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August 6, 2015updated 22 Sep 2016 11:53am

Q&A: Why the UK needs 1 Gbps broadband

Hyperoptic Head of Business Services Darren Shenkin explains why the company is rolling out 'stupidly fast' broadband.

By Alexander Sword

Hyperoptic is the UK’s resident rival to Google Fiber, promising 1 Gbps broadband connectivity. CBR sat down with Head of Business Services Darren Shenkin to find out more about the market.


CBR: What is the state of the UK’s broadband infrastructure?

The older infrastructure has been rolled out by BT. Before BT it was part-owned by the Post Office. The UK has copper infrastructure, which is copper cables that run across the entire country, all built up areas.

The problem with copper cabling is that it degrades in terms of speed over distance. So, if you’re very close to a BT Exchange, you can get fairly ok speeds. If you get further away, in both rural and urban areas, the speed goes down quite a lot.

If you live on the top of the exchange somewhere you could theoretically be getting 17 or 18 Mbps.
The upload speeds tend to be around 0.7 or 1 MB per second, so very slow upload speed.

BT started rolling out a new technology called fibre to the cabinet, where they replaced the copper cables from the exchange to the green cabinets you see on the road with fibre. This is great, and gets us part of the way there because you’re bringing fibre closer to the building. Fibre doesn’t degrade with distance because it’s light that sends over the fibre and it doesn’t slow down.

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By bringing the speed closer to the house, you can now get up to 76 Mbps down and 19 Mbps up. We’re getting faster.


CBR: Where does Hyperoptic come into this?

The problem with all of this infrastructure, whether it is fibre to the cabinet or copper infrastructure is that it is based on a technology called GPON, which stands for Global Passive Optical Network. That is limited with a maximum capacity for download or upload.

The more people you have using that at any given time, the slower your speeds get. What you get at 3 o clock in the morning is going to be a lot faster than what you get at 7 o clock in the evening.

That’s the same with Virgin as well. They shout about their 152 Mbps download speed, one of the fastest in the UK. Actually, when you start using it, the contention on their network is so high that a lot of people struggle to get anywhere near that.

What we do is bypass that entire network. We bring fibre directly into a multi-tenanted building. Those buildings are residential, business or mixed. By bringing fibre directly into a building, we have removed any variable in terms of distance, so you will always get fast speeds.

We sell three very distinct products, two of which are differentiators in the market. The first product is an entry-level product, 20 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. Then we go up to our first differentiator product, which is 100 Mbps up and down. Our real differentiator is the 1 Gbps, which is symmetrical as well, up and down. So it’s stupidly fast.


CBR: Is this the only product to rival Google Fiber in the UK?

No-one else is doing a 1 Gbps symmetrical broadband service. You can get a leased line service, which might cost you in excess of £1000 per month, if you’re a business and you need a dedicated connection just for you. However, nobody is doing this on a broadband basis, where lots of people can take it.

[The Hyperoptic founders] have got a proven track record of bringing new technologies to the UK. I have to stress, it’s not a new technology for the world. We are quite far behind the rest of the advancements of other countries in the world. In 2011 we realised that there were other countries doing fibre solutions very similar to what we’re doing now. So we created Hyperoptic back in 2011.


CBR: Why are we so far behind?

I’m not sure I’ve got the official answer to that. I think there a number of factors that influenced it. I think the challenge in this country is that we’ve had a pretty good existing copper infrastructure that has lasted us for decades.

It’s only been from the mid to late 90s when the internet has started to kick off that we’ve seen that copper really isn’t good enough to keep up with where technology is going. I think people are realised that now, and the government is realising that.

BDUK has invested a lot of time and effort in rolling out superfast broadband, which is the fibre to the cabinet solution. We saw that as a good solution but not as fast as you can go. We’ve decided to go further, and rather than just stop at this limited fibre to the cabinet solution of 76 Mbps down and 19 up, we’ve decided to offer that premium differentiated product of 1 Gbps.


CBR: Huawei and Proximus recently trialled 1 Tbps in the core network. When will we get 1 Tbps in the access network (ie in the home)?

The way you have to look at it is ‘where are we in terms of technological advances and what do people actually need?’ It’s great to be able to say that you can have 1 Tbps in your home if you can roll that out in a mass production way.

If there aren’t services that can actually use that then it’s pointless rolling it out. Things always get faster; when you look back at the mid to late 90s when we were all using dial-up, 14K per second, and now we’re talking about 1 Gbps, things have really come along.

My personal view is that it’s not going to be in my lifetime that we’re going to see 1 Tbps going out to individual homes. 1 Gbps is here and now and available. With that technology, applications will definitely follow suit in terms of being able to utilise that speed.

CBR: Having said that, 1Gbps is still very high. How can we use all of that capacity?

Every different type of person uses it in different ways. TV is becoming much more of an online experience compared to what it ever used to be. I don’t think people will necessarily want to do 33 HD films.

There will be occasions where you want to stream 4K TV and eventually that will go up to a lot more super-high definition than that, which will require bandwidth.

At the same time as doing that your two kids will have their iPads and will be playing games and downloading and being on social media, coupled with all the other aspects of VoIP, video conferencing.

You’ll want to do all of that at the same time seamlessly without it buffering. The challenge with the current UK infrastructure, especially on the copper infrastructure, is that you can’t really do that without something giving way.

If you’re doing all of that in one go, something is going to give you a bad experience, whether it’s your iPad starting to buffer or your Skype call dropping out.


CBR: Does this differ in the business market?

We do a lot of work in multi-tenanted business units and we also sell leased line products as well, dedicated links for individual customers. Businesses have a very different view, because they do need very fast speeds and they do need it now.

It really does impact their efficiencies and productivity in the business. If you’re a media company or a post-production media company, and you look at what they used to do five or ten years ago, they would store things on videos and editing clips on DVDs. They would have to send those around the country if not around the world in order to have them reviewed.

Now, with ultra-fast broadband, you can do that all online. You don’t have to spend two or three hours sending data. It can literally be done in minutes if you’re sending very big files. So it definitely makes things more efficient.


CBR: Cellular networks are increasing in speed and some UK consumers report using 4G even in their homes when wi-fi is available. What advantage does broadband have over, say, 4G?

This is one of the successes that Hyperoptic is having, and why people really want us, is that people are frustrated with the speeds that they’re getting on their existing infrastructure. A mobile 4G connection is faster than a lot of people’s fixed line connections that are on a copper or part copper solution.

People moving over to 4G are a testimony to the fact that people want faster upload and download speeds. Where we come in is we make sure people get that quality service through their broadband and their wi-fi, which is far better than that existing broadband speed that they’re getting and surpasses 4G as well.

I did a speed test a few days ago on my iPhone 6; 4G gave me 32 or 33 Mbps both up and down. In terms of upload speed, that’s thirty times faster than what I get at home and twice as fast as the download, and I’ve got pretty decent broadband speed at home.

If you look at all these businesses out there on a couple of Mbps, 4G is the only answer for them if they can’t get decent broadband. What we’re doing at Hyperoptic is when we’re speaking to businesses and multi-tenanted buildings, they’re loving the idea of faster broadband that can help make them more efficient and productive.

That’s why we’ve got so much traction in rolling out our infrastructure. We’ve now passed over 100,000 businesses and homes across our 12 cities. We’re doing pretty well, and I think that’s a testimony to those residents and businesses wanting and seeing the need for faster broadband.


CBR: From the sound of it, it could also be a while before cellular catches up to broadband. 1Gbps could be a couple of generations away.

I think it probably is. The other thing to note is on the 4G element, mobile data is relatively expensive. I think it’s very difficult to find a 4G unlimited data plan, whereas all of Hyperoptic’s broadband connections come with unlimited data downloads and uploads.

It’s great for individuals who want to stream a little bit and only use a few GB per month. If you’re a business that needs to be sending large files and needs hundreds of GB per month, a 4G connection could be very costly to you. One of the reasons we’re doing so well is that we offer these three different products, it’s coupled with unlimited uploads and downloads.

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