In the beginning, there were copper phone lines. And they were good for dial-up internet, where data was being piped at speeds of kilobits per second.
Then came early broadband services, which were transferred to and from our homes at a few megabits per second.
Again, copper phone lines were perfectly suited to this. Because they could transfer data at up to 11 megabits per second (Mbps), the internet services of the time didn’t really tax them.
But then came Netflix. And Fortnite. And Alexa. And Skype. And all the other data-intensive services beloved by modern consumers and families.
Suddenly, homes began filling up with devices competing for limited available bandwidth.
The results included buffering, dropouts, error messages and sluggish streaming or gameplay.
ISPs reacted by increasing network performance, promising speed-of-light data transfers along futuristic fibre optic cables directly into our homes.
By comparison, copper-powered Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Lines (ADSL) seem archaic.
It’s an unfortunate legacy of our 20th century infrastructure that millions of people across the UK still rely on copper connections to their homes for their internet services.
This is known as Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC), because the high-speed fibre cables used for regional and international data transfers don’t extend beyond local telephone exchanges.
Between the cabinets (or green/grey pavement exchange boxes) and our homes, copper lines still pipe data into our homes, throttling achievable transfer speeds.
But copper is yesterday’s data transfer medium. Fibre is the future, delivering hugely superior performance. And ISPs are slowly turning off ADSL connections to their customers.
Getting rid of old coppers
In late November, SSE became the latest firm to end its reliance on copper connections, turning off ADSL services and deleting them from its marketing literature.
BT has already done the same, only making an exception for consumers living in rural areas exclusively served by copper lines.
Meanwhile, cable companies like Virgin Media and Gigaclear don’t use ADSL services at all, because their proprietary systems rely on Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) connections.
FTTP can deliver speeds of up to 1Gbps – up to a hundred times faster than ADSL, which generally tops out at around 11Mbps.
FTTP will be essential for distributing 4K and 8K media content, while supporting the plethora of Internet of Things devices set to arrive during this decade.
However, many consumers are either unable or unwilling to sign up for FTTP connectivity, assuming it’s even available in their area.
Reasons include the higher cost of full fibre packages, dissatisfaction with FTTP providers’ customer service, or problems persuading landlords to approve installation in rental homes.
When will ADSL be banished altogether?
In truth, probably not for some time.
The Conservative Party manifesto for last month’s General Election promised universal gigabit broadband by 2025, but this seems unachievable without astronomical investment.
Despite the Tories pledging to spend £5 billion alongside the combined efforts of firms like Openreach, the UK population is too scattered to be fully connected within five years.
There’s also the issue that FTTP is more expensive for consumers than ADSL. People who only use the internet for email and BBC News might be unwilling to pay for full fibre.
It’s worth noting that similar challenges are being faced around the world; these are not problems unique to our shores.
However, it’ll be some time before the last UK residents are able to celebrate turning off ADSL connections.