Page last updated at 07:44 GMT, Thursday, 28 May 2009 08:44 UK

Calls for BT to 'light my fibre'

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

Fibre going around a globe
Fibre networks are being installed around the world

As the UK moves towards super-fast broadband the divide between the broadband haves and have-nots is likely to get wider.

The government estimates that some 30% of the country will not be covered by BT and Virgin Media's super-fast broadband plans - offering speeds of up to 100Mbps (megabits per second).

It could see a return to the bad old days of rural/urban divide, with those in towns benefiting from the high-speed networks while those in the countryside languish on much slower speeds.

There are alternatives, such as a swathe of community-based fibre schemes that are growing up around the UK but many still look to BT to fill in the gaps.

Some believe Openreach, the BT spin off responsible for infrastructure, could be mandated to provide a certain speed of broadband to the whole country.

But the days when BT was the incumbent operator which had to provide telephone services to everyone in the UK because of its monopoly are over and there is no obligation for it to offer data services in the same way.

Now as a commercial company, BT has argued that the UK broadband landscape today is already extremely competitive and that it can only invest where the economics stack up.

It also points out that it is investing £1.5bn investment in so-called fibre to the cabinet technology which will offer faster speeds to 40% of UK homes.

It stresses that its main rival Virgin Media could equally extend its network - which currently passes half of the UK, mainly in urban areas.

Virgin Media has recently announced that it will be adding half a million homes to its existing network, with 50,000 coming online this year.

But in response to calls that Virgin should open up its network, it is less enthusiastic.

"We do not believe there is currently a strong regulatory or policy justification for such an intervention. Ofcom has previously explicitly stated that they do not consider there to be a case for mandated open access to the cable platform and we remain focused on delivering our own market leading services," it said in a statement.

Ford broadband

A Ford Fiesta
Will the British public be happy with 'Ford broadband'

Despite this, some have been surprised by BT's attitude to faster broadband.

At a recent broadband summit, ahead of Lord Carter's Digital Britain report which is due in June, BT's chief executive Ian Livingstone likened BT's fibre ambitions to running a Ford car as opposed to a 100Mb Ferrarri.

The British people he said would "be happy with a Ford".

For many watching the summit via Twitter such comments drew anger.

For those old enough to remember, his words echoed those of a previous BT chairman, Iain Vallance.

Speaking about the company's attitude to broadband in 1999, he said: "BT is a lollipop man with the unenviable task of restraining over-exuberant children from dashing across the road at will and ensuring a safe and orderly crossing."

That ill-advised speech did not go down too well among the delegates at the telecoms conference he was addressing and, 10 years later the current boss seems to have alienated his audience in a similar way.

It certainly angered Elfed Thomas, chief executive of i3 Group, formerly known as H20 Networks, which is currently rolling out fibre to the home via the UK's sewer network.

"The country is set to be left in the wake of the worldwide digital revolution if the limited ambitions of BT and Virgin are allowed to restrict fibre optic rollout in the UK," said Mr Thomas.

"To say the public does not want 100Mbps is a smokescreen for the admission that BT is incapable of providing super fast broadband due to the limitations of its antiquated copper network," he added.

His firm has been installing fibre optic cables - run via sewers - for local authorities, universities and hospitals for over five years and has recently started focusing on homes.

Homes in Bournemouth have already been hooked up to the so-called fibre to the home (FTTH) technology and i3 plans to connect nine other so-called Fibre Cities by the end of 2010.

But as yet no Internet Service Provider has been signed up to provide the technology to homes.

"The opportunities offered by fibre optics, both now and in the future, cannot be underestimated. How can we possibly seek to deploy a national fibre optic network only to limit its speed to 40Mbps? This notion will result in BT's network becoming obsolete in the very foreseeable future," said Mr Elfed.

Grassroots broadband

Railway line
Railway tracks provide excellent corridors for broadband

For grassroot campaigners, many living in areas with little or no broadband coverage, the more important question is how far the UK is falling behind other nations.

According to a global league table compiled by the Fibre to the Home Council for Europe there are currently 13 European countries offering FTTH networks.

The UK is not one of them because despite a few FTTH schemes it has not yet reached 1% penetration.

Shortly after Lord Carter announced the intention of offering providing universal 2Mbps broadband, South Korea announced its own Universal Service Obligation of 1Gbps, which would be publicly funded.

And countries not traditionally associated with excellent communications services are getting ahead of the game when it comes to laying fibre.

Slovak Telecom, for example, has just installed 90,000 FTTH lines in Slovakia.

In the UK the job of providing fibre to the home has fallen to niche community based organisations.

There are some 40 such schemes running up and down the country.

People living in Lyddington, Rutland, have joined forces to hire a local telecoms company to set up the service.

They took the decision after major internet providers said it was not economically viable to lay special fibre optic cables in smaller rural communities.

So far they have raised £25,000 to install their own high speed broadband and work will begin in the summer.

In other parts of the country fibre is being laid right now.

In Yorkshire, where it is estimated that 20% of homes and businesses cannot get 2Mbps broadband, a company called FibreStream has come up with some novel ways of bringing faster speeds to remote communities.

Later this summer it will begin laying fibre along the railway track of the North Yorkshire Moor steam railway.

The network will eventually serve a series of communities including Newton, Stape, Levisham, Goathland and Grosmont, and the coastal town of Whitby.

"Old railway tracks provide a ready-made corridor for fibre," said Guy Jarvis, chief executive of FibreStream.

In neighbouring Lancashire it has just laid its first fibre to the home lines in Wray, connecting just two homes initially.

It is an extension to its existing Wi-fi network and has cost a couple of thousand pounds.

Graphic of a house

Its hybrid wireless/fibre solution - known as Fi-Wi - is coming to the aid of a remote community on the banks of the river Humber, for whom the technology could literally be a lifeline.

The Humber lifeboat crew and their families live on a small, inaccessible spit of land known as Spurn Point.

Currently they have little or no broadband.

Dave Steenvoorden is the coxswain of the Humber lifeboat is hopeful the Fi-Wi network can transform lives.

"A lot of RNLI training is done online. At the moment uploading a 30 second video of a rescue can take a couple of hours and may not work if the connection falls off," he said.

"This network will help us operationally but it will also improve our quality of life, allowing us to do simple things like shop online," he said.

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