Faster broadband could be in the offing after regulator Ofcom called a public consultation into the subject. Other nations have had faster broadband speeds for some time now and Ofcom wants to seek opinion on ways the UK can keep up.

It has published a paper on the subject, which it dubs 'Next Generation Access'. Ofcom says it acknowledges that broadband has become a mass-market service. There are providers other than BT offering services over 3 million unbundled broadband lines, and Virgin Media offers a service to 50 per cent of the country over cable.

According to Ofcom, consumers "have enjoyed falling prices, rising speeds and increasingly innovative product bundles". Operators have so far managed to update their copper-based networks to keep up with demand.

However, Ofcom reckons the availability of high speed services means that current generation networks will "at some point be unable to deliver the very high speed broadband service that may be demanded by customers".

It says it now wants to consult with vendors on the best way to serve the growth of faster services. Ofcom says it wants to deal with a different market in the UK; fibre optic cables are already prevalent in many other territories, but not in the UK.

Next Generation Access

Ofcom CEO Ed Richards said: "Next Generation Access offers tremendous new opportunities for UK business and consumers, and its potential impact on the economy is very significant.

"Investment in Next Generation Access will represent a substantial commercial risk and the market should decide where and when it will be made. We want to ensure there are no barriers to investment and provide a clear regulatory environment which will help encourage investment.

"But we also want to ensure that the benefits of competition which consumers have enjoyed with current generation broadband can also be achieved as we move to higher speed next generation access," he added.

We reported last month on BT's desire to roll out a fibre-based network by 2012.