Copper still big in Europe broadband future

Most of Europe will still be getting its broadband over copper telephone lines by 2020, according to a report by Point Topic. Despite all the campaigning for fibre all the way to the home (FTTH), economics and technology will ensure that, for most people, the fibre will stop some way short of their doorstep.

At the same time, at least 90 per cent of homes in the European Union will have access to broadband services of 30 megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds or better by that year, if they choose. This means that one major objective of the European Commission’s Digital Agenda for providing superfast broadband will be largely achieved.

VDSL (for Very-high-speed Digital Subscriber Line) is the technology which introduces extra optical fibre into the telephone network, from the exchange to street cabinets. From there on VDSL uses the existing copper telephone wires to carry the broadband signal the remaining distance to the customer’s home or business.

Point Topic’s research shows that VDSL, also known as FTTC, for fibre-to-the-cabinet, or sometimes FTTC+VDSL, is fully capable of meeting the 30Mbps target. Current VDSL services only partially reach that level. Their offered speeds typically range from 25 to 40Mbps. But vectoring technology, which cuts down electronic interference on VDSL lines, will be soon be doubling VDSL speeds, starting in 2014.

At the same time, VDSL is growing much faster than the competing superfast technologies. Point Topic’s research for the European Commission shows that the coverage of VDSL – the number of households which can subscribe to it if they want – increased by 5.6 per cent to reach 24.9 per cent by the end of 2012.

The coverage of Docsis 3, the superfast broadband technology used by the cable TV networks, grew by 2.7 per cent, although it is still ahead of VDSL for now with 39.3 per cent coverage of homes. FTTP (fibre-to-the-premises, which includes both FTTH and “fibre-to-the-building”, for example to an apartment block) grew by 2.4 per cent and now covers 12.3 per cent of the EU.

The reason why Docsis 3 and FTTP grew more slowly than VDSL, and are expected to continue doing so in future, is mainly economic. Docsis 3 spread very rapidly in the period 2010 to 2012 because it required just a simple upgrade to existing cable TV networks. But that process is almost complete now and further growth will require building new cable networks which is hard to justify financially.

Similarly, extending the coverage of FTTP will also mean building new networks. Much of the FTTP coverage in Europe to date serves areas of high-density housing, such as apartment blocks in the eastern EU. FTTP can be the cheapest solution in these circumstances, particularly if there is no telephone network. But the most attractive areas are largely covered now, so FTTP growth is also slow.

Based on these scenarios, Point Topic projects that all three technologies will continue growing in coverage, but VDSL will grow much faster as it spreads across the existing telephone network. “We forecast that VDSL will reach 73 per cent of European homes by 2020, while Docsis 3 cable will cover 45 per cent and FTTP only 16 per cent,” says Tim Johnson, lead author of the report.

Altogether, after taking account of overlaps, this forecast will mean only 90 per cent of European homes will have access to superfast fixed-line broadband by 2020, falling short of the Digital Agenda objective of 100 per cent. Forecasting which technologies will fill the gap is more difficult because solutions will vary very much depending on the area. But it is likely that FTTP will account for a much higher proportion of this sector, so total FTTP coverage could be 21 per cent or more.

Point Topic’s report concludes that Europe needs to grab the opportunity of better broadband with both hands. Almost everyone agrees that upgrading to superfast broadband will achieve major social and economic returns. But it needs to be done in the way which will provide people with the services they need quickly and cheaply. The results show that making maximum use of the existing telephone network is the way to do that. “Just what Europe needs in difficult economic times,” says Johnson.

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