My Band Is Broader Than Yours

We start the New Year with a classic example of European disunity with three of the European Union’s major members independently starting, or planning, to implement next-generation networks to provide faster broadband services. If not for these members, a cohesive and co-ordinated strategy could be standardised throughout Europe. So where are we communications-wise as we enter 2008? It’s clearly recognised that broadband services in the United Kingdom are too slow. Although you can get up to 24Mbps from some UK service providers, you’ll be extremely lucky to achieve that speed. For most users, typical speeds fall between 2.5 to 3.0Mbps. The UK needs to have what France Telecom is currently installing in Paris—fibre to the home. No thanks, says British Telecom (BT). That would cost around 20 billion Euro, which is slightly beyond BT’s investment plans despite some recent record-breaking profit figures. It looks like BT will instead go for a cheaper option to fibre, namely VDSL. Full implementation of this copper and fibre hybrid solution would cost BT about 8 billion. VDSL can support new high bandwidth applications such as HDTV, as well as telephone services like voice-over-IP and general Internet access, over a single connection. It’s deployed via existing copper wiring and, according to BT, can operate at speeds up to 30Mbps. But, there is a but. Like ADSL, it’s still distance-dependent and those closest to the exchange will get the fastest speeds. Looking further ahead, though, second-generation VDSL2 systems could provide the UK with data rates of 100 Mbps in both upstream and downstream directions. So where is France in all this? The simple answer is that they’re ahead of the UK. Not only are broadband services cheaper in France, they’re also faster. And soon they will get a lot faster. In Paris, France Telecom is installing fibre to homes that will deliver speeds up to 100Mbps. How come they’re doing this and the UK isn’t? It’s an infrastructure thing. French engineers can channel the fibre through existing pipe systems under Parisian streets. Also, most Parisians live in apartments, which means that installation is simpler and, therefore, cheaper. What about Germany? Well they lag behind the French, too. The vast majority of German users are on DSL services, and whereas Deutsche Telekom implemented a VDSL-based network in many Germany cities, it’s been reluctant to let competitive networks access the network. This strategy was a manoeuvre by Deutsche Telekom to recuperate its VDSL installation costs by charging high rates to outsiders. I say “was” because EU regulators took a dim view of this plan and quite rightly told the German telecoms provider to open its platform. So it seems that countries with well-established broadband networks are taking a different approach depending on technical and financial infrastructure challenges. What is clear, though, is that Europe in general needs to improve on broadband speeds if customers have any chance of enjoying the services and entertainment provided by high-speed Internet access.

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