Fibre to the Home (FTTH) Broadband - Not Always the Speed You Would Expect

21/02/2014 15:09 GMT | Updated 23/04/2014 10:59 BST

A full fibre optic connection into the home is the future and there is no doubt of that. But with coverage in the UK standing at under 0.1% (FTTH Council Europe 2014 figure) we are a long way from embracing what is seen as the ultimate destination for broadband.

Anyone looking at coverage of the full fibre solutions (and not this fibre to the cabinet or coax cable into the home malarkey) from other countries around the world can easily get the idea that it's available to millions more people. Alas, the story is more complex and all too often people take press coverage from other countries at face value, while at the same time picking holes in similar UK press coverage.

Before recently heading to the US to visit family, I jokingly asked people to find me some FTTH within 90 miles of where I was heading in rural Oklahoma and there were no responses. So I almost crashed my car staring at the collection of fibre markers running along the verge in Broken Bow, Oklahoma where I stayed for a few days.

It would seem that for buried fibre cables in the USA you have to stick a four foot high orange and white marker post every 50 to 100 feet, so it's pretty easy to spot the streets with FTTH. Given that in the UK people are complaining about the green fibre cabinets and some are being disguised by vinyl wraps, I can imagine high visibility marker posts soon receiving objections.

So there I was thinking that at least there is decent internet access when on holiday, but that small moment of joy was squashed, when I found out that while homes may have FTTH, the internet plan is only fractionally faster than they had with ADSL. The speeds have now jumped from 3 Mbps to 5 Mbps, which means people can just about watch a Netflix video stream and do a little light web browsing. This also costs people $39.95 per month (plus taxes) and still has a 350 GB usage allowance with excess use charged at $2 per GB. A cheaper plan at $29.95 is available but speed then drops to 1.5 Mbps. For people in the UK this will look very expensive for the speeds they get, and while we moan about the power that BT holds over the market, there is at least a choice at the retail level, as Broken Bow just has Pine Telecom as the only telephone/broadband/cable TV provider.

The motel I stayed in had Wi-Fi but was struggling on 1 Mbps due to the distance from the exchange (called central office in the US) and apparently roll-out of fibre was about a year away.

So a company spends money installing FTTH, but doesn't sell plans that can make use of it. In itself there is nothing wrong with that, but once you start using public money to build the network, it becomes a very different matter. Pine Telecom received a federal grant of $15,081,959 to deploy a mixture of FTTP and FTTN (FTTC) solutions to some 5,414 households and at the end of 2013 this project was half completed. This works out at a cost of $2,700 for every property and while higher than the headline cost $1000 for connecting a home to FTTH, this is partly down to the rural nature of the area, though the majority of properties are concentrated around the schools in Broken Bow so should be closer to the nominal $1000 to connect.

For any UK readers the size of this subsidy is pretty astounding, since while the UK is only aiming for a mainly FTTC based roll-out the level of subsidy is a lot smaller, generally in the range of £150 to £300 ($225 to $450) per property. Imagine the difficulty justifying public spending of £1500 to £2000 per property, with no guarantee people would even sign-up to the service.

There is a hint that the federal funding in Broken Bow is set to offer data rates of up to 40 Mbps, but given the current pricing structures it is unlikely that people in this rural area of Oklahoma will be willing to pay much more than the current plans.

Is there a lesson for the UK? Yes. Our BDUK projects are sometimes deservedly criticised but given the sums of public money being spent, maybe we are getting the best that we can expect. Inspection of how public money is spent is a requirement in a world where too many people see public funding as a gravy train, but perhaps we need to spend time looking at other places across the globe to help judge solutions. Trips arranged by telecoms operators will take you past the areas they want you to see, so there is a need to see what is happening on the ground.

FTTH is a noble goal and the UK is at the bottom end of the chart for coverage. However, availability of FTTH is growing and only recently, expansion by Hyperoptic was announced into three cities (Reading, Bristol and Cardiff), so more people who really need Gigabit type speeds will have the option. Operators like Hyperoptic and Gigaclear are rolling out FTTB (Fibre to the building) and FTTH without recourse to public money and maybe there should be more done to encourage this, particularly if we are otherwise looking at spending £2,000 of subsidy to get a large corporate like BT to roll-out the technology widely.

Maybe I will book my holiday in Latvia this year, which apparently has 100% availability of FTTH.