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By: MarkJ - 21 June, 2010 (12:00 AM)
superfast fibre optic broadband cableJust what does "super fast" broadband actually mean? The UK coalition government's Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey, recently attempted to answer that when he responded to a request for clarification put forward by Labour MP Tom Watson (West Bromwich East). The result was a somewhat less than convincing reply.

It's worth noting that, prior to the recent general election, the Conservative party had outlined their belief that next generation broadband services should constitute speeds of 100Mbps. By contrast Labour had not defined any speed and the Liberal Democrats believed 40Mbps+ would be sufficient.

Today the government is run by a coalition of Conservative and Liberal Democrat's, which appear to have adopted the Tory approach to superfast broadband services (the plan). This is hardly surprising because the LibDem's failed to put forward a concrete policy of their own (here).

One thing that most politicians appear to have agreed on, at least up until now, is that superfast broadband services should be based on fibre optic broadband lines. The vast majority of government reports and reviews have focused on that. Satellite can't do it, Mobile Broadband couldn't cope with it and Wi-Fi / WiMAX is plausible but still needs some fibre optic links for its bandwidth.

Ed Vaizey said:

"Superfast broadband means broadband of sufficient speed and quality to deliver the services that will lead to Britain having the best broadband network in Europe. The technology used to deliver this could be fixed or wireless but will represent a significant upgrade on today’s fixed and wireless networks."

Obviously that's not what anybody would class as a real definition and indeed that kind of description could apply to almost any internet technology that has been deployed over the past decade, depending of course on how you choose to interpret the use of words like "significant upgrade".

Back in March Ofcom had a bash at defining superfast broadband (here), describing it as a service that makes use of "fibre optic cable" and offers "speeds up to ten times the level of today’s broadband services". However that last sentence is extremely variable depending on what your basis for "today's broadband" is (real world or advertised performance?). They later appeared to refer to anything above 24Mbps+ as being in the superfast league.

Another problem the government faces is that terms like "superfast" broadband have been around for years and even today are still used to describe some older 2Mbps products. Confusing stuff. In a similar way the term Next Generation Access (NGA) or simply Next Generation, which is so often used to describe fibre optic networks, has also been used/abused by BT to talk about existing up to 24Mbps ADSL2+ technology.

On top of all this some industry experts believe that any new generation of 100Mbps fibre optic based internet access service should not even be called "broadband" in the first place. For the most part these are more than mere upgrades and appear to go beyond the original definition. However no alternative to "broadband" has been forthcoming and indeed could risk consumer confusion. Sadly the confusion over what "superfast" broadband actually means looks set to continue.
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