BT’s unique physical characteristics

What are BT’s unique physical characteristics? To use an analogy, If you’re driving to the movies, to a sporting event, or to work and you’re in a hurry, which route would you prefer? A dusty cow path out (upload)), and a pot-holed two lane highway that’s congested and always “under construction” on the way home (download)), or a wide superhighway with perfect pavement and no traffic, and a truly generous speed limit both ways?

The only trouble with this analogy is that it understates the actual superiority of BT’s network.

Here are the details, the most important physical characteristics of BT that set it apart and high above the competition: Speed, symmetry, usage, and reliability.


Speed or Bandwidth: Whenever you do something on the Internet, you’re sending and receiving information over a wire – copper, if you’re using Fairpoint or Comcast, or glass (optical fiber), if you’re using BT. The information is divided into tiny bits called…”bits”. Speed or bandwidth is a measure, not of how fast the bits are going, but of how many of those bits go by each second (bps), It’s usually expressed in millions (mbps). BT’s competitors are at a disadvantage here for three reasons:

1. The inferior data transfer capacity of copper vs. the data transfer capacity of fiber (especially if that capacity is developed beyond just what is needed to compete).

2. The stress to a copper-based network of offering high speeds.

3. The shared nature of the copper-based access network vs. the “private line” of BT’s Fiber To The Home (FTTH) network. All internet providers hedge their speed offerings with phrases like “speeds up to…” The difference is that with BT’s “private line”, customers are much more likely to see reliable speeds that are very close to the promised speed. Another difference is that, with the competitors, especially Comcast, your download may start at the promised speed, but very quickly it’ll slow way down, due either to shared traffic or intentional “throttling”.


Symmetry: Data moves both ways. Internet providers usually focus on the data coming in, like a movie download, because until recently, there was much more of that than data going out, and because most providers can only offer upload speeds that are a small fraction of their download speeds.

For example, Comcast’s standard package will give you 6 mbps down (at first), but only 2 mbps up. Its business package claims up to 100mbps down, but the upload speed is still no more than 2mbps. Fairpoint may deliver 15mbps down, but can only deliver, at best, between 1.5 and 2mbps up.

By comparison, BT’s speeds are all symmetrical, so 20 (or 40, or 100, or 1000) mbps down, means 20 (or 40, or 100, or 1000) mbps up as well. This is important because Internet usage is becoming increasingly symmetrical: People are not just downloading movies, music, and other data; now, they want to upload it as well. Think sending pictures via email, or uploading them to a photo sharing site. Think uploading videos to YouTube. Think off-site backup – The ability to save your personal or business data to a different physical location so it will be safe in the event of fire or other disaster. The presence of symmetry greatly expands the ability of BT to court high-tech business users. For example, BT’s speed, reliability and symmetry means that a business with multiple locations in the service area can use BT to tie those locations together seamlessly, as though they were all in the same building. None of BT’s copper-based competitors can do that.


Usage: This refers to how much data a customer either downloads or uploads over a period of time. Here again, BT has a network that is vastly superior to its competition. It takes much less traffic to overload a shared copper wire than a dedicated optical fiber. Because of this, there is a strong incentive for Comcast to actively throttle users bandwidth. In fact, Comcast has been shown to limit users’ bandwidth by up to 99% [1]


Reliability and Security: Copper wires are essentially antennas – they absorb radiation from radio transmitters, power lines, and other electrical devices. This modifies the data signals in the metal cable, which makes them vulnerable to errors which must be corrected (thus slowing down the rate of transfer), and transient unreliability. Since copper wires are antennas, they also broadcast the data they carry. This allows an eavesdropper to easily intercept and monitor the signal at a distance. This can be done with a modified twenty-dollar FM radio hooked to a digital signal decoder. Squeezing extra speed out of a copper-based network, also lowers its reliability.

In contrast, fiber optic cable is not affected by electromagnetic interference or lightning, (which keeps it “clean” and practically error free), nor does it radiate your data like copper. Furthermore, it can’t be physically tapped without detection. Since the signal is “clean”, it can travel farther between repeaters and doesn’t need error detection, making it much faster and much more reliable.

The practical implications of these physical characteristics are that BT, if it is run not merely to marginally compete in order to deliver revenue, but run to deliver its full potential, can deliver vastly superior performance and reliability for Internet recreation, work, commerce, and culture: such things as medical and educational applications, Downloading and uploading video, music, and photos, gaming, data back-up, telecommuting, group collaboration, Internet commerce, remote support, using online services like Google Docs. Almost daily, these activities require more and more of what BT has in abundance, compared to its competitors: speed, reliability, and bandwidth.

It is important to note that the degree to which BT’s unique characteristics are developed for customer use depends heavily on the motivation of its ownership, since BT could easily be made merely competitive, thus wasting much of its potential to stimulate Burlington’s economy by transforming its Internet connectedness. To cite just one example, Chattanooga, Tennessee, with its FTTH network, is stealing businesses from Knoxville [2], 100 miles away


1. Max Planck Institute (March 18, 2008). “Glasnost: Results from tests for BitTorrent traffic blocking“.

2. Bloomberg (February 15, 2012). The Case for Publicly Owned Internet Service

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