1Gbps, 4K streaming, buffering a thing of the past – but do Brits really even want full fibre?

Over to you, Betteridge's law of headlines*

Analysis As a nation, Brits feel starved of full-fibre connectivity and look hungrily at the availability of 1Gbps on the continent, says prime minister Boris Johnson. Except evidence suggests that they don't.

According to Ofcom, speeds of 24Mbps are currently available to 94 per cent of premises. Yet only 45 per cent have signed up, sticking with their poxy standard ADSL packages of around 11-12Mbps.

A survey of 3,000 customers by Which? suggests that the most common reason for not bothering to upgrade was because people felt happy with their current speeds.

So if people can't be arsed to upgrade from creaking ADSL services to the much-derided "superfast" fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) speeds, why on earth are they going to bother with the far more expensive full-fibre speeds?

What I got, well... s'alright...

Dario Talmesio, who leads analyst Ovum's fixed and mobile European telecoms team, said: "Being able to watch Netflix at home seems to be everyone's go-to comparison, and yet the recommendation for that is just 5Mbps for HD."

Part of the reason why a large proportion of people seem content to stick to ADSL is because the slower connections are more reliable. But Talmesio said the proliferation of connected devices might change that, with Ovum predicting an average household will have about 50Mbps by 2024.

Dan Howdle, consumer telecoms analyst at Cable.co.uk, agreed that services are the key driver for upgrading internet packages.

"You will get the real early adopters that have to have the best of everything, who will have gigabit speeds that largely go unused. The only useful scenario of having those speeds is to download a very large video game. Even then, a company like PlayStation will throttle it at about 40Mbps, because their servers only have enough bandwidth."

He said the current rush to full fibre is politically driven. "I don't think fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) is being rolled out for consumer demand, but because the UK feels behind other parts of world.

"We chose to go to FTTC first because it was the quickest and fastest way of getting broadband to people, which now leaves us having to make the jump. Whereas Sweden, Norway and Spain made the jump straight there and didn't pass through FTTC. So the idea of catching up with other countries seems more like a keeping up with the Joneses."

Howdle said ADSL is ageing and does need to be replaced, with FTTC likely to follow suit at some point too. The question is when.

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"Everybody recognises full fibre is what we will need and use eventually, but how quickly do we actually need it," added Matthew Howett, founder of analyst group Assembly. "Boris Johnson's pledge of 100 per cent by 2025 seems unnecessary at this stage. Even if you look at other markets where there is much higher full-fibre availability, the take-up is still low."

Eating too much fibre

The government will have to put money on the table if its 2025 ambition is to be achieved, he said. "So if we need to spend £30bn to achieve the objective of full-fibre, there is the question of whether that it is an efficient use of money at this time.

"It would also be ignorant to ignore ways of achieving faster speeds for little or no money, such as using 4G for example."

Both the business case for full-fibre and the regulation protecting customers unwilling or unable to make the shift are still being decided.

Openreach has previously suggested its Internet Service Providers should commit their customer base to fibre, whether they want to move or not (the so-called "cutover" model) as a way of making the business case for full-fibre.

Ofcom is in the process of consulting over what a fair transition might look like, with Salisbury being used as a test case for the rest of the country. Openreach is currently deploying full-fibre in the city and plans to withdraw copper services at the end of 2022.

There are many reasons to shift to full fibre eventually: improve network reliability, invest in the future, the requirement of fibre for the backhaul of 5G. But right now consumer demand is not one.

If the government does reach into its pockets to meet some arbitrary deadline for full-fibre, it may be worth asking if that money would be better spent elsewhere. ®

Bootnote

*Google is right over >>> there, but Betteridge's law of headlines states: "Any headline that ends in a questionmark can be answered by the word no." It's named after journo Ian Betteridge's excoriating 2009 takedown of a TechCrunch article titled "Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data to the RIAA?", though grizzled sub-editors have whined about it since the dawn of time. Generally frowned upon, but we're being meta because we are very smart and mature.




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