Broadband Britain: How does it really stack up?

Some people have no complaints about their domestic broadband coverage while others think they spend more time on the phone trying to get an engineer than they do online. How does the UK really measure up?

Most broadband in the UK starts with a telephone cable, a twisted pair; two cables (copper encased in plastic) that are twisted into a pair of cables with one carrying a signal one way and the other carrying a signal the other way.

Now here’s the trick - the copper can carry more than one signal. If you modulate a signal you can vary it so that one cable can carry more than one signal - in fact, it and carry hundreds of signals.

So now you can have many different signals on one piece of cable and that is how you get broadband – a broad range of signals across a full, electrical bandwidth. That means operators can offer a range of different types of broadband. These include:

  • ADSL Broadband Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line technology is one of the most common forms of broadband. The asymmetric piece simply means that data is downloaded (to you) at a faster rate that it is uploaded. There are different versions of ADSL (ADSL2, ADSL2+, etc) that can offer faster speeds – up to 24Mbps.
  • Symmetric Broadband (SDSL) SDSL is predicated on the idea that you will want to upload large volumes of data as well as download. It requires dual phone lines, is more expensive and is therefore mainly used in business. Increasingly, large numbers of game players and movie watchers will look at this option.
  • Local Loop Unbundling (LLU)  This is where much of the controversy, and the complexity, around broadband begins.  BT once had a complete monopoly of the phone but then it was forced to allow other carriers to use its network. This is where companies like Virgin Media, PlusNet, Sky and others came in to compete with BT for customers.
  • Cable Broadband Cable companies also offer television and telephone packages as well as broadband Internet services. The problem is that you can only get cable broadband if your street has been cabled and while metropolitan areas usually have a cable network, other areas, particularly in the countryside, don’t. In some local areas residents have got together to install their own.
  • Satellite Broadband A popular way to get broadband via satellite services like Sky. Apart from the occasional atmospheric interference this can be a very reliable and competitive way to get broadband. Because of the distances involved there will be latency – slowing – of the signal which means it is not good for some games.

Broadband in your area

What kind of broadband signal can you expect in your area? Check out the price-comparison site uSwitch for that. A check of mine shows that my broadband speed is 14MBps (megabytes of data per second) on download (from the exchange to me) and 1MBps on the upload (from me to the exchange).

This is fine for me here in Twickenham and I know that my local exchange is less than a mile away. You can find out where your local exchange is by putting your post code into the BT Openreach site here.

Is this important? Yes it is since having a good broadband signal is the first step to being properly wired up these days. So if there are any issues in your area, you need to know what they are and have a plan to deal with them.

The most common issue is a poor broadband signal. For that you can ask your local broadband provider and see if they can help. You can also talk to the Office of Communications, or Ofcom as they are known. Ofcom has rafts of stuff that can help and its site is a great place to start. You will find it here.

Who provides broadband services?

There is no shortage of companies who want to provide broadband services. According to Ofcom, these companies are the main providers:

2013                                                 

BT 30 percent                                   

Virgin Media 21 percent                    

TalkTalk 17 percent                         

Sky 19 percent                                 

EE 3 percent                                      

Others 10 percent                            

2014

BT 31 percent

Virgin Media 20 percent

TalkTalk 15 percent

Sky 20 percent

EE 3 percent

Others 10 percent

BT is the dominant supplier but, as can be seen, can only claim just under a third of the market with other suppliers competing aggressively. Virgin Media is one company that differentiates itself by offering its services mostly via fibre-optic cable which has much more bandwidth and is much faster than standard cable.

According to Ofcom statistics, Virgin Media thanks to its fibre network has the fastest broadband offering by a long way. The regulator quotes their average speed at from 30.2 Mbps at the low-end to 113.2Mbps at the top end. That compares to 8.8Mbps for BT, 8.3Mbps for EE, 9.7Mbps for Karoo and similar speeds, around 8.2 to 8.9 for the rest.

There is only one rule with this and that is to look around and find out what deal you can get that suits you best. If the fastest speed is not important to you then you will have a lot of choice of low-cost providers. But if you need fast speed and large capacity - because you may need to download AND upload large files - then that will be more expensive. So ask around and beware of "limited time" offers. Those are offers where a supplier will offer you a very good deal but only if you make a decision within a limited period - a month, six months, 18 months - which can rush you into a decision that you may regret.

Remember that the vendor may well be in a hurry to make a sale but that is no reason for you to be in a hurry too. Ask around and take your time.

How does our broadband stack up against other countries?

When you look at broadband across Europe it has to be said that the UK does alright. Ofcom's latest European Broadband Scorecard looked at the UK and four of our close neighbours - Germany, France, Italy and Spain - in detail.

If you look at the broadband penetration, that is how many fixed broadband connections there are per 100 people, then France leads with 37 per 100 while the UK and Germany are in joint second place with 34 and Spain has 25 per 100 and Italy 22.

But when you look at the number of connections per 100 households then the UK does better, coming top with 87 per 100 households with Germany just behind with 81 per 100 households and France with 76 followed by Spain with 63 and Italy with 50.

When you look at superfast broadband connections, the UK does well again with 9 per 100 people while Spain comes second with 6 per 100 and Germany third with 5, France with 3 and Italy last with less than 1 in 100.

When it comes to mobile broadband the UK does well again with 84 mobile connections per 100 people. while Spain has 54 per 100, Italy 52, France 44 and Germany last with 41 mobile broadband connections per 100 people.

Not only do we have a lot of mobile devices and connections but, according to Ofcom's numbers, we are big users too with 87 percent of us saying that we access the internet at leas once a week. The most frequent in the surveyed European group with Germany following with 80 percent saying they access the internet at least once a week, then France with 78 percent, Spain 66 percent and finally Italy with 56 percent.

Based on these figures, it is not surprising then that we have the lowest percentage of people who claim never to have used the internet, 8 percent, and the highest percentage who say they have bought goods or services on the internet at least once, 77 percent. So the broad situation is that we are big, even enthusiastic, users of the internet; so one big question is - why are so many people still unhappy with their broaband in the UK?

How Openreach wants to reach out to customers

Openreach is one of the companies that should be able to answer that question. The company - part of BT - which is responsible for the local access network; the infrastructure that delivers the data, broadband and voice services to each home and business throughout the UK. The company was created to give BT, Virgin, Sky and others equal access that network and earlier this year it appointed Joe Garner as its CEO.

Garner is a heavy hitter with an impressive CV, especially in the field of customer relations. He started with Procter and Gamble (which is management circles is widely respected as a proving ground for some of the best talent) and he helped steer HSBC through the financial crisis and was then responsible for launching M&S Bank.

Broadband in the UK is a touchy subject and one that is likely to prove touchy for some time yet: whether you have good or poor broadband depends on a number of factors including where you live. And when it goes wrong we like to complain about it.

ZDNet spoke to Garner earlier this year about his priorities and plans.

“Top of our list is customer service,” he said. “Where do I think we sit in customer service today? I actually think that we get the vast majority of things absolutely right first time - probably 60 or 70 percent. 

“Then I think there is another 20 percent where we get it a little bit wrong but we retrieve the position but what is of more interest to me is the small percentage where we get it a little bit wrong and then we compound our failure.”

So Openreach has to improve its customer service; how is he approaching the job? “So what I am trying to do is re-focus the organisation,” he said. “We need to get it right first time more often and then where we get it wrong, we need to ensure that we retrieve the position more quickly.”

Garner thinks that so far it is a mixed bag and that in some areas the company is “making progress” but in others it has got more to do. Part of getting it right, he believes, “is the basics: speed, simplicity, quality”.

As he points out, BT has a huge audience, “we go into over 100,000 homes every year”, and he sees that as “a phenomenal statement of trust by our customers."

Customers are also demanding more: to elaborate the point, he uses the example of a taxi service. It used to be, he says, that you picked up the phone to order a taxi and then put the phone down and waited for a knock on the door with only a vague idea of when that was likely to happen.  “Now," Garner says, "you go on to Uber or Hallo or whatever you use and you expect to know where that car is, who’s driving it, what other people think of the driver, etc, and what that does is put the customer in much greater control”.

That means delivering more flexibility, "so that our people are empowered to fix the problem on the spot without getting caught in some laborious process to get to a resolution.”

But while Garner appears to be determined to deal with the challenges, he is also well aware of many of the issues. 

As he puts it, one of the problems is simply working out the areas of coverage involved when trying to track down an problem. "The postcode data is not as accurate as it could be in marking between the different areas. I would love to be in a position where you can check down to individual wires but you can't do that until you are a long way down the process."

People say it should be easy to map out requirements from post code data, he says, "but even within a postcode you still do not have enough data because of the watersheds between exchanges and so on”.

He is keen, however, to point out when the company is making progress. As he puts it, “in terms of the data and what we can tell you about your local exchanges, we are imminently going to take that down to cabinet level". 

Margaret Hodge, the chair person of the Public Accounts Committee had recently been heavily critical of BT’s record on rural broadband, what was his take on that?

“I look at the data, first and foremost,” Garner said, pointing to data that puts the UK at 82 per cent in terms of superfast coverage - ahead of Germany, adding that if you benchmark broadband that against some other infrastructures, “such as roads and railways,” he says, the UK does OK. “Of course that is cold comfort if you are one of the 18 percent [who have inadequate or zero broadband coverage] but we are trying to roll out the best that we can.”

On the corporate side, he says that BT has asked Tech City UK, "for help to identify the businesses most in need and will invite them to join the pilot.”

Trials are also planned for rural areas, where it could be used to speed up internet for homes and businesses at the end of a very long copper line. Leyburn in North Yorkshire has been selected for a pilot, which will include 5,000 premises in and around the market town connected with FTTRN (that's Fibre-To-The-Remote-Node), with speeds above 25Mbps.

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