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BT is still laying old-fashioned copper wires

BT has been accused of laying old-fashioned cables

BT has been accused of laying old-fashioned cables that have left Britain trailing behind European rivals.

Critics say the firm’s Openreach arm has been using outdated copper wires to connect homes to the internet, instead of fibre cables which families would need for superfast broadband.

The boss of Vodafone – the UK’s biggest mobile phone company – yesterday attacked the move and blamed ministers for failing to force BT to put in the most modern technology.

Nick Jeffery, chief executive of Vodafone UK, said millions of homes and businesses still relied on old-fashioned copper wires to connect to the internet when they should be given access to faster technology.

He said fibre-optic cables – which allow much quicker download speeds – were vital for a ’21st-century economy’ but Britain was not investing enough in them.

Mr Jeffery said: ‘There is no conceivable way that this 20th-century infrastructure is fit for a 21st-century digital economy … Why take a technology deployed in the last century and try and stretch it to the limits of physics to do something that is still inadequate for creating the digital economy that we know we need?

‘In parallel, you have absolutely the right technology being deployed pretty much everywhere else in the world.’

The Government has embarked on a major overhaul of the broadband system in a bid to get more homes connected to the web.

Previously, all the UK’s phone lines were based on copper wires running along the streets in ducts and from telegraph poles. But copper cables cannot carry super-fast broadband speeds. They can carry 10mbps – the level Ofcom suggests is the minimum homes need in order to use the internet.

ANALYSIS: Copper cables are outdated 


Copper cables have been described as 20th-century technology for a 21st-century digital economy – threatening to hold Britain back while European neighbours speed ahead.

Super-fast internet, meanwhile, has become one of life’s essentials. But BT’s Openreach arm is failing to install the most up-to-date technology in the ducts and poles that connect properties to phone lines. So why is it installing copper wires that have been put in homes for decades instead of modern glass and plastic fibre cables?

The excuse for this chronic lack of foresight, is simple – cash. It’s estimated it would cost £20billion to connect every home with fibre-optic cables. BT says there is not a business case to do it. And it has a get-out clause.

The Government has given it the wriggle room to carry on because it believes homes need speeds of only around 10mbps – which copper can deliver. But with the rise of internet TV, movie downloading and online games, it won’t be enough for much longer. At busy times it may not be enough even today.

The failure of digital minister Matt Hancock to push for top-of-the-range infrastructure now will only lead to disruption when Britain realises that cables need to be dug up and relaid to bring the country up to date. 

Fibre cabling is being put in to many streets. However, in a move that has baffled many internet providers, copper cables are still used to connect the homes to the junction box on their street.

This means that even if their street has fibre cabling, their speed will be slowed because they have only a copper connection to the property. Claire Jones, of broadband comparison website Uswitch, said: ‘There are now growing numbers of people working from home and they need a reliable connection … if different people in your household want to be able to do multiple things online at the same time then fibre is a much better option.’

She claimed older, copper connections could be hit by slow speeds if homes were a long way from their street’s cabinet.

The Government gave BT’s Openreach £1.7billion to ensure everyone had this type of connection. Yesterday digital minister Matt Hancock insisted this had to be done before it focused on fibre-optic cables.

But Mr Jeffery said the copper technology put Britain behind the rest of Europe.

In Spain and Portugal more than 80 per cent of premises have direct access to ‘ultrafast’ fibre-optic cables – compared with about 2 per cent in the UK.

The Vodafone boss said connecting premises directly with fibre cables should be standard practice. But Mr Hancock said: ‘We have got to complete the rollout of the current copper to the premises technology, so people can have that basic level of service they need to participate in the internet economy.’

He added: ‘The national drive to get fibre in the ground is mission-critical to make Britain successful in the 21st century.’

An Openreach spokesman said it was considering plans to connect 10million homes and businesses to fibre cables by 2020 – but this would depend on whether there was ‘sufficient demand’.