Broadband Britain: Don't condemn us to the super-fast slow lane

Broadband Britain: Don't condemn us to the super-fast slow lane

Summary: Super-fast broadband should be attracting new buyers in droves, but it's not. Add to this the mismatched goals of the EU and the UK government and the long-term viability of the current plans begins to look in jeopardy

TOPICS: Broadband

News that the UK is one step ahead of its EU counterparts in broadband rollout looks good at first sight, but it hides the fact that people aren't signing up for the higher-speed services.

Also, the government has not shared any plans it may have for bridging the gap between the EU's Digital Agenda ambitions and our own. Put these two facts together, and it becomes unclear whether the UK will be able to get to where it needs to be in broadband, even though it must make progress or risk being left behind economically and culturally.

Even at this stage in its development, broadband access is having an impact. Together with the online industry, it contributed £121bn to the British economy in 2010 — equivalent to 8.3 percent of the GDP, according to management consultancy firm Boston Consulting Group.

Its momentum also doesn't show any sign of slowing, as the same report predicts it will make up 12.4 percent of the UK's economy, or £225bn, by 2016. That would rank the broadband/online industry above construction or education in its economic impact.

At its current level, the sector accounts for around £2,000 in GDP per person. Super-fast broadband access brings in, and saves, money. It's that simple.

Investment lacking

The rollout of a robust super-fast broadband network underpins other EU targets around e-health and delivery of government services using the internet. This should translate into cost savings for the governments involved and an increase in accessibility to services for citizens.

Given this, it was disappointing to hear that EU commissioner Neelie Kroes thinks that investment in the Digital Agenda is lacking across Europe.

"This attachment to 20th-century policy mindsets and business models is hurting Europe's economy," Kroes said on Monday, as the Commission released its Digital Agenda Scorecard report on how well countries are doing at closing in on targets.

"It's a terrible shame. We are shooting ourselves in the foot by under-investing. Europe will be flattened by its global competitors if we continue to be complacent," she added.

Super-fast take-up: not so fast

On the brighter side, it's encouraging to hear that more than 70 percent of UK broadband connections now get speeds of 10Mbps. However, only 0.1 percent of British households are signed up to 100Mbps packages, the fastest available.

As the EU's Digital Agenda has set a target of 50 percent of European households signed up to packages of 100Mbps or more by 2020, the UK has quite a way to go in less than eight years. While BT and Virgin Media are rolling out infrastructure to deliver such ultra-fast services every day, their efforts aren't translating into actual customer sign-ups.

Super-fast broadband should be attracting new buyers in droves. But that doesn't seem to be the case.

We can cut Virgin Media and BT a break on this front, as neither has been widely providing a 100Mbps service for even a year yet. But the uptake of super-fast services — those in the 30-100Mbps range — is more worrying. Only 1.7 percent of people who can get these speeds have signed up for them, compared with an EU average of 2.4 percent.

While ultra-fast (100Mbps or faster) connections are relatively new in the UK, particularly for residential connections, super-fast broadband should be attracting new buyers in droves. But that doesn't seem to be the case.

For example, in its most recent quarterly statement, BT said around half a million customers had signed up to its super-fast Infinity service, which is largely underpinned by fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) technology. As for Virgin Media, the company has said its co-axial-fibre service is now available to 10 million homes.

There are a couple of possible reasons for this. People could be reluctant to ditch a supplier in mid-contract and switch to a faster package, as this might incur fees. Or they may simply not know, or care, about faster speeds.

If it's the latter, and people don't know why they should be demanding reliable, high-speed access to the internet, then more education about the benefits is needed as soon as possible.

The future's... copper?

Just as crucial is what the broadband providers are doing to get the access in place. If the UK could build a countrywide fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) infrastructure, this would remove at a stroke any concerns about reaching EU targets.

However, BT — the incumbent broadband infrastructure owner —  recently said it has no plans to stop rolling out copper technology any time soon, as it believes its fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) can be eked out to provide speeds of up to 300Mbps.

The problem is that the performance of copper cable degrades the further you go from the cabinet. Rural locations in particular would be left as isolated as ever in regards to broadband. It might bring incremental increases — a bump from 0.3Mbps to 3Mbps, for instance. While this is likely to be welcomed and significant to people living in remote villages, it won't bring the UK much closer to the EU goal of 30Mbps for everyone by 2020.

By comparison, the UK's own aims are for 2Mbps for everyone in the UK by 2015. The government has not revealed its plans, if any, for making up the discrepancy between these goals.

It's hard to see how the UK's amalgam of broadband upgrades and schemes will provide a long-term solution to the problem of high-speed broadband connectivity. What we need is a coherent plan from the government and regulators. Time is running out.

Topic: Broadband

Ben Woods

About Ben Woods

With several years' experience covering everything in the world of telecoms and mobility, Ben's your man if it involves a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or any other piece of tech small enough to carry around with you.

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  • The problem is, the new faster speeds are only available where there is currently a fairly fast service anyway, so why should folk change? also the faster you go the more data you consume so you get throttled and capped. No wonder take up is poor.
    No wonder BT marketing calls it 'homes passed'.
    If the incumbents would deliver this service to all the people stuck on sub meg speeds they would get better take up, but they never will. Time to support altnets, who go where angels fear to tread.
  • I find all this banging on about faster broadband extremely annoying. I don't live in a rural area, but in central London. Despite that, fast fibre broadband from any vendor is not available in my area. Over the past few years the quality of my telephone and broadband service has got worse, not better, my voice line now crackles and pops like something from the 1960s and my broadband speed varies and drops out frequently enough to be annoying. Despite numerous complaints BT have been unable to do anything about it and repeatedly tell me there are no faults on my line. Since they cannot fix my existing service, even if it was available I would not trust them to be able to provide a reliable faster service.
  • Agreed. I am stuck in an area limited to 6Mbps maximum but actually get 4Mbps.

    BT have rolled out Infinity to virtually nobody, then are rolling out Infinity 2 to the same groups while people like me (who live in a major town I have to add) haven't even had the first version and are stuck at speeds from the early noughties.

    Broadband is part of the infrastructure of the country and as BT own the major part of it, they should be forced to roll out to all as its not like they can't afford to, it would just be a temporary minor dent in their profits before they make it all back over the following years.
  • My story is the same as many others. Sadly my exchange has not been upgraded for years. Living in a rural area limits me to BT only, for every other service provider, I have to pay extra for the privilege. What annoys me the most is the fact that a fibre line runs about two miles from my exchange, so I am stuck with a line that ranges from 2MB to dial-up.

  • BT are incompetent providers of broadband, and the job should be taken away from them and given to a firm that genuinely understands what people want from the internet, rather than telling them what they want.

    If you are a BT customer, you have to suffer high contention ratio and fascist packet shaping. If you want to download a torrent any time after about 2pm and before 11pm, then you're going to be waiting a long, long time, regardless of your bandwidth allowance and total speed. BT prioritises BT Vision traffic over all else. A ping to a UK game server is generally about 20ms higher with BT than it is with BE Unlimited.

    BT tech support are foreigners that not only lie about their names, but also work militantly from a flow chart, and will refuse (are unable to understand?) any question or statement you put to them that is outside of their flowchart procedure.

    When I was with BT Broadband many years ago, I suddenly suffered a drop in speed of about 1Mbs. An engineer visited my house to see what the problem was. His response was that I was still getting higher than average, so I shouldn't have be complaining. That was what prompted me to leave BT.

    FTTC is available in my area, and I know several people who have it. One guy has a connection of 68Mbs, and yet when downloading Steam games gets a download speed of around 2 megabytes / second. I, on the other hand, am with BE Unlimited, and my line speed is 23Mbs. I can download steam games at 2.5 megabytes / second.

    Avoid BT if you want a good, unrestricted internet connection :)
  • KC in the Hull and East Yorkshire area offer up to 350mbps and they are experiencing 3times as high of a take up as they expected of their VDSL and FTTH packages
  • I find it fascinating that you state people should be educated to want faster speeds.
    If they only use the net for reading emails (as a few of my friends do) why on earth would they want 10+meg speeds.
    People want a speed that suits their needs, not one that allows us to say we hit the minimum speed target. Why pay over the odds for a speed you will never use.
  • Whilst there are plenty of pople as Fleagle describes, there are plenty more, particularly with those who are really struggling to run their home business, as well as many using video who need far better services.
    Surrey Hills
  • cyberdoyle has nailed one of the core problems: if you have a faster speed, you will consume more data, and then the cost of an uncapped contract from BT then gets prohibitive, assuming you can find one that fits your needs and doesn't include BT Vision or result in egregious packet shaping. You can just see how hard the accountants at BT have been working...

    I left a BT-supplied line for an unbundled one from Be, whose broadband service and support are leagues ahead of BT's.
    Manek Dubash
  • I have to admit - When BT rolls out infinity I'm not going to upgrade. Also, I'm never going to let Virgin connect me to the fiber that passes my house (I've read the contract and wouldn't sign it as is).

    That said, after many years of trying, BT gets me a consistant 6-7MB.
    This is GOOD ENOUGH.
    e-mail, browsing, downloads, even streaming TV to my BTvision box. All works well enough.

    Increasing my speed would be a significant expense, we have other things to spend the money on.

    Cost is a key factor for many people........
  • So come up with a funding scheme for high speeds for all. And increase prices to pay for it. How can TalkTalk expect that £3.25/month will build a UK infrastructure.
  • So many comments on the faster services are like this:

    1. Rollout is minimal, real answer, I cannot get it, ignoring that roll-out takes time.
    2. Urban myth it is going to areas that can already go fast, reality is a mixture of this, just like other countries, where contrary to some ideas the physics that affect ADSL and ADSL2+ still apply.

    What I will say is this, when reading the comments in response to this sort of article with the mindset of a company that might want to invest, it is hardly encouraging. Maybe that is why investors are spending the money in countries like Russia - though you need to live in an apartment block to generally benefit from their superfast services.
  • I have just done a local survey and found that the average SPEED increase in our area from going to Fibre is 170% that is 1.7 times the existing lines.
    The cost increase averages at 1007% - yes over ten times.
    Those that signed want to go back, but aren't allowed to.
    I can see the local exchange from my drive, but only get just over 5 mbs on speedtest
  • @AndrewFerguson,

    The rollout IS minimal - there are many areas where there are no plans to rollout Infinity in any form. The main reason is BT are rolling out Infinity to areas with a high number of Virgin broadband users to try to take their business, mostly ignoring the rest. I got this from a BT engineer involved in the rollout!
  • And it's Sky, TalkTalk and all the other ISPs that want the business from VM that's driving the rollout.
  • Rather than concentrating on faster speeds in selective areas, why not concentrate on giving us all a better overall performance within the current speeds. For most subscribers this would be more than adequate.

    Like several other contributors, I live in Central London and do not have a satisfactory experience. In fact the experience is extremely variable, ranging from slow analogue modem speeds to something more acceptable, but rarely approaching anything near published speeds. Over the years performance and experience seems to be cyclical. I definitely have experienced significantly better than I am currently experiencing.

    My conclusion - you can't get a quart (or a gallon) out of a pint pot, and that is what we are being offered. I cannot imagine how the 'pot' will cope with the huge spike during the Olympics.
    The Former Moley
  • @Moley

    > Rather than concentrating on faster speeds in selective areas

    Fibre roll-outs cost money, so they are rolled out to areas full of people who are rich enough to pay. Areas where there are not enough rich people willing to pay won't get it until the roll-out costs come down a lot, if ever.

    Since cable was only ever rolled out in areas that had enough people willing to pay the hefty subscription cost, it follows logically that BT will offer fibre in these areas, for exactly the same reason.
    Jack Schofield
  • Where to start...
    In 2010 academics Robert and Charles Kenny published a paper called ‘Superfast: Is it Really Worth the Subsidy?’, arguing that the benefits of superfast broadband have been ‘grossly overrated’ - they were aiming this at the US and Australia; but it also applies in the UK. Essentially, businesses already have the connectivity they need, or are prepared to pay for it, whereas homes don't really need it (as can be seen by the slow uptake where it is available). The technology does not drive up revenues, except to suppliers of video on demand. The stuff about e-heath and government services is also a lot of hot air as we know that the government are nowhere near either able to build such services or prepared to risk their money on it. The high speed broadband uptake and its capacity to generate wealth is a falacy, though it is heretical to say it. The projections of wealth are all wildly optimistic because the government needs those projections to support their investment of our taxes in FTTH (fibre to the home).
    I agree with one of the other posters though - it would be better to improve the service we have - get it up to 10mb, say. I for one won't be paying a stack of cash for high-speed. BTW, where there is a high uptake by the public (Japan I think), the subscription is heavliy subsidised.
  • I agree with triggerfish and others. I live in a village, part of the 5%/10% that the government usually thinks is not worth bothering about, part of the country that BT et al will never give decent connectivity to. I get a maximum of 0.6Mb. Even 2Mb would be good. However, I am privileged as local farms can only get dial-up. As someone else said, 5Mb is sufficient to stream films and get TV - we have poor TV reception also.

    Most healthcare apps will not need to send massive amounts of data - dial up would mostly suffice. The rural economic strategy for this area seriously suggests that we should focus on media and digital technologies to improve the economy of the area - comment superfluous.
  • People are not taking these 100mbps services due to the cost.

    The services available on BT, Sky, Virgin media are awful as it is for a lot of people. They are getting nothing like the speeds that they are paying for. These companies promise services they can not deliver. Virgin Media has got to be the worst. The forums are awash with the problems that customers are having when they upgrade to the 30Mbps service.

    From the beginning BT has been conducting a holding action. Rolling out an upgraded network, at a rate and in areas that enable them to prevent competitors gaining a foothold. This is why we are so way behind compared to europe. BT has to be broken up, and the advertising standards authority needs to get a grip with them all. They claim "fibre optic" broadband misleading the majority as to the performance that they will really receive. If copper either twisted pair or coaxial cable is part of the access network at all they should NOT be able to state that they are providing fibre optic broadband when they are NOT