It’s remarkable that for millions of households across the UK, our digital lives are dependent on technology developed by the Victorians.
Copper phone lines have been in use since the 1870s, and the creation of a national phone system (covering around 75 million miles) was a triumph of early 20th century engineering.
Yet despite a global network of fibre optic cabling distributing binary data at almost the speed of light, fifteen million UK homes are still connected along old-fashioned cables.
That means phone lines have to handle the final stage of data’s journey from overseas web servers to domestic broadband routers.
And unfortunately, copper isn’t a particularly effective conduit of bits and bytes.
As a result, homes where the fibre network stops at their nearest exchange tend to have their connection speeds hobbled by the final leg of data’s journey.
This is known as Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) connectivity, as opposed to Fibre to the Premises (FTTP), where fibre optic cables extend into our homes.
It’s a fair cop’
Around the world, cities like Melbourne have already abolished traditional copper phone networks.
And closer to home, Openreach has set a target of dismantling the UK’s remaining copper network (known as the public switched telephone network, or PSTN) by December 2025.
This corresponds with the UK Government’s target of getting gigabit-capable connectivity into every home by then.
Copper phone lines will be replaced by what Openreach describe as “newer digital technologies” – in other words, modern cabling capable of supplying data far more quickly.
Advocates cite the relatively seamless switch from analogue to digital TV in 2007 as a precedent, though online connectivity is arguably far more important than receiving BBC2.
It’s also a far bigger challenge, since Openreach is in charge of our telephone infrastructure but hundreds of other companies actually manage line rental, broadband subscriptions, etc.
The only exception is in East Yorkshire, where KCOM’s monopoly has enabled it to spend £85 million installing FTTP connectivity in preparation for switching off the copper network.
This is expected to happen in the near future, since copper cabling is effectively redundant in the East Riding.
So are copper lines doomed?
You would think so.
Yet there may be a reprieve, after an American university experiment proved copper cabling could be used to deliver data at speeds of one terabit per second.
A terabit is a thousand gigabits – a thousand times faster than the UK Government’s 2025 pledge, and more than quick enough to support any level of future internet use.
A complex process involves directing data along a copper wire at frequencies of around 200GHz, achieving incredibly high speeds en route.
Even though it’s only been demonstrated in laboratory conditions, Openreach and other infrastructure providers will be watching closely to see if copper phone lines can be repurposed.
If so, those Victorian phone cables may be with us for many years to come.