Friday, November 28, 2008

Mobiles will help broadband speed ahead as copper wiring reaches the end of the road

It is the digital equivalent of a power blackout and the prospect is already worrying ministers and government planners - at some point in the next decade, the copper telephone network will run out of capacity.

Confronting the problem is expected to lie at the heart of Lord Carter of Barnes's Digital Britain review of communications policy, due early next year, with efforts to solve it focused on an unlikely source: mobile phones.

The Communications Minister is yet to reveal his plans, but he has been dropping heavy hints, writing in The Times this month that he wants to help to develop “mobile and wireless services that can do for broadband and video what they have done for the spoken word”.

His goal is to kick-start an auction of “fourth-generation” mobile technology, using a block of spectrum previously set aside for digital television. The 4G technology, known in the industry as LTE, or Long-Term Evolution, can deliver download speeds of ten megabits or more - five times quicker than a standard fixed broadband connection.

Joachim Horn, chief technology officer of T-Mobile International, believes that there is a need for fourth-generation technology because the mobile internet has been disappointing. “We are not able to deliver the speed and consumer experience for the applications coming out,” he said. “We need to accommodate higher use at a lower price.”

However, while the public sees fixed and mobile phone connections as quite separate, in Lord Carter's mind the two are linked. The governmental worry is that BT and other internet providers are not afraid enough - or in official speak “sufficiently incentivised” - to invest in upgrading fixed-line connections.

The risk is that, by the middle of the decade, internet capacity will stop increasing for many homes, just at the point where television and film are flying around the network. In October, 30.6million BBC programmes were streamed over the internet, which sounds impressive but is still a fraction of the total number of programme viewings for a typical night's television.

The threat of new, easy-to-deploy high-speed mobile technology will help. BT has promised to upgrade up to 40per cent of homes to fibre optic technology - where data is transmitted down filaments of glass at the speed of light - but the rest of the UK will be stuck on copper.

BT will use a new standard, ADSL2+, which promises speeds of “up to 24 megabits” - in theory ten times faster than the two-megabit standard of today. However, theory does not always match up to practice and other internet providers that use BT's network may not want to join it in investing to match its speed.

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