In light of the enactment of the Digital Economy Act (DEA) of 2010, passed in haste and without any significant consideration of the impact of wording contained in the bill prior to its enactment, it is worthwhile to consider the history of broadband services in the UK.
While the majority of the DEA is concerned with Peer-To-Peer (P2P) file-sharing – specifically the illegal transfer of licensed and copyrighted material – a mostly-overlooked portion of the DEA addresses providing every household in the UK with at least 2Mpbs broadband service.
Which leads to the question: How did the UK get from simple telephone-based 56Kbps internet to 100Gpbs internet and the very likely possibility of 1000Mbps (1.0Gbps) broadband? Each protocol will be introduced with further amplification, as required.
The basic common technologies will be loosely defined for comparative purposes to enable in-depth analysis, as needed. Exotic and esoteric internet transmission protocols of the past will not be addressed.
Pre-Broadband Internet Access
In the early to mid-1990s, internet speeds were restricted by the bandwidth constraints of the transmission medium. In the case of a typical telephone line, the maximum attainable speed was about 38Kbps – a 56Kbps modem was never able to operate at full efficiency. This analogue system is included as a part of broadband internet history as it is the first practical implementation of public accessible internet.
Early Ethernet and similar intranet local area network methods are not included until the latter part of the first decade of the 21st century, when Ethernet over phone lines is gaining a small foothold in the broadband arena.
Advent of the Integrated Services Digital Network
In order to met the growing demand for higher transfer speeds, the single ISDN line – defined as a copper-to-copper – with no intervening load transformers which restrict bandwidth – allowed the full 56K analogue signal to be transmitted to the customer from the telephone company frame. A dual ISDN line – two pairs of copper wire – typically attain speeds of 128Kbps.
Because of the specialized nature of this connection, it was a very expensive upgrade. This technology as been in existence since the 1960s, with its popularity peaking in the mid-1990s when it was usurped by DSL.
Introduction of Digital Subscriber Lines
In the latter 1990s, the Digital Subscriber Line (xDSL) became a viable – read: affordable – technology. Initially a symmetrical service – it could upload as quickly as it could download – it quickly was modified to be an asymmetric DSL with upload speeds typically one-tenth of the speed of downloading.
Contrary to its name, DSL is not a digital transmission, it is an analogue transmission with some intervening digital sampling taking place in the telephone exchange to sample the audio signal. Over the years, there have been at least 20 different versions of xDSL, the distinctions typically indicated by a prefix letter – or letter.
Lately, suffix numbers and symbols have been added to further refine the particular protocol. Speeds approaching 20Mbps are possible, depending on the proximity of the telephone exchange and other considerations. Nominal speeds of 2Mbps to 5Mbps are more realistic.
Enter the Cable Carriers
Concurrently with telephone company advances, cable providers were also pressing the unused bandwidth of coaxial cable with significantly greater speeds than copper-based twisted pair DSL.wiring. Unlike DSL cable is a shared bandwidth resource and its distribution and load-balancing – known as throttling – is controlled by statistical multiplexors.
These devices allocate the amount of bandwidth dynamically by packaging the data into packets of varying sizes and sending them to the customer’s modem in pre-determined time slots.
Launching Satellite Broadband Services
The turn of the century brought satellite broadband as an adjunct to satellite TV. Facilitated by ever-more sensitive LNB and dish design replaced the massive dishes of the latter 20th century.
The front-end costs of most satellite systems tend to be prohibitive for two-way satellite internet. Some hybrid systems which use phone lines for the upload side and the satellite downlink for the download side exist.
One of the drawbacks of satellite internet is that it is very sensitive to weather and location of the sun in relationship to the signal paths – both on the remote uplink side and the local downlink sides.
Integration of Fibre Optics
Today, fibre optics networks promise full feature High Definition Television (HDTV) and 3D content is being implemented at this moment. This method is completely digital end-to-endm which reduces noise from Electromagnetic Interference (EMI) and Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) which can be problematic with all of the previous methods.
Fibre optics have prodigious amounts of bandwidth, thus the necessity of throttling is much less likely. Additionally, high-bandwidth content – such as HDTV and HD 3D TV – is more practical. It is relatively inexpensive and offers significantly better value than previous internet transmission mediums.
It is also much more cost-effective for the content provider to offer telephone and TV content at a fraction of the price of the individual option or the “no-choice bundled options” of previous years. The a la carte methods used by most UK providers give the customer far more control of the content with near infinite degrees of control based on their preferences and budget.
The Wireless Future
The new generation of G4 cellular technologies – albeit, the G4 network has yet to be implemented in the UK – mobile computing from laptops to notepads and a vast array of Personal Data Assistant (PDA) devices provide a level of connectivity integration unimagined just a score of years ago.
Although the full-blown implementation of a WiFi London seems to be a dream unlikely to be realized in the near-future, it still is a vision for the future of the internet in the UK.
It is a fact of life that the UK government is going to be very deeply involved in the implementation and promulgation of data available to UK subjects, now and in the future. Just as tellies are taxed for receiving live TV transmissions, it is a foregone conclusion that the internet will be similarly taxed.
The DEA which promises 2Mbps broadband access to everyone in the UK also promises a 50p tax to each phone bill to pay for it. While this may seem a prudent and reasonable expense to some, those with neither any interest or use for either the telly or the internet may well consider doing without a telephone as well.
The UK is poised on the brink of a high-technology breakthrough. It is simply a matter of time before the entire UK is wired – or wirelessly – connected to the world at breath-taking speeds. 2Mbps is 40 times faster than the fastest commonly available internet a mere 20 years ago. And with 1Gpbs speeds on the horizon, the groundwork for an ever-increasing internet society is laid.
Take a long look at the options available from the providers in your area. Compare and contrast features and costs to find the best value for the pound. Don’t settle for a low-price package when it may be that a few pence more may more than double your capabilities and accessibility.