There could be over four million British homes and businesses on high-speed fibre broadband within five years, according to new forecasts by Point Topic. Its research suggests that optical fibre will be in use for about 20% of the 22 million broadband lines expected in the UK by late 2013.
The cable TV network is expected to stand up well against this challenge, holding onto 23% of the broadband market, because it is already going some way towards providing much higher speeds. But the proportion using basic DSL, will have dropped from over 78% today to only 57%.
Most of the fibre connections will actually involve fibre only as far as the local telephone concentrator, so called FTTC for fibre-to-the-cabinet. The last few hundred yards will still be on high-speed types of DSL over copper telephone lines. This will provide the majority of users with downstream data at 20Mbps or more. Combined with new technologies in the core network, users will be able to get much more reliable, high bandwidth, high quality services than they can enjoy today.
With the increasing political and business pressure to make a national commitment to fibre, the prospects for a major step towards high-speed next-generation access look much more realistic than they did even a few months ago.
"This is probably the first moment when it has been possible to make a plausible forecast for fibre in the UK, based on some real plans and activity," says Tim Johnson, Chief Analyst at Point Topic. BT has announced a plan - still provisional - to roll-out fibre to 10 million homes by 2012. "It'll probably take a bit longer than that but there are lot of other players coming into the market too," Johnson points out. "So we estimate there will be over 4.4 million fibre lines by the end of 2013."
As BT starts its fibre trials, and operators in Bournemouth, South Yorkshire, East London and other locations are either rolling out or trialling variations on fibre services, 2009 will see the UK take its first steps into commercial fibre. Point Topic's projections suggest that over 1 million homes will be within reach of fibre by the end of 2010, increasing to well over 11 million 3 years later.
"There's a lot of controversy about whether and why people are actually going to want such high speeds," Tim Johnson admits. "I think they will, because they will be attracted by the offer of one single converged service, not lots of separate ones.
"People will be able to mix video telephony, TV, audio, online games and virtual worlds, all high quality and high resolution, into the total experience they want at that moment," he says. "In fact it's what today's teenagers are trying to do right now and in a few more years the technology will catch up with them.
However, those of us on the wrong side of the digital divide - because we live in the "˜wrong' place - certainly won't be in the first wave of the fibre roll-out, if indeed we are ever included at all.