How Rupert Murdoch killed cable in the UK and the internet brought it back

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For those of you in the US this may come as a surprise, cable the life blood of the US entertainment industry is barely a reality here in the UK, but now that is starting to change.

Cable has always been a part of the UK TV services but only in limited areas such as major cities and the irony of it is that there is no reason other than cost as to why that is.

In the UK a cable company is treated as a utility, by law, a cable company can dig up any road, any land without prior warning or permission from a local authority or Government. They can lay their cable anywhere they please whenever they please but it just never happened on the scale that did in the US.

The UK has a huge cable inequality problem and it’s a difference that people here have barely noticed because of one Rupert Murdoch.

Rupert Murdoch killed cable

Of course he didn’t directly kill it but indirectly his merger of BSB (British Satellite Broadcasting) and his Sky company creating BSkyB stopped Cable in its tracks at a time when it was just starting to get more leverage.

That was 1990 and the Internet was barely a blip in the mind of the public. The only reason for cable was for access to the American TV networks such as MTV; as this was a time when the UK was only putting out four channels of TV. If Sky had not reared its head and Murdoch hadn’t started the rise to power that began with BSkyB then cable most likely would have been put down across the country, but Sky changed everything.

With a cheap satellite dish and receiver box screwed onto the wall or roof the cable companies had no incentive to spread out of the cities that they were already in, which were a legacy of the original cable networks that started being laid in the 1920s and that meant no digging was required of new trenches. They just never left the comfort of the cities they were already based in.

So the cable companies sat back and watched as Sky changed British television and signed record breaking deals to show live Premier League football.

They didn’t see the future of communications

The truth is no one really cared. As the Telewest and Blueyonder networks were swallowed by NTL and then bought and rebranded Virgin media to become the main and only nationwide (if you can call major cities nationwide) cable network; everyone was enjoying Sky from the fleet of satellites in orbit that Murdoch rented space on.

Current non-BT cable coverage in the UK – all areas are now Virgin Media.

There was only a hint of jealousy in the eyes of the ISPs as they realised very quickly that the cable network was the future of the internet.

But at first it wasn’t that bad as British Telecom adopted the broadband future with the use of ADSL technology on the existing copper phone lines, but that was back in 2006.

Cable takes the advantage in major cities

The cable companies realised they now had an advantage. They could turn their uncompetitive TV channel line ups often lacking Sky channels and add phone and Internet services and they could do it faster and more reliably than BT could with ADSL. In the first few years of the ADSL revolution NTL (prior to their takeover by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Media group) barely used any capacity as they upgraded the cable network.

They charged a premium on 10MBit connections that ADSL couldn’t touch for speed and they made lots of money as a result but as BT advanced the ADSL technology and upgraded it to the suitably named ADSL2+ and were forced by the government to open up their network to other ISPs the cable companies realised they had to raise their game. So first came 20MBit speeds and then 50MBit and today Virgin Media in the UK offer a 100MBit cable service.

BT realised as the war to faster cable speeds started hotting up that there was no way to beat cable without using cable.

Cable everywhere

In an ironic twist that should be lost on no-one BT unveiled plans in 2010 to cable the entire of the UK starting with the initial cost at £1.5bn to cable 40% of the UK by mid-2012.

Except they weren’t really laying cable like Virgin uses. BT came up with an ingenious idea – they only had to lay fibre optic cable from the main exchange housing BTs main hardline network to the cabinets at the edge of every neighbourhood in every town.

The green boxes that have existed since the dawn of BTs phone network would be rebuilt or replaced and those cabinets would gain the fibre optic connection with the the remaining few hundred meters using a further advance of the DSL technology called VDSL2 which allowed up to 40Mbits download and 10Mbit of upload. Not as fast as the cable companies but the first step towards matching them.

BT also decided to put cable all the way into the home in some areas as a test of future improvements, so that in 2011 BT boasted that they offered the fastest Internet in the UK after rolling out a 110MBit cable connection to limited areas.

The future means that BT will continue to expand the cable network and will, as can be seen with the limited trials, start hooking homes directly to the new cable that lies only a few hundred metres up the road from everyone.

From the brink the internet has brought cable back to the UK and it’s only a matter of time before everyone may well be hooked into the same TV and internet services that the US has.

But don’t shed a tear for Rupert Murdoch as he saw it coming back in 2008 and purchased the biggest independent non-BT phone and data network supplier in the UK in Easynet. It’s a safe bet that Sky have already got their own cable TV network ready to go. Ironic for a company called Sky.

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