Three million homes and businesses could have access to fibre-to-the-premises broadband with speeds of up to 1Gbps within two years, under plans from BT's infrastructure arm Openreach.
While the UK's telephone and internet network is built on century-old copper wire, Openreach has also been building out its fibre-to-the-cabinet network which upgrades the network that connects its green street-cabinets with fibre optics.
This service now provides the internet backbone to 27 million homes, although the connection from that street cabinet to the home is still probably copper.
Fibre to the premises (FTTP) replaces that last bit of copper with fibre, which makes the connection much more stable and much faster -- up to 1Gbps, compared to the 24Mbps offered by so-called 'superfast' broadband currently.
Openreach CEO Clive Selley said that, just three years ago, Britons used less than half the data they do now on their home broadband. Average speeds were one-third of what they are now.
"We believe investing in FTTP is the right thing to do for the UK. We've already made a start -- with half a million premises in Britain with access to FTTP -- a majority in rural areas," he said.
Openreach said it now plans to build a large-scale FTTP network for the UK. Openreach aims to make FTTP available to three million homes and businesses by the end of 2020.
Work will start in a few months in an initial eight cities: Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, London, and Manchester, with BT aiming to reach ten million homes and businesses by the "mid-2020s".
Openreach admitted that three million by 2020 might not seem a lot, but described the job of connecting every individual property to a full fibre connection as a "massive task and takes significant time, engineering, and manpower". Selley added: "The job of "fibering" the UK will take decades."
This is largely down to the cost of physically digging up roads and pavements to take out the copper cable and and replace it with fibre optic, which is not in itself expensive. Selley also called for "a supportive public policy and regulatory environment" that encourages infrastructure investment. "We need to get the costs of delivering fibre down and ensure that there is demand for and take up of the new FTTP platform," he said.
Analysis published last year put the UK in 31st place in the world for broadband speeds, with an average connection speed of 16.51Mbps, behind 20 European countries, 17 of which are in the EU. And 1.4 million premises -- five percent of the total -- are still struggling with no options above 24Mbps.
The government has also set a target of making 10Mbps broadband availability a legal right by 2020 but with the advent of the Internet of Things and ever more devices, in reality most homes and businesses will need a lot more than that. The EU already has a target of offering everyone 30Mbps by 2020.
Indeed, the UK could have had a full fibre network decades ago if the government had taken the issue seriously. Professor Peter Cochrane, BT's former CTO, said that he had FTTC working in 1986 and by 1990 BT was ready to start producing fibre ahead of a major rollout of the technology. However, Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government chose a different option -- to throw open the market to local cable companies in order to stimulate competition. This proved to be of limited success and did not deliver a national fibre network.
He told the government inquiry into superfast broadband back in 2012:"To my mind, that failure was, first, catastrophic; secondly, it was partially political; and, thirdly, it was an industrial failure: a failure to come to the government and explain the implications and why that investment should not have been stopped. It could be that bringing in more competition was the right thing to do, but it could have been done without forestalling the fibre rollout at that time." The UK has been playing catch-up ever since.