursday.

The deployment of super-fast broadband services in the UK under the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) scheme is on track to deliver faster than 24Mbps connections to two-thirds of premises in the country by its 2015 deadline, Sean Williams, director of strategy, policy and portfolio at BT, said at a Westminster e-Forum on Thursday.

However, the form the super-fast service will take is undecided, with Lucy Dimes, chief executive of Alcatel-Lucent UK and Ireland said that vectoring broadband technology (VDSL) could take copper-based broadband speeds up to more than 100Mbps.

Vectoring works like noise cancellation in headphones, reducing noise by characterising the interference profile of an entire bundle and compensating for it to let ISPs deliver faster speeds. However, vectoring does not prevent that speed degradation that worsens the further the premises are from the exchange. It also prevents sub-loop unbundling (SLU).

Williams made the comments during a Westminster e-Forum focusing on the UK's future broadband infrastructure, attended by a number of representatives from infrastructure companies such as BT, Arqiva and Fujitsu.

He also confirmed that BT will not be ditching its copper network any time soon.

"Copper is a permanent feature of our network," Williams said. "There will be people who want copper telephony and not broadband."

While the company is currently rolling out partially fibre-based products under its Infinity brand, Williams said technologies such as vectoring and broadband extension technology (BET), could help take up the slack.

BT, which has been offering customers up to 40Mbps fibre-to-the-cabinet connections (FTTC), recently announced a 110Mbps service in October, only some of which use fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP). The company said its £2.5bn rollout of superfast broadband is being deployed at a rate which makes it available to around 1m premises every three months.

"[It]is a hugely rapid deployment" Williams said. "We've had 300,000 subscribers already."

BT is planning to upgrade its maximum speed for its Infinity products to 80Mbps in 2012, which Williams said would leave "even more overhead" to meet demand.

However, despite BT assurances that innovations outstrip consumer demand for bandwidth, Bill Mackenzie, business unit director of carrier solutions at Fujitsu, said that point-to-point fibre gives the best longevity in terms of investment. Fibre is cheaper to deploy and will allow service providers to keep their costs low and in turn offer better packages to their customers, he said.

Mackenzie also said that even with BDUK, European funding and industry investment, "there will still be parts of the UK where from Fujitsu's perspective the case will just not work. For me it's about making sure we make the right investment at the right time for the long term, rather than doing it in the short-term which may end in cul-de-sacs".

He also said that the time limits imposed by BDUK's target date also add to the challenge of deploying a full fibre network.

"The BDUK money comes with a significant timeline challenge to meet these deadlines and industrialise the process at the same time," Mackenzie added.

BT's Williams added that simplification and acceleration of the BDUK process and availability of further public spending would help keep the government on track with its 2015 goals. The scheme aims to deliver superfast broadband connections to 95 percent of UK premises by 2015, and an absolute minimum of 2Mbps to all premises within the same timeframe.

Other technologies, such as the LTE mobile trials that are taking place in Cornwall, femtocell trials, or satellite broadband could also be used to deliver high speed internet connectivity to remote or rural areas. However, these technologies come with their own challenges.

Chris O'Dell, vice president of sales for Hughes Network Systems, said that satellite broadband could help fill in the gaps with the UK's broadband 'not-spots' but conceded that for heavy internet users, it is unlikely to be sufficient.

"Satellite is a complementary technology. It has limitations with bandwidth etc, but what you do get is flexibility in its deployment," O'Dell said. "A lot of the historic arguments have gone away but the reality is if you have people wanting to draw down 50GB-100GB every month, then satellite is probably not the answer."

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