House of Commons ushers in a new Dark Age

Digital Economy Bill 

Laser light through optical fibres provides high speed broadband that's largely unaffected by distance. This is why this technology is used for the ocean-straddling networks that joins us all together.

Yesterday in the House of Commons, UKplc got short changed. At the moment of leaving the EU, when we need every competitive advantage over our soon-to-be-former colleagues in the world's largest trading block, the House voted down amendments proposed by the Lords which would have meant we'd have had "full fibre" broadband delivering target speeds of AT LEAST Two Gigabits per second (2000Mbps) by 2020.

This of course would necessitate Fibre to the Home (FTTH), replacing the old and unfit for purpose copper network that was deployed by the GPO under the last Universal Service Obligation (USO) for low bandwidth analogue telephone services.

The House of Lords proposed this time around that there should be a USO of 30Mbps download with 6Mbps upload. This may sound pretty feeble compared to 2000Mbps, but given the incontrovertible laws of physics, to deliver it on copper wires would require significant investment, especially as the minimum COMMITTED information rate would be 10Mbps.

Ying tong ping pong iddle I po*

After a 90 minute discussion, the changes that the Lords proposed were killed off in the interests of saving time as no one appeared to have the heart for a game of Parliamentary ping pong on this important national infrastructure issue.

So what have we ended up with?

Quite possibly the worst result possible.

An utterly unambitious and pretty useless minimum 10Mbps download, nothing about upload, and no Universal Service Obligation.

In other words, nothing changes. We're now stuck for the foreseeable future with electrical signalling for our broadband.

The European Enlightenment

Meanwhile, the rest of the EU is zooming ahead with the lighting up of what we call "full-fibre" broadband (to distinguish it from the copper-based "fibre broadband" so prevalent here).

Full-fibre broadband is where the optical fibres terminate at your house, which is why the rest of the world calls it FTTH, Fibre to the Home. It's this technology that delivers 1000Mbps+ speeds and, over the short distances involved in delivering to your home, there's practically no drop in speed caused by signal loss. Which means:

  • You get pretty much the speed as promised
  • Everyone in the country gets the same speeds irrespective of where they live

The FTTH Council of Europe regularly updates and publishes data on how member states are doing. Here's the latest update from earlier this year:

As you can see, despite the valiant efforts of Gigaclear, Hyperoptic and B4RN, with less than 1% fibre optic broadband penetration we're not even on the chart.

And the 2017 Digital Economy Bill does nothing to change this.

Maybe the Commons should rename this bill to "Digital Bill - Economy class"?

What we could have had - the Lords' prayer


“(2B) The universal service order must specify that the target for broadband connections and services to be provided before 2020 must have— 

  1. (a) speeds of 2 gigabits or more; 
  2. (b) fibre to the premises (FTTP) as a minimum standard; 
  3. (c) appropriate measures to ensure that internet speed levels are not affected by high contention ratios; 
  4. (d) appropriate measures to ensure service providers run low latency networks. 
  5. (2BA) The universal service order must specify as soon as reasonably practicable that, by 2020, the following will be available in every household in the United Kingdom— 
  6. (a) download speeds of 30 megabits per second; 
  7. (b) upload speeds of 6 megabits per second; 
  8. (c) fast response times; 
  9. (d) committed information rates of 10 megabits per second; 
  10. (e) an unlimited usage cap. 
  11. (2BB) In meeting the obligations set out in subsection (1), internet service providers have a duty to ensure that their networks offer at least the minimum standards specified in subsection (2BA) to every household in areas of low population density, before deploying their networks in urban areas.