Fibre. It’s the new copper, I hear.
Yes indeed – it’s the next generation of broadband technology, where connectivity is delivered over fibre optic cable rather than copper. With fibre, Britain could be looking at downstream broadband speeds of up to 100Mbps.

And BT is all over it like a rash?
It is now – having announced a £1.5bn fibre deployment last year. Under the planned rollout, 10 million homes are expected to get fibre connectivity by 2012.

By 2012? Hadn’t BT best get cracking?
And get cracking it has, kicking off a fibre pilot in the north London suburb of Muswell Hill and the Cardiff suburb of Whitchurch earlier this month.

Well, that’s not much is it?
There’s more on the way, naturally. In March, BT named the first lot of 29 exchanges that will get the fibre upgrade and followed up with another batch of 69 last week.

According to the telco, about 1.5 million homes and businesses should get the upgrade by 2010.

So does that mean that we’ll all be getting 100Mbps by then?
In short, no. The downlink speed a user will actually get will depend on whether BT lays fibre to the cabinet (FTTC), where fibre only goes as far as the street cabinet, or fibre to the premises (FTTP), where it goes all the way to the home or business itself.

The more expensive option, FTTP, could theoretically bring downstream speeds of up to 100Mbps and upstream speeds of 40Mbps. The less costly FTTC could deliver downstream speeds of up to 40Mbps and an uplink of between 5Mbps and 10Mbps.

So how does BT decide who gets the super speedy one?
Unsurprisingly, it depends on how hard or easy it is to actually lay the fibre. Where BT has to do a lot of work digging up the road and so on, the cost goes up and the likelihood of getting fibre to the premises goes down.

So the plan is 10 million homes by 2012, right? But that won’t cover all of the UK, will it?
Not even remotely – BT puts the final total of who will get broadband under the £1.5bn scheme at around 40 per cent of the UK population.

And if I’m outside that 40 per cent, what then?
The outgoing communications minister Lord Stephen Carter has already got his eye on the problem. According to Carter, there’s a huge chunk of the UK that economically doesn’t make sense for the telcos to start laying fibre to – they’re too remote or too sparsely populated for there to be much return on investment for them.

Carter’s solution to the problem, set out in the Digital Britain report in June, is a 50p-per-month levy on all existing copper lines. The cash raised will then be used to fund fibre broadband in all those hard to get to places.

BT, however, is not convinced the 50p fund – which Carter reckons could end up between £150m and £175m – is enough to do the job and recently predicted that around of a fifth of the population is likely to still have to go without fibre.

Will BT be reselling fibre access to other ISPs like it does with copper?
Apparently so – when it named the second round of exchanges to get fibre-enabled, it promised to resell fibre access on a wholesale basis to ISPs that wanted it.

However, it’s worth noting that…

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…BT charge whatever it likes for fibre after Ofcom said it won’t impose any pricing controls on fibre access. According to the ever-optimistic Ofcom head Ed Richards, the cheap cost of copper and mobile broadband will keep BT and others from running rampant with fibre pricing.

Such a hands-off approach is essentially seen as a sop to BT and other operators who have long complained about the high cost of putting in a fibre infrastructure: by taking away the threat of price caps, operators should be theoretically more comfortable they’ll be able to achieve a return on investment for their outlay.

Hmm, I seem to remember BT complaining about that a while back – saying they’d never be able to get a return on investment with fibre. Does that ring a bell with you?
Indeed it does – cast your mind back to the heady days of 2006, when one BT exec revealed the telco had abandoned trials of fibre to the home saying: “For widespread fibre deployments, I’ve yet to see a business case that pays for the deployment.”

A year later and another exec told the market wasn’t ready to pay for fibre: “You have to be ready to pay for that investment. My shareholders are not a charity. It isn’t a regulation issue, it’s a market issue – if no one wants to pay for [high definition video] streams they’re not going to magic themselves into people’s homes.”

Two years on, and BT is chucking £1.5bn at fibre. Was all the grumbling about return on investment meaning fibre would never take off a game of chicken between Ofcom and BT? What do you think?