BT to test 500Mbps broadband over copper in two towns

Emboldened by successful lab tests, British Telecom wants to see how well G.fast performs in the real world

British Telecom thinks that a new technology called G.fast can increase broadband speeds over copper to hundreds of megabits per second, and will soon conduct trials to see if it's right.

If the trials are a success, it's good news for homes and businesses that don't have access to fiber in the U.K. -- but also across Europe, as they will likely encourage operators in other countries to bet on the technology too.

Around 4,000 English homes and businesses will be able to participate in BT's pilots, which aim to find out what speeds can be delivered using G.fast at scale. They will start this summer in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, and Gosforth in Newcastle.

What speeds G.fast users will get depend on a number of factors, including the quality of the copper and the distance between the operator's network equipment and the modem. For example, last year BT achieved download speeds of around 700Mbps and upload speeds at 200Mbps over a distance of 66 meters during a small field trial.

BT is more conservative when it comes to real-world speeds, but still expects to offer users a few hundred megabits per second initially. Speeds will then increase to around 500Mbps for a majority of users, as new standards are agreed on and hardware based on them developed, it said.

The speed increase is needed for applications such as streaming 4K video (and in the future 8K video), IPTV, cloud-based storage, and communication via HD video, according to the ITU (International Telecommunication Union), which has developed the underlying standard. At the International CES trade show, chip maker Sckipio Technologies demonstrated G.fast's ability to carry 4K TV.

Last year's trials are the reason for BT's current optimism. They showed that G.fast can deliver big speed increases from existing and new fiber street cabinets as well as from other points closer to the customer. That's an important development as it means the technology can be deployed faster and more efficiently than previously thought, according to BT.

BT isn't the only European operator that has high hopes for what G.fast can achieve. In October, Telekom Austria said it had connected the world's first subscriber using the technology.

Telekom Austria has apartment buildings in cities in mind for large-scale commercial installations next year. In this case fiber is deployed all the way to the basement of a building, and existing copper lines are used for the final connection to the apartments.

BT plans to offer its first commercial G.fast services in 2016 or 2017, depending on the results of the tests. The ITU expects at least one operator to offer commercial G.fast services before the end of this year.

In the last year, G.fast has made a lot of headway, but it hasn't always been easy going. The technology increases the bandwidth by using more spectrum. That requires hardware to be good at handling interference, a far from trivial requirement.

Getting it to work has been a challenge for chipset manufacturers and equipment vendors. The standardization of G.fast started in 2011, and was meant to be finished by April last year. That time frame proved overly optimistic for such a complex effort. In the end, another seven months were needed to get it right.

Both BT and Telekom Austria see a future where fiber all the way to homes and offices is used alongside copper networks. BT is also planning to develop a premium fiber broadband service for consumers and businesses that want even faster broadband, up to 1Gbps.

Send news tips and comments to mikael_ricknas@idg.com

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Mikael Ricknäs

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