A brief history of British broadband

The history of broadband is fascinating, but it’s also littered with technological dead-ends and lessons for today’s consumers

Sunday, 31 October, 2021

The origins of the internet are often shrouded in folklore, but the development of online services is actually fairly linear.

Home internet services flourished throughout the 1990s, as dial-up modems gave computers the ability to communicate with central servers and other machines across phone lines.

However, it was 2000 before the UK saw the first domestic broadband connections being offered in lieu of sluggish dial-up.

The history of broadband since 2000 is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure, with lessons today’s consumers can learn from yesterday’s mis-steps…

Faulty towers

Basildon in Essex received the UK’s first domestic broadband connection back in 2000, at a time when high-end tower PCs were the only devices suited to high-speed internet services.

NTL was the first broadband provider to launch, though BT and Kingston Communications were simultaneously rolling out connections of up to 512Kbps.

That was almost ten times faster than dial-up, but it was still pitifully slow by modern standards.

By 2001, less than a tenth of UK households had broadband, with the waters being further muddied by halfway-house solutions like BT’s Midband service.

Launched in 2002 and canned three years later, this ISDN-based service and its attendant 05 phone numbers was always going to be short-lived.

Today, Openreach’s G.fast system may be heading a similar way, with Green ISP and Zen Internet both recently withdrawing the sale of this hybrid-fibre system (itself launched three years ago).

Lesson one:When new services like G.fast launch, consider how you’d manage if they were withdrawn. Experiments like these are often relatively brief.

Open’ all hours

By the mid-Noughties, rival ISPs were increasingly angry about BT’s monopoly over UK broadband infrastructure (except in Humberside, for reasons we’ve previously explained).

In 2006, Openreach was formed as an arms-length subsidiary of the former state monopoly-holder. Its remit covered cabling, telephone lines and infrastructure up to domestic homes.

However, Openreach wasn’t responsible for the proprietary full fibre cable networks being installed by the likes of Telewest and its rebranded ntl rival.

Some customers preferred to have a national network they could rely on in different locations, while others were simply keen to escape from slow ADSL connections.

Lesson two: Switching to a full fibre firm’s own network may increase line speed, but moving back to an Openreach-based service could be complex.

Six feet under

Some technologies are developed well ahead of consumer demand, like AR and VR. Others evolve in response to existing demand, and streaming services are an example of the latter.

Growing uptake of video on-demand services and music streaming effectively forced ISPs to increase home broadband speeds, to give their customers a seamless experience.

Netflix’s transition from postal DVD rentals to streaming media was particularly well-timed, with half of British homes then having broadband connections capable of media streaming.

By the end of the Noughties, ntl and Telewest had amalgamated into Virgin Media, offering an unprecedented 50Mbps broadband package along fibre optic cables buried underground.

The days of internet connectivity being carried overground on phone lines was drawing to a close, as entrepreneurial firms like Hyperoptic started offering market-leading connections.

Lesson three: Some of the fastest connection speeds in the history of broadband have been achieved by startups, rather than big-name ISPs.

Secrets and lies

Although the UK’s history of broadband rollout seems impressive when viewed in isolation, successive Governments have promised far more than we’ve actually received.

In 2009, Labour promised every home a 2Mbps connection by 2012. By 2011, this became 24Mbps in 90 per cent of homes by 2015, and in 2013, the deadline was pushed back to 2017.

In 2016, the Conservatives promised to provide superfast broadband to all by 2020, but this was amended to gigabit broadband by 2025 in the 2019 manifesto, before being dropped entirely.

Time and again, sparsely-populated regions of the UK made 100 per cent pledges economically unviable, repeatedly undermining headline-grabbing manifesto pledges.

Lesson four: When you’re looking for clues about future broadband services and infrastructure, trust ISPs rather than politicians…

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!