Gordon Brown has pledged once again to deliver UK-wide superfast broadband to 90 per cent of the population by 2017.
However, he made no distinction between fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) and fibre-to-the-home (FTTH).
FTTC means the last part of the connection to customers runs over copper wire, so upstream and downstream bandwidth is reduced compared with the equivalent optical fibre connection.
Computing talked to FTTH Council Europe’s managing director Hartwig Tauber about UK optical fibre rollouts, and how our Asia-Pacific competitors are forging ahead with their rollouts, which could see European and UK economic prosperity significantly disadvantaged.
What is the FTTH Council Europe’s mission statement?
To accelerate the deployment of FTTH with education and promotion, and
increase the quality of life of European citizens.
What is your opinion of the UK’s current optical fibre rollout strategy?
All these superfast broadband announcements in the UK have been primarily FTTC. These also use very high-speed digital subscriber line copper to connect to customer’s homes.
I see FTTC as fibre ‘nearly to the home’ – it’s nice, but it just delays deployment of the real end-game solution, FTTH.
In our opinion it makes more sense to roll out FTTH. It is the only technology able to fulfil both business and consumer bandwidth demands in the upstream as well as the downstream.
We see a lot of announcements and discussions from the UK, such as last year’s Digital Britain report, for example – but actual fibre implementations? We don’t see too many of those.
What are the risks involved in falling behind with optical fibre rollouts?
There are risks to the economy. In January when the snow hit Europe, I got two press releases. The UK release talked about losses for business and the economy when people couldn’t get into the office and so were unable to work.
The release I got from an operator in the Netherlands, where a significant amount of fibre is already in place, was to say that the number of people working from home had tripled during the snowy period but business continued as usual.
This shows how fibre broadband can really support the economy.
Are there risks to being an early adopter of optical fibre connections?
Sometimes adopting a technology early is good, and sometimes it can get you into trouble. However, Europe would be far from being an early adopter.
There are extensive optical fibre rollouts all over the world. Look at our [fibre rollout] chart of the world.
In the Asia-Pacific region there are 38 million homes connected by fibre, in
the US there are eight million, and in Europe there are just 2.5 million. That
gives you some idea of how far behind we are.
What applications would benefit from optical fibre 100Mbit/s connections?
It is important that the optical fibre connections are symmetrical, meaning both upstream and downstream connection speeds are the same.
Upstream speeds are important for social networking applications and cloud computing services, because you’re uploading information much more than when just viewing videos, for example.
At the last CeBit conference German ISP Strato was offering HiDrive, a virtual hard disk on the internet. It costs €4 (£3.50), and you get 100GB of disk space in the cloud. It’s a nice offer, but how would you upload all that data with a DSL connection?
There is already a disconnect between what’s available online and what my broadband connection can provide, and that’s where having a symmetrical fibre connection helps.
What are the UK's global competitors doing with optical fibre connectivity?
There was an official announcement by the South Koreans last year stating that they wanted to become a one gigabit country – that's quite a statement.
At the same time there was the UK Digital Britain report saying that 2Mbit/s [the Universal Service Commitment] would be enough. There is a big difference in ambition here.
As for the US, whatever you think of president Bush, he did think broadband was important.
President Obama feels the same way. In March, The US Federal Communications Commission announced its National Broadband plan.
However, the generation of politicians leading European countries don't see the importance of fibre broadband infrastructure and its ability to change both society and the economy in a positive way.
Last year we asked analysts their views about optical fibre infrastructure rollouts and they said that compared with the US, Europe is lagging behind by four years, and compared with Japan, which has 96 per cent of its homes passed by fibre, Europe is eight years behind.
On an economic basis four years is already a very long time.