Slow broadband? Maybe your employer should pay for gigabit speeds

Most consumers and businesses don't even know they could get gigabit speeds. Advisory group GigaTAG has some recommendations to boost the take-up of next-generation broadband.

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The government should up its game to convince consumers and businesses that it is in their best interests to upgrade to gigabit broadband.

Image: LumiNola / Getty Images

Turning the broadband router off and on again in another attempt to improve a poor connection has become, for some of us, a daily routine during the past months spent working from home. 

In the face of a broken Zoom call, many have wished that their home Wi-Fi matched the speeds they enjoyed in the office. And after all, if employers can deliver office chairs and monitors to ensure that their staff is able to work comfortably, is it much of a stretch to imagine that companies could sponsor decent broadband packages for their employees' homes as well?  

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This is exactly what the Gigabit Take-up Advisory Group (GigaTAG) suggests should happen in a new report that advises the UK government to start upping its game to convince consumers and businesses that it is in their best interest to upgrade to gigabit broadband – the next-generation connectivity that offers a speed of one gigabit per second. That is, about 16 times faster than the speed enjoyed by an average UK household today. 

Made up of experts from consumer group Which?, as well as from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), GigaTAG describes the opportunity to create employer-led schemes that could support the uptake of gigabit broadband among employees, much like cycle-to-work schemes or discounts on gym membership currently encourage staff to exercise more. 

"Similar to existing benefits schemes, such as gym memberships or restaurant deals, an employee discount benefits scheme would entail the employee paying for their gigabit service," reads the report. "The employee would pay less for the service by using a discount provided by their employer via the scheme." 

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is already seeing about half of UK employees reporting that they want to split their time between the office and home-based working, the idea seems to make even more sense. According to the new report, up to 54% of workers stated that they would be interested in this type of "broadband-to-work" scheme to support WFH. 

GigaTAG's report comes as the UK government continues to pursue a long-held promise: to connect 85% of the country to gigabit speeds by 2025 – a slightly watered-down version of the original pledge, which committed to upgrading the entire nation.  

The vast majority of the upgrade is expected to be provided by commercial network providers; and the government has promised £5 billion ($7 billion) to help connect the remaining parts of the country that are the hardest to reach.  

SEE: Internet slow? Here are 7 possible reasons why and how to fix them

More than a third of the UK – which represents almost 11 million homes – now have the option to access gigabit-capable broadband. But as network providers ramp up their efforts to speed up the deployment of the technology, GigaTAG found that the biggest problem might not be on the supply side: rather, says the group, operators are on track to be met with too little demand from consumers and businesses. 

A major problem identified in the report is the lack of awareness that gigabit broadband even exists. Six in ten consumers, found GigaTAG, are not aware of the technology, while 33% of businesses have never heard of gigabit.  

Even among those who are familiar with the term, there is little understanding of the benefits that next-generation connectivity could bring. The majority (83%) of users report that their household broadband has met their needs in the past year and only a fifth would be willing to pay for an upgrade – a process that is also typically associated with hassle, which in this case is not seen as worthwhile.  

Yet reports abound to demonstrate the benefits that faster speeds could bring to the economy. Recent research showed that the nationwide rollout of gigabit connectivity could boost productivity by £25 billion ($35 billion) by 2025, while creating one million jobs

The importance of a fast and reliable connection has been demonstrated in households and businesses, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. "From the shift to home working to the rapid adoption of technologies, these were only made possible by reliable digital connection," said Felicity Burch, CBI director of innovation and digital policy. 

And going forward, gigabit speeds are also expected to unlock new use cases and applications that could boost businesses. Capitalizing on these new opportunities will be "essential," according to Burch, to recover from the health crisis. 

In addition to encouraging employers to push their employees' adoption of gigabit speeds thanks to benefit schemes, GigaTAG therefore also recommends that the government and industry work together to clarify the benefits of the technology.  

SEE: Speed up your home office: How to optimize your network for remote work and learning

For example, while consumers might not see the appeal of faster speeds, it is key to stress that gigabit broadband is also about reliability – a benefit that is sought by many. According to the report, combining the message of increased reliability with increased speed appealed to 68% of consumers. 

It remains true that for many households, cost will be a barrier to adoption. In low-income households, finds GigaTAG, 44% of respondents said that they feared they wouldn't be able to afford to pay for gigabit broadband.  

In other words, there is a risk that the most financially vulnerable fall even further behind as the technology expands. For those, recommends GigaTAG, the government should explore the possibility of a targeted voucher scheme.

This, once more, could boost consumer demand for gigabit broadband – without which it is unlikely that the ultimate goal of "Gigabit Britain" promised by the government will be reached. 

"Demand for faster, more reliable broadband services is crucial to the success of the rollout of gigabit-capable broadband, and to ensure the benefits of these connections are realised," said Rocio Concha, chair of GigaTAG. "Better information about the benefits, measures to improve the language used to describe these services, along with possible targeted voucher and discount schemes, will help to address the barriers preventing consumers from benefiting from better connections." 

There is a caveat. GigaTAG's report assumes that, in line with government pledges, gigabit broadband will be an option for every household and business across the country in the near future.  

But various experts have emitted doubts that the target will be met soon enough. A recent report, for instance, showed that to reach 85% of the country by 2025 would require network operators to triple their current build rate – and even then, a whole 15% of the nation would still be waiting on the upgrade. 

It is important to focus on encouraging demand from consumers and businesses, therefore; but let's not forget to double down on supply at the same time.