As government reaches target for 95 per cent connectivity, there are still questions to answer
When you arrived at the office this morning what was the first thing you did? Aside from mulling over the football results and weekend antics most of you, I would guess, turned on a computer, most likely to check emails.
Naturally, you’re not the only one. I would suggest all offices and workstations up and down the country have either a PC or Mac front and centre.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that IT – and by extension the Internet – dominates the 21st-century office space.
Despite this, however, recent improvements may have passed you by.
On January 29 the government announced 19 out of 20 households and businesses now have access to ultrafast broadband connectivity.
An achievement that Openreach CEO Clive Selley hailed as “extraordinary” – even if he does say so himself.
The coverage target, set in May 2015, was met by the December 2017 deadline and ticks off one of the ambitions the Torys held.
Alongside providing basic broadband to everyone and encouraging private investment in full fibre connections, for the digital future in the UK.
Blistering minimum speeds of 24Mbps can be felt by more than 62 million people.
However, uSwitch head of regulation Richard Neudegg told Mobile News this is just one milestone on the way to better broadband speeds for all.
“It’s very welcome progress to get superfast broadband to 95 per cent of premises but we have to remember that geographical coverage is not a true reflection of the population penetration,”he said.
5G, fibre or fixed line – what should be the priority now? As government reaches target for 95 per cent connectivity, there are still questions to answer.
“The universal service obligation is also making sure rural areas are not left behind and there are also big questions about the future.
“As we move past ultrafast, and how the consumers are brought along with this journey as well.”
Despite the achievement of reaching over 90 per cent of the population, fewer than half those consumers are taking advantage of the broadband speeds available to them.
As recently as December, Ofcom announced that only 38 per cent of the population were taking advantage of superfast broadband, with the majority still using ADSL lines without feeling the need to upgrade.
The One Point managing director Martin Lauer added the improvements in technology also made the case for subscribing to superfast broadband harder to make.
He said: “If you look at the experience of using iPlayer when it first came out, it used to buffer all the time.
“Now it doesn’t buffer at all, the experience is a lot better without any improvements on that line because we have technology that increases the information that can be pushed down the line.”
Neudegg agreed adding: “There are still lots of people who are on ADSL, standard connections, and for some that works but we do need to find ways to make it easier for customers to move on to fibre.
“The government focuses on getting infrastructure in the ground but there is more that can be done to help consumers be aware of the fact these services are available and tell them the benefits, improvements and reliability that it can deliver.”
From the UK business perspective faster broadband, although welcome, isn’t the top priority; connectivity in all facets, be it fixed or mobile, is more appealing.
Vanilla IP CEO Dave Dadds argued recent initiatives and action from providers such as Gfast from BT have raised the quality but he added: “I think universal coverage is a must.
“The five per cent not covered by superfast broadband most likely doesn’t have many businesses in it anyway.
“So from a UK perspective we want internet connectivity and good quality wherever we are but that includes mobile as well.
“Every business is online now. I’m sure there is one business that doesn’t need the internet but 99.99 per cent of UK plc needs good internet connectivity.”
Lauer agreed. He added: “Your average business and your average home does not need the speed being demanded.
“They just need something reliable, something that gives you good up and good down. Surely the money would be better spent delivering that to everybody.
“Naturally you are going to want to give more speed, if you can, but I think the emphasis needs to be on reliable speeds you need in order to deliver your business.”
According to Westminster, the advancements in superfast broadband will close the “digital divide” and boost local economies, going against its own impact study four years ago that predicted faster broadband speeds would only have a modest impact on employment.
Now the government claims the expansions over the last three years have created around 50,000 jobs, generating £8.9 billion in turnover.
Despite the achievement, Cellular UK managing director Anthony Senter argued speed is not everything.
He said: “I think we probably need something constant. With high speed, we’ll get it sometimes but at high congestion times we won’t.”
“We need to have a constant measure that business users, for example, can rely on to get those uploads and downloads speeds.
“It is still questionable, in our experience, how much of the country has high-speed broadband.
“In some of our business cases, we struggle to get fibre to the cabinet and we have to get ADSL which gives 4MB as a maximum speed. There is also a basic retailer in London that can’t get high speed.”
Despite the consistent low speeds currently seen, one of the more important aspects of superfast broadband in the connectivity sphere is its role in making 5G a reality.
In order to hit the gigabit speeds promised when the 5G revolution happens, masts will need to take advantage of superfast and fibre connections, giving added importance to the target achieved by this government.
Neudegg said the fixed broadband connections may well be at the heart of the success of 5G and this infrastructure is crucial for connectivity in general.
He added: “For 5G and all mobile infrastructure we need to back haul the network because we need to plug the masts into something.
“So more rollout of core fibre networks can, potentially, be very beneficial to the rollout of 5G but the future we are heading to, for 5G, is going to be one of having ultrafast connections for as many customers
“Whether that is delivered over mobile infrastructure or fixed infrastructure to the house, it will need fibre networks at its core.”
Dadds echoed Neudegg’s comments but added his concern that fixed-line infrastructure in Britain will not be in place in time for the planned 2020 roll out of 5G.
“The worrying thing is that to get 5G out we most probably need some part of it to run through a fixed line network,” he said.
“In some ways, 5G depends on a good fibre or good back haul network but the number of cell cites we need for 5G is 10 times the number needed for 4G network we have now.
“From a UK perspective, I want good internet connectivity and good quality wherever I am.
That includes mobile, so the rollout of 5G, you could argue, is just as big a concern as fixed line broadband.”
Mobile connectivity, specifically 5G, is another area to which the current government has pledged devotion alongside the fixed connectivity of the country.
In the latest budget announcement in November Chancellor Philip Hammond announced £160 million devoted to 5G as part of a £500 million investment in “a range of innovative technology from artificial intelligence to 5G and full fibre broadband.”
The importance of 5G is not lost on the Cellular UK managing director, who highlighted the importance of the next generation of mobile networks and added 5G may well be more useful than fixed-line networks in the future.
He said: “Broadband might become more outdated when 5G comes into full affect and we should, perhaps, be investing in the infrastructure to attempt 5G as soon as it becomes available and it is released.
“Rather than investigating in 4G, which we know will be replaced, invest in new technology and just work with what we have now for the next couple of months to a year so that when 5G does come out we will be ready.”
Concentrating on cellular is an opinion that is shared by Lauer. The One Point managing director added speed is not everything.
He said: “We are building our business to be a mobile-first business. I think it would be stupid not to, but I also think the key focus for the mobile networks has to be reliability, not just speeds in pockets.
“You need to have something that is fit for purpose. Where connection speeds are slow, they need to speed up, but where things are fair enough they will do because they will still work thanks to compression technology.”
Lauer called on the authorities, regulators and operators to cooperate throughout the preparation and rollout of 5G despite the ongoing spectrum disagreement which has delayed the auction by at least four months.
He said: “The government has to mandate it, Ofcom have to regulate it and then hold the network’s feet very close to the fire in order to deliver it.
“Reliability and ubiquitous access need to be the priority, with speed coming in third. That lands on everyone’s shoulders, from the government to Ofcom to the suppliers.”
To bolster the argument to focus on cellular, we can compare the current 4G signals and the new superfast broadband available to 19 of every 20 premises.
According to the department for digital, culture, media and sport, superfast broadband provides speeds of at least 24Mbps.
In September last year, EE was averaging speeds in the region of 29Mbps. Despite the appealing speed improvements, fixed-line is the more sensible route, however the iteration of 5G will be appealing, especially alongside schemes like remote working and bring your own device.
Senter added that, although not viable all of the time, even current 4G connections can be used to carry out day to-day tasks but added that providers need to make such a move more appealing for businesses.
“There are pros and cons [to replacing fixed line with 4G network], we couldn’t use a 4G connection indefinitely because once we’ve used 100GB the cost of data becomes extortionately expensive.
“So to run on such a network exclusively would not be commercially viable but I think there is a balance to be struck between using both or trying to get the providers to come up with a better costing model for using 4G data.”