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What is gigabit broadband?

gigabit broadband
Bright future: gigabit broadband is delivered over fibre-optic cable

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Boris Johnson spent a fair chunk of the recent General Election campaign promising to deliver gigabit broadband to the entire country. Indeed, yesterday, he gathered a bunch of ministers and broadband company big-wigs to work out how they are going to do it by the promised deadline of 2025. (Spoiler alert: they almost certainly won’t.)

So what exactly is gigabit broadband?

How fast is gigabit broadband?

Today’s broadband speeds are largely measured in megabits per second (Mbits/sec). If you’re on a regular BT fibre connection, your maximum download speeds are likely somewhere between 30 and 80Mbits/sec. If you’re still on ADSL, you’re likely maxing out at around 20Mbits/sec.

A gigabit is 1,000 megabits, so when the PM promises to give everyone gigabit broadband, he’s talking about increasing the download speed of the average fibre connection by around 20 times. That is a decent dollop of whoosh.

How is that going to be possible? There are really only three ways of delivering such speeds:

  1. Fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP), where the connection between your house and the broadband provider is optical fibre from end to end. Don’t confuse this with the vast majority of today’s so-called fibre connections, where the final stretch of the connection from the street-side cabinet to your house is on old, speed-sapping copper wires.
  2. Using 5G mobile signals, although it’s certainly debatable whether 5G will be truly capable of delivering gigabit speeds, but that’s an article for another day.
  3. The third way is a bit of a cheat – a coming upgrade to Virgin Media’s existing ‘hybrid fibre’ network will likely deliver gigabit download speeds, although the upload speeds on that network are comparatively risible. That will, however, allow the government to tick off around half the country as “gigabit-ready” in one fell swoop.

How big is the challenge of getting gigabit broadband to everyone in the UK by 2025?

It’s somewhere between enormously difficult and impossible. Right now, around 10% of the country has access to a gigabit-capable connection. And that 10% live largely in the big cities, where digging up a single estate and laying cable can reach hundreds of dwellings at the same time.

The government has given itself just five years to get the other 90% of the country done, and that includes all those rural areas where there might only be one house every 500 yards. Even if you accept the Virgin network as gigabit broadband, that still leaves around half the country that needs either fibre or 5G. The sheer scale of the engineering effort required is daunting.

Still, if anyone can do it, surely it’s this fine crew of men and women who assembled at Downing Street yesterday? Although it’s a little concerning that they needed a place name to explain who Boris was…

Picture credit: DCMS

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About the author

Barry Collins

Barry has scribbled about tech for almost 20 years for The Sunday Times, PC Pro, WebUser, Which? and many others. He was once Deputy Editor of Mail Online and remains in therapy to this day. Email Barry at barry@bigtechquestion.com.

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