For too long, other nations have enjoyed faster broadband speeds than the UK. But now it seems 100Mbps broadband isn't that far off - at least for some parts of the UK. The first so-called "fibre town" could go online by the autumn.
The word 'fibre' is the key here; such high speeds require fibre cabling to be laid. The reason for the quick launch date is that fibre firm H20 has come up with a novel way to lay the fibre - in sewers. According to BBC News, the company has already laid some cabling for councils in Bournemouth, Northampton and Dundee, so one of those towns will be selected first.
The technique is called FS Focus System (Fibre Optical Cable Underground Sewer System). "Our Focus System gives organisations a cost-effective alternative to the traditional method of deploying fibre cable. It offers a fixed term cost rather than bandwidth tariffs, so that when extra capacity is needed, it's there, and the business doesn't incur further charges," explains Elfed Thomas, managing director of H20 Networks. Several kilometres of cable can be laid in hours rather than weeks.
H20 works by signing up the local water board to its scheme. When it laid the fibre in Bournemouth, it worked with Wessex Water. "We've started the system in Bournemouth which is a town with a lot of industry and architectural heritage," explained Mike Peacey of Wessex Water Enterprises last year. "It's great that we are using our assets to the benefit of local industry and the environment."
Selected areas only
However, critics of the scheme will no doubt point out the selectivity of the H20 scheme. The government wants next-gen broadband to be available to all, which traditional providers have had problems with.
The fact that many fibre networks require mass road-digging for their installation has hampered schemes from providers such as BT and Virgin Media. BT has experimented with a scheme in Ebbsfleet, while Virgin has already trialled 50Mbps broadband in the Ashford, Folkestone and Dover areas where it offered the service for £47 a month until the end of 2007. Virgin will be upgrading its entire cable network to 50Mbps starting this year and finishing in 2009.
In Ebbsfleet, BT has announced its intention to install a 100Mbps Fibre to the Home (FTTH) service. Fibre-to-the-Home involves laying fibre optic cables instead of old-fashioned copper to your house rather than to the green cabinet at the end of your road (dubbed FTTC, unsurprisingly).
BT plans to lay fibre optic cables to 10,000 homes in the new development at Ebbsfleet Valley from August. Businesses, community and leisure facilities will also get broadband super-speeds - though the project will take many years to come to fruition. Everywhere else, BT will be introducing 24Mbps broadband over copper cable networks this spring.
Good old BT has also said that all new housing estates should have fibre networks - but as yet has given no sense of timescale.
What about cable?
At a Westminster eForum discussion about next-generation broadband attended by us last November, Virgin's CTO Howard Watson pushed home the benefits of cable over traditional copper-based ADSL. Watson suggested that copper's limitations was responsible for creating "the unfortunate need for the 'up to' lexicon in the broadband industry".
"We have 12.5 million homes - 52 per cent of the UK - where I have fibre to a cabinet within 800 metres of those homes. We have 15 million short copper loops [going into those homes]. And we have coaxial which has this ability to carry something around 4Gbps to each of the 500 homes off each network," explained Watson.
"So we have a next-generation access network serving [those homes]. One of the great things about that is because of the fibre being deep with that network."
The eForum event was just one of several government-nurtured forums that is seeking to grow links with communications providers to prevent the UK falling further behind in the broadband speed tables.