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Let’s Stop Having Different UK Definitions for “Superfast Broadband”

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014 (1:04 am) - Score 8,806

What is “superfast” or “fibre broadband“? The answer seems to vary depending upon whether or not you’re asking a Local Authority (council), the Government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) office, mobile operators or the national telecoms regulator. The situation has become ridiculously confusing.

Back in 2010 we wrote an extensive article about the difficulty of defining broadband Internet access technologies by speed and generic labels like “superfast” (here). Put simply, what is “superfast” today will be “superslow” tomorrow.

Never the less, definitions are still important because they can help to focus goals, much as the Government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme with its use of “superfast” has done, but not if all the key organisations then go on to have their own different interpretations.

How the UK Defines NGA / Superfast Broadband

1. The BDUK programme.

According to BDUK, the Government’s national target is for 95% of people in each local authority area to be put within reach of a fixed line “superfast broadband” service by 2017, which has for the most part been described as a service that offers “speeds of greater than 24 Megabits per second” (i.e. 24Mbps+, or 25Mbps if you prefer to express it that way). A small number of the most recent BDUK schemes also agreed with Ofcom and the EU’s definition (30Mbps+).

2. Ofcom

The telecoms regulator defines “superfast broadband” as 30Mbps+.

3. Europe

The Europe Commission’s (EC) digital agenda defines their goal for 2020 as being able to deliver speeds of at least 30Mbps+ to everybody.

4. Local Authorities (Councils) and BT

Some local authorities use 30Mbps+ for “superfast“, while others prefer 24Mbps+ (often depending upon when the contract was signed) and most tend to just reference their BDUK target as being for “high-speed fibre broadband” or similar, usually without explaining whether the “fibre broadband” figure is for 24Mbps+, 30Mbps+ or all speeds (i.e. raw network coverage including sub-24Mbps performance).

On top of that some councils will give a figure for “superfast” coverage, but they might sneakily reference this as being a reflection of the “intervention area” (i.e. only the area where public money is being spent to improve connectivity) rather than the whole county. All of this can easily cause confusion.

5. Mobile Network Operators

Mobile operators don’t seem to care about any official definitions, with Three UK previously using terms like “ultrafast” to describe 3G services and EE calling 4Gsuperfast” even in areas where the reception is so poor that you’d be unable to ever receive that.

NOTE: All of the above examples tend to reflect Internet download speeds, while upload performance is sadly overlooked and not a part of any official target.

In terms of local authorities, it’s hit and miss whether the council agrees to clarify their coverage by how many premises can expect to receive speeds of 24Mbps+, 30Mbps+ or if they simply cheat with the old “fibre broadband” phrase to reflect overall Next Generation Access (NGA) network reach (including sub-superfast speeds).

Sometimes ISPreview.co.uk has been able to get an answer on actual service speeds and coverage by going directly to BT and other times they’ve refused, passing the buck back towards the council for being unwilling to release said figure (for some councils, saying “fibre broadband” makes it easy because they can show improvement without answering the “how fast?” question).

Thankfully a small number of councils give figures for both. For example, Dorset expects the FTTCfibre broadband” network to cover 97% of premises by the end of 2016, but they also clarify that 95% can expect to receive “superfast” speeds of 24Mbps+. The Kent project does this too, giving a figure of 95% for total “fibre” coverage and 91% for those expected to get superfast speeds of 24Mbps+. Sadly they’re both in the minority and most seem to just use the bland “fibre broadband” phrase without stating a specific coverage figure for “superfast” speeds. But there’s more..

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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27 Responses
  1. adslmax says:

    That’s Britain for us! Always slow! Always Pro’s & Con’s! Always Rip Off! Always Behind in Technology!

    1. X66yh says:

      You really don’t know much do you?
      We consumers are in the UK so mollycoddled and protected and given so many things free or cheap it is difficult to know where to start.

      Try living in other countries where everyone pays a monthly fee for banking facilities (that’s pretty well everywhere bar the UK which is unique in this respect)

      Try places where there is no unfair contract terms acts, no complaints procedures and no ombudsman protection and not much consumer protection of any form at all. You want redress – take ’em to court at your expense.

      Next go to places where there is no NHS to go to free of charge – you want medicine to get better – you pay for it.

      People living/born in the UK have no idea how lucky they are.

    2. john says:

      exactly Adslmax its a shambles the whole superfast tripe. ripoff Britain

  2. gerarda says:

    There is also the additional BDUK definition of superfast which is 15mbps at peak times

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      Yes but for now let’s try to focus on the actual capability of the physical infrastructure’s reach and not get too distracted by manageable issues like bandwidth / network congestion.

    2. James Harrison says:

      Network congestion should absolutely be a part of the definition of superfast broadband. Let’s talk minimum committed information rates as part of the definition! Minimum latency and jitter performance metrics! Stuff we can actually measure with standardised tests like RFC2544 and ITU-T Y.1564. It’s no good having 1G bearers to every property if the backhaul network for 1000 properties can only cope with 100M before it’s congested.

    3. FibreFred says:

      James, they sound very much like SLA’s

      You usually pay heaps for circuits with SLA’s… home connections are contended services and very cheap so expect contention.

    4. James Harrison says:

      Of course I expect contention on my cheap home line, and any telecoms project will be contended!

      You pay shedloads for lines with service guarantees, yes. You pay shedloads for uncontended lines, yes. These services both attract additional significant costs.

      This is not the same as defining the minimum and maximum service levels a user should expect from the technical implementation of a NGA network at all.

      If I’m going to hand someone a million quid to deliver something, I want to define what it is I’m getting. The same _should_ apply to things like the BDUK roll-out (but does not currently, in any meaningful manner). If we pay any ISP to deliver a network into an area, we should have meaningful, measurable (via performance test at installation time) minimum and maximum performance requirements. IE, every line this ISP installs must be able to manage at minimum X Mbps, measurably. If everyone is using their line at once, any line should be able to manage at minimum Y Mbps, measurably. These are all testable things. We should always be defining these, in plain numbers, not “up to approximately ~15Mbps to 90% of subscribers during [undefined] peak hours” which is untestable and practically meaningless.

      If I was asked to sign a contract for a purchase at work with phrasing as woolly as the BDUK specifications, I’d refuse. BDUK should have, too.

  3. Given that “fibre broadband” includes twisted pair copper and also coax cable, I don’t give much chance to a consistent/correct agreed definition of “superfast”. Afterall, our wonderful marketing departments also had to have two versions of “unlimited”: “unlimited” and now “truly unlimited”!

    In any event, as old Albert used to say: “speed is relative” 🙂

  4. James Harrison says:

    To clarify – the BDUK guidance says 30Mbps is superfast for new projects. But this was 15Mbps under the old guidance, before it was revised to bring it into line with the EU definition. However the new guidance only applies to new projects, so for most (all the big BT ones, I think) BDUK projects the definition of a superfast network is still this beautifully ambiguous line that means almost nothing:

    must be designed in anticipation of providing at least ~15Mbps download speed to end-users for 90% of the time during peak times in the target intervention area

    The 30Mbps criteria was added and specifies that the network must be able to deliver speeds in excess of 30Mbps, and not just theoretically, you must be able to demonstrate this in a real-world example, though not at the actual built network. Again the wording is quite flexible.

    To illustrate how little BDUK actually seem to know about this technology, for our project (Northmoor Broadband) we had to include that line about 15Mbps speeds. Our minimum symmetrical speed, specified two lines above, was 10Mbps worst-case under contention for 100% of subscribers, and 100Mbps maximum information rate for 100% of subscribers, with upgrade capacity (real-world, demonstrable) without civil engineering works to 1Gbps/100Mbps max contention. Yet we still had to put that line in because otherwise the network would not be considered superfast!

  5. DTMark says:

    Imagine that it were possible, and maybe it is, to re-profile ADSL2+ just ever so slightly so that the maximum attainable line rate becomes 24.1Mbps.

    Bingo, an NGA network for almost everyone.

    It’s all in the detail.

    1. Pedrostech says:

      You share my cynicism Mark!

      Superfast Surrey’s website still has the superfast listed as 15mbps.

    2. Ignitionnet says:

      No need to reprofile it, ADSL2+ goes over 24.0Mb already as standard.

  6. dragoneast says:

    I’m old enough to believe that you can’t beat accuracy. But do most people care, and by that I don’t mean the people who post (or even read) sites like this one? If it looks good enough, then they’re happy. Any why not? If it were otherwise the whole marketing industry would be out of business, and we’d all be broke. I’ve yet, by the way, to meet anyone in the IT industry who delivers what the customer actually wants. Like all of us, they rely on the customer being prepared to put up with what they get.

  7. Shane says:

    Superfast Leicestershire state 24mbps for the majority and they say all Leicestershire citizens to get at least 2mbps if they can’t get the 24mbps due to location. I wouldn’t call 2 superfast

  8. GNewton says:

    The Essex BDUK is one of the worst offenders when it comes to using misleading terminology. See for e.g. its page at http://www.superfastessex.org/forbusiness.aspx which talks about ‘fibre broadband’ when actually it’s just another type of twisted-pair copper service using VDSL.

    To continue this deception they refuse to publish adequate postcode details, e.g. no real information on what type of ‘fibre broadband’, at what speeds. We read a comment not too long ago that in some of its BDUK areas about £2400 per customer will be spent for a non-future-proof VDSL line.

    The BDUK is a farce and should be scrapped, using mis-leading terminologies has made it only worse.

    1. Shane says:

      It’s the case of putting people in charge of something they don’t understand or make an effort to understand….

  9. Raindrops says:

    The problem is not a new one. I remember when 256 and 512k came along and that was dubbed “High Speed” Internet. I even remember the same marketing ploys back when 56k dial up came along and a certain company (i better let it remain nameless) had wild claims of “x times faster than traditional dial up”.

    BS terminology is what happens when you have people that speak nothing but BS define the terminology.

    1. Ignitionnet says:

      512k was high speed compared with the alternative, dial up, to be fair. 10 times faster download speeds.

      Pretty standard at that time calling ADSL / cable high speed internet.

      It’s the fibre optic stuff that’s the mess. Far rather we’d stuck with HSI.

    2. Raindrops says:

      Ah but thats the thing, it was not just dial up you had to compare it to it was also ISDN. A 256k DSL connection was not “high speed” compared to an GOOD ISDN connection, especially in most businesses as you could bond ISDN pretty easily. (Many had 128k) Best case is it was around double the speed of a bonded ISDN setup, which is not much different to today and a good ADSL line which runs at 20Mb Vs a FTTC line running at its 38Mb.

      The BS terminology has always been there, i even remember crap software in dial up days which would claim to “double your internet speed” when in actual fact all it did was when it came to website images and similar download/display a crap low res. jpeg version rather than the full say bmp file.

      BS terms and BS promises especially from those listed in this story have always been there (for many of them listed not just the internet either).

    3. Raindrops says:

      PS also if 512k and later 1Mb was “high speed” What terminology would you had tagged NTL/Telewest with at the time? That was running at 2Mb at the same time as 512k and 1Mb was deemed “high speed”.

      Was NTL/Telewest 2Mb the “super fast” of the past? And 512k and 1Mb just plain old “high speed”? Like i said BS terminology. Anything to catch the eye and interest, normally of the stupid that blindly believe the claims.

  10. lisa says:

    @X66y well we not exactly lucky due to the fact this government are trying to get us like America. The next move will be to get rid of NHS and you will have to pay for treatment. So I agree with john and adslmax Rip off Britain. The uk is a shambles all they think of is Tax this and that.

  11. TomL says:

    These terminology battles will go on forever and the consumer will always be on the losing/being conned end. Look at the Ofcom/ASA ‘Unlimited’ guidelines that stood for nothing and have started the rise of ‘Truly Unlimited’ nonsense advertising. Plus the whole 4G/LTE con http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/05/24/wtf_is_4g/.

  12. four_eyes says:

    just as always a con the upto saying is basically a mis selling structure they cannot even get the estimated speeds right via the BT wholesale website its just a absolute s figure what doesn’t add up .

  13. Con Bradley says:

    How can 24 Meg be described as Superfast when speeds like 750Meg are being achieved with standard fibre technology.. Perhaps a better term might be slightly less slow, at least this would be a bit more honest.

  14. terri says:

    superfast is just a hype when BT have installed because when a isp says you will get whatever speed then they install the vdsl you get completely different figures and 24mb is not superfast yeah!!! when you can get 50mb 80mb 100mb and its just a con to the customer like the line rental.. so BT want to get there figures right and STOP mis-selling a product what is a con and they class it as superfast rip off Britain.. by OFCOM and BT

  15. Bill says:

    an old article now this, but the farce of “super fast” seems to go like this.

    BT will only usually connect people who get a 15 Mbps sync to FTTC

    So many local authorities set 15 Mbps as the requirement *shock*

    Gov set 24 Mbps , EU sets 30 Mbps .

    Reality is, the majority of customers in rural areas on FTTC will get under 30 Mbps sync speed, 24 Mbps similar.

    As for policing this. there seems to be no clause in the contract that requires the infrastructure provider to confirm all the properties will gain the 24/30 Mbps before they receive the money.

    There equally seems no mechanism to evidence the actual speeds received one the network is live.

    the short of this is, it is easy money, best of luck to any LA who tries to claw back BDUK money when the truth hits.

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