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The definition of ‘superfast broadband’ continues to cause confusion amongst the industry and more importantly customers  as ISPs lay claim to providing ‘superfast’ services and various government bodies appear to be muddying the waters rather than providing clarification. We asked Editor in Chief of ISPreview.co.uk, Mark Jackson, for his opinion on what exactly constitutes superfast broadband.

So what is superfast broadband?

To most people “broadband” simply means “Internet access”, or perhaps even “faster Internet access”, yet as a descriptive term it’s relatively useless. You can’t define a new technology simply by saying it and its presence in ISP package titles certainly won’t help to describe how fast your expected Internet connection should be.

There was a time when the term broadband became synonymous with “fast Internet access”, albeit spoken in comparison to ancient dialup (narrowband) connections. Similarly most attempts to define the term ultimately remain highly subjective to the time period in which they were first penned, yet crucially what was fast then is slow today.

However an inability to define something so common place as broadband could have serious repercussions for future generations of “super-fast” (Next Generation Access) services, which the government is currently trying to plug as a solution for the country’s aging telecoms infrastructure. After all, just what is “superfast”?

A minefield of politically motivated definitions

At present the government has managed to earmark a tidy sum of £530m to help deploy “superfast” broadband services into rural areas by 2015, which could rise to £830m by 2017. As a result it is critically important to understand where “broadband” ends and where “super-fast broadband” begins. Unfortunately nothing to do with politics is ever that simple.

It starts off easily enough, with Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Communication, Culture and the Creative Industries, saying: “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”. Sounds fair, after all, that means we’ll need to best countries like Sweden with national 100Mbps capable fibre optic infrastructure already in the ground.

However the communications regulator, Ofcom, has a different interpretation: “Superfast broadband is generally taken to mean broadband products that provide a maximum download speed that is greater than 24Mbit/s” they claim. The tax setting Valuation Office Agency (VOA) goes one lower with: “NGA technology is understood to mean the delivery of download speeds in excess of 20Mbits/s”.

The VOA’s definition can in fact be traced back to a February 2010 Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Committee Fourth Report, which was posted under the previous government. This report even goes so far as to suggest that “superfast” broadband could include restrictive Satellite (notorious for its high costs, poor latency and tiny usage allowances) and existing ADSL2+ based broadband solutions, the latter of which has been around in the UK since 2005.

The Broadband Stakeholders Group (BSG), an advisory body for the UK government, takes a more simplistic approach by simply saying that: “next generation broadband is anything that is beyond the capabilities of the current copper network”. However none of the above have told Devon County Council about their definitions, which considers “5Mbps” to be an “NGA compatible service”. The current UK average, according to Ofcom’s May 2010 data, has already exceeded that with 5.2Mbps.

If you don’t know what it is then you don’t know what you’re doing

Admittedly it’s worth remembering that even some of the fastest countries, such as South Korea with its national Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) infrastructure, struggle to give the maximum speed of 100Mbps to everybody. Under ideal conditions the country’s national average actually comes in at around 30-35Mbps (according to overly optimistic Ookla based speedtests).

Speed is therefore inherently unreliable and, by itself at least, doesn’t make for an effective definition. This is supported by the fact that many online websites and services will impose restrictions upon how fast you can download, which prevents excessive load on the server. However this in turn limits the benefit of having a true 100Mbps connection.

As it stands today the definition of a “superfast” broadband service appears to change depending on which government body you’re talking with at the time, which doesn’t bode well for the future. At the very least such services should be able to deliver more than is currently possible over existing copper telephone lines (i.e. faster than ADSL2+, which tops out at 24Mbps), although clearly that’s not an opinion shared by all.

It is critical for the UK government to adopt a firm and more centralised definition. This will provide a better direction and strengthen any targets. It would also help to prevent operators and government bodies from abusing the terminology and moving the goalposts around, although that’s probably a luxury they’d like to keep.

Entanet’s View

We agree with Mark that to truly meet the Government’s targets they need to ensure they clearly define key terminology such as ‘superfast’ broadband. Recent targets have been somewhat ambiguous of late with claims such as “becoming a world leader in the provision of next generation broadband’ yet the only plans they have to achieve these targets appear to be the 2Mbps USC which let’s face it will not deliver ‘world leader status’. Without clear definitions from the government ISPs will continue to use the terminology ambiguously as part of their marketing, potentially spreading confusion further as they compete against each other’s claims. It’s time we had some clear definitions from the people setting these targets.

Have your say!

What do you think constitutes ‘superfast’ broadband? Do you agree that this needs clarification from the government or do you think the term is widely understood by consumers? Let us know your thoughts by leaving us a comment below.

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