The benefits of Ultrafast Fibre Broadband

Rural Devon & Somerset economies could benefit by up to £1.25B from ultrafast fibre broadband programme.

On December 21st 2016, Connecting Devon & Somerset (CDS) awarded four of their six Phase 2 superfast broadband contracts to Gigaclear Ltd, an Oxfordshire based pure fibre broadband provider*. Funded with an investment of £43.75M from Gigaclear’s investors, in addition to CDS’s funding of £18.5M, this programme will provide ultrafast fibre broadband at up to 1,000 Mbps to 35,225 properties in rural Devon and Somerset by 2019. This will be the biggest contiguous fibre broadband network in the UK and follows Gigaclear’s announcement last July that they have already embarked on a £2.4M programme of their own to connect approximately 2,000 properties in the Blackdown Hills including Upottery, Rawridge and Smeatharpe with ultrafast pure fibre broadband. In April 2017, Gigaclear connected their 10,000th customer in other areas of the UK where they have operated since 2010.

What is Ultrafast broadband?

Ultrafast broadband is generally understood to mean speeds >100Mbps whilst superfast is >30Mbps. Some companies describe speeds >500Mbps as hyperfast and 1,000Mbps is described as Gigabit broadband.

Talk of Megabits and Gigabits doesn’t convey the full potential of ultrafast broadband and it can be difficult to appreciate what the announcement of these programmes means for people in rural Devon & Somerset. To put these programmes into perspective you can compare download and upload times for typical things you may wish to do using ultrafast broadband. In rural areas, broadband speeds today are typically below 10Mbps and comparing download/upload times gives an indication of how ultrafast fibre broadband transforms the time it takes to do things:

    • Downloading a 92MB HD Film at 4Mbps today will take 1 hour 47 minutes. At 50Mbps that reduces to 7.4 minutes and at 1,000Mbps that drops to 53 seconds
    • Uploading 500MB of photos to a file sharing or photo printing website will take you 3 hours 54 minutes at 0.4Mbps (A typical ADSL upload speed when download is 4Mbps). Using a symmetric 50Mbps connection (which gives that speed for upload as well as download) this reduces to 72 seconds and on a 1,000Mbps symmetric connection it only takes 8.7 seconds.

These numbers still don’t tell the full story because once you have access to ultrafast broadband many other things become possible. Your location really does become irrelevant when you can do the same things online in the rural west country that have hitherto only been possible in the middle of large cities. Skype already enables you to interact in real time with anyone anywhere, but many other tools, ranging from virtual reality to 3D printing remove the distance barrier when you have an ultrafast fibre broadband connection.

Ultrafast fibre broadband is a “disruptive technology” because it will change the way we do things including the way we work as well as the way we spend our free time. It is worth looking at other disruptive technologies that changed the way of life for previous generations but which today we take for granted. In the 19th century, the coming of steam railways to the south west boosted the economy by enabling dairy farmers to sell their milk in the cities when previously they had only been able to sell their milk as far as they could take it in one day by horse and cart. Brixham and Lyme Regis fisherman found they could sell their fish in London and other big cities and Billingsgate Market was built in 1877 to accommodate the volume of fresh fish reaching the capital, making fish and chips the iconic English dish it is today. In 1801, Torquay was a sleepy seaside village of 838 souls but once the Victorians discovered the delights of travelling to a seaside holiday by train, the English Riviera resort grew to a population of 16,419 in 1861.

Today, it is the Information Revolution, not the Industrial Revolution that is driving the development of Internet based technology and in the same way that those living in the early 1800’s could not envisage the impact the railways would have on them, we have the same problem understanding how 1,000Mbps will change the way we do things in the next 10, 20 and 50 years. Rather than laying steel rails across the country however, fibre cables are today’s equivalent of the rails and they simply get buried underground. Rather than steam trains travelling on the rails we have the Internet and software applications on our laptops and tablets which interpret and use the information shared at light speed along the fibre cables.

Billingsgate fish market in 1893 and Torquay in 1830

Reels of fibre optic cable ready to be burried underground in the Blackdown Hills.

In 2013 the government commissioned a study into how fast broadband will impact the economies of communities that are given access to it. Cambridge Econometrics**, who conducted the study, came up with a very simple formula to describe the impact of fast broadband saying that “for every £1 invested, the local economy will grow by £20”. This suggests that the £62.25M that Gigaclear and CDS are investing in rural Devon & Somerset today, will grow our rural economies by £1.25B. That has to be good news for the Southwest and can be viewed as the Return on Investment (ROI) of ultrafast fibre broadband.

Railways remain important to our economy and various estimates of ROI have been made for the governments £55.7B, HS2 project to speed up trains between London and Birmingham. The most optimistic estimates you will find is a ROI between £1.75 and £2 for every £1 invested***. This would suggest that investing that money to provide an ultrafast fibre broadband connection, up to 1,000Mbps, for everybody instead, is a “no-brainer”.

This chart shows the percentage of properties that have a fibre connection to the property for each European country.

The UK does not appear on this European League Table because

the UK has less than 1% of properties connected with pure fibre.

(Click on the chart for a larger version)

For more information on Fibre To The Home, see FTTH Council Europe, publications.

Graham Long

March, 2017