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Broadband Internet Access (UK)

Last Edit: 12/12/18

bullet Introduction

Broadband is a term that telecom companies use to describe an Internet connection that: has a high data capacity; can support multiple frequencies / channels; and for wired technologies is always 'on'. The opposite to broadband is narrowband. Dialup is an example of a narrowband technology, and is notable for: its slow data capacity; and its support for only a single channel, which means a telephone service cannot be used at the same time as the narrowband Internet technology. Therefore, it should be clear that broadband is a desirable type of Internet access that usually refers to the best, or the amongst the best, options to connect to the Internet. Wired and wireless broadband technologies tend to favour subscribers who live in large urban areas: where subscribers are closest to the network infrastructure hubs. For example, the DSL wired broadband technology (most popular access technology from 2005-2015) degrades badly (in terms of latency and data speed) the further away from the telephone exchange a subscriber is located. Some rural areas have had to adopt niche access technologies -- Satellite and WiMAX -- to have access to a broadband Internet connection; due to being located over 12 miles from a telephone exchange.

Cable being laid to provide fibre broadband Internet access
(Pictured: cable being laid to provide fibre broadband Internet access)

Broadband is often referred to as a 'loose' term? this is because it refers to a range of different wired and wireless access technologies, and as times passes -- technology improves -- new definitions are required to describe the new technologies. Ofcom, who regulate telecommunications in the UK, stated in their "European Broadband Scorecard" document that "definitions of broadband continue to develop, in particular, the term 'superfast' is subject to a number of definitions." The European Commission has defined broadband (as of 2015) as a "fixed-line technology capable of providing a download speed of at least 144 kbit/s and less than 30 mbit/s". Broadband that provides a download speed above 30 mbit/s is defined as 'superfast broadband' and above 300 mbit/s as 'ultrafast broadband'. Ofcom and the European Commission refer to superfast broadband technologies as 'Next generation access' (NGA). Ofcom are currently categorising broadband as the following: standard broadband (technologies that provide less than 30 mbit/s); NGA broadband (fibre optic etc which provide over 30 mbit/s); HSPA 3G mobile broadband; and 4G mobile broadband.

Broadband (DSL/ADSL) was first introduced (in the UK) as a commercial access package in the year 2000. ADSL has remained the most common broadband package sold in the UK, but is slowly being replaced by Next generation access (NGA): fiber (wire) and 4G/5G (mobile). Broadband access packages have been sold as 'unlimited' (no download / upload limit) or with a bandwidth cap. ISP's who have sold unlimited broadband have been criticised for their advertisement of their product: fair usage policies have resulted in subscribers being 'throttled' if they download/upload too much data. It should be noted that traffic shaping was likely to occur to DSL networks than Fibre networks, and as the UK's Internet infrastructure has improved, ISPs are less likely to resort to penalising 'heavy' use subscribers.

bullet History

The first commercial UK Internet Service Providers were founded 1990-1992, and these ISPs only provided narrowband Internet access (dialup and ISDN). Broadband Internet access only became available from the year 2000 onwards. Early UK broadband was primarily provided by the DSL (digital subscriber line) technology; through the UK's copper line telephone network. From 1989-2003, Internet access (technologies and providers) were regulated in the UK by the the Office of Telecommunications (Oftel); Oftel were formed in 1984, when the Telecommunications Act 1984 was introduced by the UK Parliament. British Telecom was privitalised under the Telecommunications Act 1984, and this Act allowed smaller telecoms companies to utilise the UK's telephone network and provide Internet access. Oftel was criticised by early ISPs, such as Freeserve, for allowing BT too much freedom in leveraging a monopoly upon fixed line broadband technologies. In 2003, Ofcom was formed and took over Oftel's responsibility.

While the first broadband access technologies were wired technologies (DSL and Cable technologies), this was not to last: from 2005, mobile broadband technologies were slowly introduced (Wifi, WiMax, 3G, 4G, 5G). In terms of the evolution of wired broadband in the UK: ADSL2+ (DSL technology) was first implemented by BT in 2007, and fiber optic was first implemented by BT in 2011. The first wired broadband packages (ADSL) were typically capped at a download speed of 8mbit/s, which was improved to 24mbit/s by ADSL2+, and to 52mbit/s by fiber (additional reading: ADSL microfilters).

One of the problems that broadband suffered from was availability and quality; especially in rural areas, where it is generally not commercially viable. As the Internet's importance increased, both in civil and commercial affairs, the UK Government came under pressure to improve broadband access and performance. In 2009, the UK Government (Labour) published the Digital Britain report: that aimed to provide universal access to broadband by 2012 and provide funds to invest in next generation broadband. In 2010, the UK Government (Labour) was replaced by the UK Government (Conservative) headed by David Cameron. The Digital Britain report was resigned to the dustbin and in 2010, the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) released a new document named "Britain's Superfast Broadband Future". The result of this document was the creation of the organisation: Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK).

BDUK goal was to provide leadership in implementing the UK Government's (Conservative) intention to ensure: 1) all UK premises have access to 2 mbit/s by 2015 2) 90% of all UK premises have access of 'up to' 24 mbit/s by 2015. In 2014, the DCMS allocated £250million in funding to increase the 24 mbit/s promise to 95% of all UK premises. In 2015, the DCMS allocated £150million to fund the Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP); whose goal was to improve rural mobile coverage. In 2015, the UK Government (Conservative) introduced a new project named the "Universal Service Obligation for broadband" which intends to provide a data speed of 10 mbit/s to all UK premises by the year 2020.

Ofcom, as the regulatory and competition authority for telecommunications in the UK, has aided BDUK and the UK Government in reaching the above goals. Ofcom managed the license for the 4G mobile technology, and in 2013 - when they auctioned the license to four network operators: O2, EE, Three and Vodafone - they ensured that the operators promised to provide an indoor coverage of 95% of the UK's population. Through such license provision, Ofcom should ensure that telecom companies will meet or exceed the UK Governments universal service obligation.

In 2015, Ofcom stated (scorecard publication) that the majority of the UK's Next Generation Access (NGA) technology -- typically fiber optic technologies like FTTC, FTTP and DOCSIS 3.0 -- has been upgraded / provided by BT Openreach (British Telecom) and Virgin Media. Ofcom also referred to a few smaller NGA operators who have implemented NGA access to regional areas: KCOM (Hull) and WightFibre (Isle of Wight), Hyperoptic (London) and Gigler UK (Bournemouth). Presently, broadband is separated into two access technology categories: wired and wireless. For the next decade, it would appear that fibre optic will be the primary wired broadband access technology, and 5G the primary wireless broadband access technology. Both technologies are capable of providing a data speed of up to 1000 mbit/s, but presently provide a data speed of up to 52 mbit/s.

bullet Providers

When Internet access was first commercially sold in the United Kingdom, it was generally provided by small independent companies, such as: GreenNet, Pipex, Demon Internet, Zetnet, Easynet, Flexnet, Zen Internet, Simwood, Claranet, Larknet and Freeserve. While some of these companies still exist, most were purchased by large telecommunications companies, or simple folded and went out of business. Present day, the majority of UK Internet users connect via access accounts from a handful of large telecommunications companies. While the majority of domestic Internet users will connect via a DSL or Fibre Internet connection, the greatest change (since 2005) is the amount of users who connect to the Internet (on the move) from a mobile broadband connection (3G, 4G, 5G). The drawback to a mobile broadband connection, when connecting from a domestic home, is the access package itself: which tends to have a download limit/cap, whereas the vast majority of wired (dsl/fibre) connections are now unlimited. Therefore, downloading/uploading data is currently cheaper over a wired connection (dsl/fibre) and it can be provided to a far greater range of equipment (desktop computers, laptop computers, smartphones, tablets, games consoles, printers, televisions).

Wired Home Broadband Providers (DSL/Fibre)

-- Relish, Plusnet, SSE, BT, Virgin Media, John Lewis, Post Office, Sky, EE, Vodafone, Now Broadband, First Utility, Freeola, DirectSave, TalkTalk, Zen

Mobile Broadband Providers

-- Three, EE, O2, Vodafone, Virgin Mobile

Why have small independent ISPs struggled to compete against large telecommunications companies? Price may be one reason, reliability another, but one area small independent ISPs cannot compete against their larger competitors is the packaged telecommunication deals, where TV, telecoms and broadband are sold together in one deal. This simplifies billing for customers and can also represent an overall saving when combining all their telecommunications services. While niche and small ISPs still exist, Statista have collected and provided market share data -- for UK Internet Service Provider (ISP) in 2018 -- that shows how dominant a small number of large telecommunications companies: BT (28%), Sky (22%), Virgin Media (20%), TalkTalk (9%), EE (5%), Plusnet (3%), Vodafone (2%), Three (1%), and O2 (1%).