Broadband connectivity was supposed to be a revolution in digital communications. In the late 1990s, businesses that wanted high-speed internet access had to invest in expensive leased lines. Smaller firms made do with ISDN, or continued to labour under the tyranny of analogue dial-up. Broadband changed all that.
Suddenly, always-on internet access became a realistic proposition for many UK companies, and over the past few years, with a combination of local loop unbundling and increased competition, everyone is at it. So, why are four in 10 businesses unhappy with their broadband connection?
That is the finding from a survey on next-generation access from the Communications Management Association. The survey found that 41% of businesses using broadband were unable to receive the level of access they required owing to their geographic location.
A third of respondents also considered legacy infrastructure and the last mile to be the main challenge for telecoms providers in rolling out next-generation access to businesses. Three quarters said that fibre would be the preferred infrastructure to provide the necessary quality of service. In a mostly copper-based country, that does not bode well. Is access for businesses really that bad?
"The norm is 8mbps, but companies are rolling out 24mbps," says Margaret Hopkins, principal analyst at Analysys Mason, describing the downlinks available to mobile providers. She adds that, for the most part, uplink speeds on conventional DSL-based business broadband services max out at 256kbps. "People are also rolling out Ethernet over DSL and bonded pair technologies, so you can get up to 24mbps of Ethernet over Easynet [now acquired by Sky]. BT also offers a number of leased lines using DSL. Your E1 line might end up using DSL."
However, those downlink speeds depend largely on how far away the business is from the exchange. In the US, even retail customers of telecoms giant Horizon get up to 50mbps thanks to the company's fibre to the home (FTTH) offering.
Higher speeds are available, although mostly to businesses that share buildings with other firms. Analyst company Point Topic estimates that 120,000 businesses have access to fibre connections, but generally because they are tenants of a larger building, which makes the increased expense of fibre acquisition worthwhile.
BT, which thanks to its history as the UK's national telecoms provider still provides most broadband connections in the UK, is living largely in a copper world, although an announcement this month could see that start to shift.
The company has been offering copper-based DSL Max connections offering up to 8mbps of downlink speed. The introduction of its 21st Century Network calls for an upgrade to the broadband infrastructure. Consequently, BT pledged to upgrade its exchanges to ADSL 2+, which will meet (at least theoretically) the 24mbps speed, and it has been trialing some connections this year.
Earlier this month, BT pledged to invest £1.5bn in fibre connections. Most of these will be backhaul connections, providing fibre to exchange boxes across the country. The roll-out will focus on new developments such as the Ebbsfleet estate in Kent for FTTH connections, which BT says could offer up to 100mbps in download speeds.
However, running fibre to the exchange could still bring speeds of between 40mbps and 60mbps to residential and business customers. "When the fibre is rolled to the cabinet, BT wll start using VDSL, which uses higher frequencies to carry more data," says Adam Rumley, an analyst at Enders Analysis. It represents a big step for the company, which will also be opening up its fibre links to wholesale customers, making it more likely to permeate throughout the market.
There are other ways around the speed problem. For example, ntl:Telewest Business, which is part of the Virgin Media Group, recently launched different class of service options for DSL lines. These different classes guarantee latency times for specific types of data, such as voice and video. There is also a dedicated class for control signalling protocols such as SIP, and another for multimedia video streaming, which the supplier says has a lower latency requirement than real-time video media. Customers benefit from three other classes of service for business-critical applications, so that different application types can be guaranteed bandwidth independently of each other.
Business broadband may not be as advanced as it is in some areas of the US, but reforms are pushing performance ahead. Hopefully, as digital communications become increasingly important for business, the available speeds will grow to meet their needs.