BT is boosting Britain's attempt to remain at the top of the global broadband market with plans to install a network at Ebbsfleet in Kent that offers speeds 20 times faster than the average UK household connection.
The company hopes its deployment of the UK's fastest ever residential network, at the development of 10,000 new homes, will be a crucial testbed as the government, regulator Ofcom and industry come to decide how to upgrade the country's broadband network.
From August, BT's Openreach unit will start installing super fast fibre connections rather than traditional copper phone lines at the Ebbsfleet site, owned by Land Securities.
It will offer the lines to BT Retail and rival ISPs and media companies such as Carphone Warehouse's TalkTalk and BSkyB, on a wholesale basis, enabling these companies to provide a host of bandwidth-hungry services such as high definition TV and film downloads.
"Openreach will provide the basic infrastructure and service providers will have the opportunity to build their own services on the back of it," explained head of Openreach Steve Robertson.
The move was welcomed by business minister Stephen Timms, who last year warned that the country risks being left behind in the broadband race by countries such as the US, Japan, Korea, France and Germany where new fibre networks are already being rolled out.
"Ultra fast broadband is a key future technology that will allow our businesses to innovate, grow and create wealth as well as providing even greater options for consumers," he said.
Openreach will today propose the prices it will charge for the use of its new fibre connections, ranging from £100 a year for a basic line to £530 a year for the fastest connection, at 100 MB per second.
Openreach will hold a meeting with potential industry customers next week to discuss these proposed prices, but exactly what services will be offered and what price residents of Ebbsfleet will ultimately be charged is up to the service providers to decide.
The 100-MB top speed available over the new fibre network is more than 20 times faster than the current average UK residential broadband connection, which Ofcom estimated last year at 4.6 MB.
The top speed available in Ebbsfleet also ranks alongside speeds already on offer in Japan, Korea and the US and will keep Britain in competition with France and Germany where large-scale fibre networks are to be built over the coming four years.
It is also twice the speed being tested by Virgin Media on its existing cable network in some parts of Kent.
But the Ebbsfleet development is just the start of Britain's journey into the next phase of broadband.
Last year Ofcom launched a consultation into the regulation of next generation access networks while Timms called industry leaders to a summit before Christmas to discuss who will pay for them. Timms is expected to make a statement setting out his initial views within the next few weeks.
Replacing copper phone lines with fibre will cost upwards of £10bn and many in the industry expect the country's next generation broadband network to actually be a patchwork of fibre, high-speed copper lines and wireless access in more rural areas.
Openreach hopes to be able to start installing fibre connections at all new major residential developments in the UK from this year and is in discussions with Ofcom as to what regulation is needed.
In fact Openreach reckons it is no more expensive to deliver fibre based infrastructure than it is to put copper lines in the ground.
But Ebbsfleet and other new developments will also inform the wider discussion of getting super-fast broadband into existing premises, Robertson hopes.
In any discussion of ultra-fast broadband, South Korea and Japan always loom large.
South Korea has an estimated 90% of its population plugged into broadband with the average advertised speed, according to the OECD, at 43MB a second.
In Japan - where take-up ranks alongside the UK's at about half the population - the average advertised connection is 90MB. Japan's largest communications company, NTT, plans to have fibre-optic networks plugged into 95% of homes by 2010.
In the US, meanwhile, Verizon is spending $23bn (£11.75bn) putting fibre within the reach of 18m homes by the end of the decade. Many parts of the US already have fast cable connections supplied by local TV operators such as Time Warner Cable in New York.
The French government has set a target of 4m cable homes by 2012. France Telecom expects to have about three-quarters of those connections and its investment is likely to reach up to £3.4bn. In Germany, Deutsche Telekom is installing fibre-optic networks in 50 cities this year.
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