Neither push nor pull – the factors that made copper based DSL a mass market technology in UK

Deshpande, Advait (2011). Neither push nor pull – the factors that made copper based DSL a mass market technology in UK. In: International Committee for the History of Technology (ICOHTEC) 38th Annual Meeting (2011), 2-7 Aug 2011, Glasgow, UK.



In 1980s, telecom experts had begun to predict a high capacity optical fibre future in which voice, data and video would be delivered on a single network. The prospect of expansion in data and video services markets meant that most national operators began to formulate a push for optical fibre. The arrival and growth of the Internet by early 1990s and the limitations of dialup connectivity further fuelled the consumer demand for increased bandwidth. This demand was a pull that strengthened the existing arguments for optical fibre technology.

Although in response to this increasing demand for bandwidth the speeds and bandwidth rates in UK have improved dramatically from 64 kbps to an average of 5 Mbps, most of the broadband in UK is still delivered through copper based digital subscriber line (DSL) technology. With DSL delivering increasingly better speeds, the deployment of a full optical fibre network seems further away. This has led successive governments and regulators to contemplate a systematic push for optical fibre technology.

These developments raise important questions about the role of consumers in the growth of broadband technology. In context of the push/pull model this leads to questions about the extent to which telecom operators control the broadband technology being deployed. Did the extensiveness of copper based networks make copper based DSL technology an inevitable choice for delivering broadband? And if not, what were the factors that made copper based DSL technology such a common choice in the last two decades?

This paper examines the reasons that have delayed the full-fledged adoption of optical fibre since 1980s and why copper based DSL is still commonly used for broadband connectivity. The paper argues that with increasing fragmentation, denationalisation and competition in the telecoms market, neither consumers nor operators can completely determine which broadband technology achieves a critical mass. This means that the drivers of copper based DSL becoming a mass market technology cannot be articulated in terms of a simple push/pull model but instead depend on socio-economic, technological and political factors influenced by the combined nexus of consumers, telecom operators, governments, standardisation bodies and regulators.

This paper draws on material in the BT and IET Archives. The argument is informed by classic STS scholarship, principally that of Wiebe Bijker and Thomas P Hughes in the social construction of technology (SCOT).

Viewing alternatives

No digital document available to download for this item

Item Actions