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Fibre-optic broadband

With Virgin Media rumoured to be gearing up to launch 50MB broadband on December 15th, we take a look at how super-fast speeds will transform usage of internet.

Speculation is mounting that Virgin Media could be poised to leave bring UK broadband speeds more in line with the super-fast connections enjoyed by Japanese consumers within the next few weeks, in what could prove a sea change in the British broadband market.

Industry experts have reacted to the company’s recent announcement of a mystery press conference on December 15th by predicting that the event will see the official launch of Virgin Media’s much touted 50MB service. A press release sent out to journalists which hinted at a significant announcement and instructed writers to keep the date free has acted to further fuel predictions that 50MB broadband is a matter of days away.

For several months Virgin Media has maintained that its 50MB service would be released before the end of 2008 and has stated that the service will be brought to its cable customers “region-by-region” with “dates for each region [available] on our website closer to the time”.

Should the speculation over the press conference prove correct, Virgin Media will soon be offering a service up to over six times faster than its rivals. The company is able to do this thanks to its adoption of a fibre optic network, which could in time enable speeds of up to 150MB to be attained. By way of comparison, ADSL lines typically have a standard speed limit of around 8MB. However, in reality this is frequently not delivered to customers who live a long way from their local exchange.

Availability of 50MB in the UK could transform the way that people use the internet. The speed of the connection would mean that downloading an entire movie would take a matter of minutes rather than hours at is currently the case. Meanwhile, CDs would take seconds to download. Furthermore, customers will also be able to do more on their PC at once. Thus enabling them to chat to a friend, download a file and watch a video at the same time without disrupting their service.

Whether the faster service will lead to mass migration to Virgin Media’s service is debatable, especially given UK consumers’ notorious inertia over switching providers. However, 50MB would certainly mean that Virgin Media’s bundled Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) service would become more attractive to consumers. This is because a faster connection allows consumers to view high definition television over the internet instead of having to use satellite or cable. Similarly, a super-fast service is sure to appeal to the burgeoning online gaming market, which has been fed by the growth of faster connections.

Earlier this month, Paul Elworthy, head of broadband products at Virgin Media, described the impact that faster broadband products would have as “seismic” and compared it to the change brought about in consumer habits by the shift from dial-up to broadband. He told “Super-fast products like this will facilitate new services and transform the way people use their internet connections at home. It will enable streaming of the highest quality video - not just on one device, but a number of devices in the home. “It will massively improve the quality of connection in homes where there are a number of users online at the same time - and of course it will transform the downloading experience.”

The ISP has been trialling a 50MB service for several months in selected areas of the UK, including Warrington, Dover, Ashford and Folkestone, which have enjoyed the fastest broadband connections in the country as a result.

News of developments comes as BT has recently been forced to issue an official denial that it is seeking to scale down its obligation to rolling out a fibre-optic network across the UK. The company did so amid speculation that credit-crunch induced strain on the telecommunications giant’s balance sheet had led shareholders to lobby for it to maintain its cash reserves instead of committing billions of pounds to the scheme.

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