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Making Broadband Faster 

Sarah Hill Wheeler looks at broadband and local developments that are attempting to speed up our internet access
Many of us now take fast internet access for granted. Broadband has become a necessary part of modern life. Some commentators even call it our “fourth utility.”

However, for some of us, superfast broadband remains a dream rather than reality. Sarah Hill Wheeler looks at broadband and local developments. 

Why we need broadband

We are no longer simply surfing the internet for information. Increasingly, we download videos from the web. We watch our favourite TV programmes and play games online. More of us complete our tax returns electronically, study online, or work remotely. 

Without fast internet access, these activities become laborious, if not impossible. Even the casual web user may struggle with a slow connection. Websites have also become more complex, assuming fast download speeds. 

Those on dial-up, or with slow connections, may simply find themselves timed-out. 

How fast should your broadband be?

We use megabits per second (Mbps) to measure how quickly a connection can download information from the internet.

Until a few years ago, a 2 Mbps download speed was the common UK standard, (reflecting Government pledges to achieve 100% broadband coverage at this speed by 2012).

In practical terms, 2 Mbps remains a good yardstick. For example, you need a connection of at least this speed to watch BBC iPlayer without interruptions.

As technology advances, however, many users want more. Those sharing connections simultaneously, downloading files or watching streamed content will need faster connections. For example, to watch BBC iPlayer in HD (high definition) you need a constant download speed of at least 3 Mbps.  

Broadband in and around Swindon

Overall, Swindon scored well in a recent Ofcom survey of broadband provision. Only 8% of homes with broadband achieved speeds of less than 2 Mbps on average.

However, not everyone is impressed. According to cable.co.uk, provision remains “a little on the patchy side.” In particular, slow spots exist on the western side of town, in parts of Haydon, Cheney Manor, Peatmoor and West Leaze. Residents in Old Shaw, for example, have reported broadband speeds of consistently less than 0.1Mbps, not much faster than dial-up.

Rural and outlying areas are also less likely to benefit from fast broadband speeds. Homes in Sparcells, East Purton Stoke, Castle Eaton and Marston Meysey all report average broadband speeds of less than 2 Mbps. 

Improving broadband speeds

The channels broadband uses are wider than dial-up. They allow more information to travel through them. This increases the flow of data. However, there are limits.

Conventional broadband, ADSL (asymmetrical digital subscriber line) still uses existing telephone lines, usually made out of copper wires. Data passes through the line as a series of electrical signals, before it is decoded. In theory, improving the existing wiring allows those signals to pass more quickly. This should translate into quicker download speeds. 

Using fibre optics

Unfortunately, there are inherent limitations in how quickly data can travel through copper wire, particularly over longer distances. The further you are from your exchange, the poorer, and slower, your connection is likely to be. In contrast, cable, or fibre optic, lines transmit data much more quickly and reliably, facilitating higher broadband speeds.

Providers, such as Virgin Media, are able to offer superfast broadband connections through their existing cable infrastructure. For example, a home in West Swindon, which receives speeds of less than 1 Mbps using conventional broadband, may obtain download speeds of up to 30 Mbps with fibre optics. The speed is impressive, but depends upon the availability of a cable network. 

Meanwhile, Openreach BT is forging ahead with the rollout of its fibre optic programme. It aims to be able to supply superfast broadband to two thirds of UK homes by the end of spring 2014. Those areas benefitting should be able to expect speeds of up to 45 Mbps.

Openreach’s approach is twofold. First, it will lay fibre optic cables over the old copper wires that lead from the exchange to its street cabinets. (Only the final connection from your home to the cabinet will be through wire.) At the same time, it will upgrade its electronics. (Miniaturised cards in local cabinets, rather than the more remote exchange, will boost performance).

Secondly, it will introduce a pure fibre infrastructure from individual properties to the exchange (with optical splitters allowing a single fibre to serve multiple premises). 

Developments in Swindon

Parts of Swindon are already benefitting from BT’s improvements. Swindon has several telephone exchanges (Swindon Central, Toothill, Stratton and Haydon Wick). Those areas served by Swindon Central and Toothill should already be able to receive superfast broadband through BT Infinity and other suppliers.

There are, however, currently no plans to roll out the programme to Stratton or Haydon Wick. Virgin media covers some, but not all, of the gaps left.

Residents in Priory Vale, North Swindon, aren’t happy at being low down on BT’s list of upgrade priorities. Homes there currently enjoy broadband speeds in the region of 2-6 Mbps. These speeds are well above the old 2 Mbps standard, but considerably less than homeowners and businesses to the south can expect. Justin Tomlinson MP has taken up their case with BT.

Introducing 4G

Using fibre optics is not the only way to increase dramatically broadband speeds. Swindon Council recently backed the introduction of Britain’s first 4G LTE (“long term evolution”) wireless network through its partner, UK Broadband. 

4G is a combination of fourth generation mobile technologies. It does not rely upon copper wires or cable to transmit information. Instead, it sends and receives data in packets, from cell to cell, using radio waves.

Through the partnership, 67,000 Swindon residents should be able to enjoy download speeds of up to 40 Mbps, if they sign up for a package with UK Broadband.  

Developments in rural areas

Rural exchanges serve proportionately fewer properties, so are often a lower priority for upgrading. However, their geographical reach is often greater. Given the problems with connectivity over longer distances, rural homes and businesses may suffer slow broadband speeds disproportionately.   

However, improvements are on the way. Wiltshire County Council and South Gloucestershire County Council have recently joined with BT to improve broadband provision for rural areas that would otherwise not be able to access fast broadband.

By March 2016, all premises in the County should be able to enjoy download speeds of at least 2 Mbps, most considerably more.

Check out your broadband speed

You can check out your own broadband speed at www.speedtest.net. For more information on broadband provision, visit Sam Knows.
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