Broadband Britain: Where we've come from, where we are going

Thirty five years ago the UK could have started the process of wiring up the country with fibre optic broadband. That never happened - but what's the situation now?
Written by Colin Barker on

It could have all been so different. While complaining about broadband availability and slow speed has become something of a national sport, there was once a plan that could have catapulted the UK to the front of the broadband speed stakes. So what happened? How did the UK shift from the broadband fast lane to the slow?

If you look at Ofcom’s broadband map of the UK (which you will find here) it shows that broadband coverage is a patchwork. The coverage is only reckoned to be first rate in a corridor that runs from London via Birmingham to Liverpool, (this corridor is rated 'One', the best) why is it reckoned to be pretty poor in Rutland ('Four' with 'Five' being the worst), when Rutland is tight in the middle of the corridor? Why is Wales given a rating as bad as the worst (Five) over half its area? Is it simply because of the hills? But if hills give Wales a Five rating why do the Yorkshire Dales – good hilly ground - have a rating of Two, second highest?

Perhaps that explains two things that I have discovered about broadband:

  • Any two properties, even when they are virtually next door to each other, can have completely different broadband coverage – one good, the other awful.
  • It is almost impossible to work out why this is. This is usually because, either through accident or design, everybody involved with broadband, and especially BT, talk in their own special language that most of us struggle to understand.

A few weeks ago I had a problem with my own broadband which I shall tell you about. In fact that will bring me to the third thing I have discovered about broadband:

  • Everybody – and I mean everybody, for I have not found any exceptions so far – has their own story to  tell about their broadband experiences and everybody’s story is similar but different. Each, in its own way, is unique.

I have been online since the days of dial-up since the days of 300-baud modems (that’s 300 bits per second - bits not kilobits or megabits). The other week I was having the windows replaced and as the old ones were being taken out I was clearing away some old cabling from the walls. I then severed an old useless cable only to find that far from being useless, it was my main telephone cable. That's when the fun began.

Broadband is complicated no matter how simple it may seem

Now this is where it gets complicated. We have a standard BT connection at home for our telephone. We also had a BT broadband connection which had been put in by BT. However, I never used it, as I just used a Cisco router that a friend had installed. Also, I was installing BT broadband so I could get the football. Are you still with me?

So, an engineer from BT arrived to see about fixing my telephone line and broadband. He saw the connection and the old Cisco router. "I can't touch that," he said because “it is not BT equipment”. His records showed that I had a BT Broadband modem so where was it? I had sent it back to BT years before because my Cisco router worked fine. He said he would have to talk to someone. He went away.

Soon afterwards, another van turned up. He could repair the telephone line but, he said, could not do anything about the broken broadband because, "it wasn’t BT equipment". And I, naively, thought that demarcation disputes had vanished with the '80s.

Then another man turned up and this is where it got worse. It was our fault, we had broken something or other, he said. He did not use the phrase "more than my job's worth" but it still hung there unspoken. So, after three engineers visits - happily in the space of five hours - we had no BT TV anymore, no broadband, nothing apart from a working telephone line.

Finally he agreed to install a BT broadband modem, temporarily, just to check that the connections were all OK. This he did and an hour later everything was working perfectly and then he took everything away again and so still with no BT TV, no broadband but with a working phone, I called BT and asked for BT broadband post haste.

The modem came the following day. We plugged everything in, threw away the Cisco modem and, after a few false starts (and more than a few cuss words) everything worked fine.

A number of things struck me about the experience. The first was that no matter how often BT tell us that they are an up-to-date company suited for the new millennium, you don’t have to scratch the surface very much to find that old public-service mentality alive and kicking. And that at various times, during that whole encounter I never felt like a customer, I felt like somebody trying to cadge a favour.

So how could it have been different?

Back in the 1980s BT had been looking at how to roll out high-speed, fibre optic cables instead of the standard copper wires we use now, says Peter Cochrane, BT's former CTO who now works as a consultant on communications. Cochrane is a much respected expert on the subject of broadband and data communications.

It was Cochrane who in the 1980s drew up the original plan for BT to implement a fibre optic network. That network would start with two offices that would serve as network hubs and then scale up and roll-out throughout the country, or at least that was the plan. But by 1990 Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government had other plans - to bring more competition to the telecoms market by bringing in new players, like the cable companies. At that point, BT's plans were cancelled.

"We were a leader up until that time but have lagged behind ever since." Cochrane told me.

I asked him what he thought about the state of broadband and super fast broadband in the UK today. He was forthright. "The UK is at the back of the pack [in Europe] and precluded from participating in the future of the cloud," he said. The problem is a technical one that is simple to understand but difficult to fix. The UK is reliant on technologies like ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) which are asymmetric and as Cochrane points out, this is a mistake since applications in the cloud "all demand symmetry".

How much competition is enough competition?

Certainly BT argues that it is competing in one of the most open markets in the world where rivals operators can deploy their own networks using its bare infrastructure.

As to Cochrane's argument, Mike Galvin, BT's managing director for network investments points to how the market has evolved.

"When the cable companies started off there were, I think, 29 of them to ensure competition and there is only one today." You have to make the argument, he says, "and just saying that it should be broken up to aid competition is no argument at all". He points out that, in his words, "the history of telecoms is one of scale", and when you get very large scale then that is when you get "real economies of scale and particularly in things like telecoms networks".

Broadband speeds are still an issue – one report from uSwitch that said that the majority of broadband customers experience speeds of below 5Mbps, although another report by Ofcom says it's more like 17Mbps. And people around the country find massive variations in speed -  especially in rural areas.

Galvin thinks that in rural areas and in the less dense population areas and where longer distances are involved, the costs outweigh the advantages of BT providing broadband at all. But, he says, "we dug our hands quite deep in our pockets to roll-out fibre broadband to two-thirds of the UK and that roll-out is still going on".

The last figure BT announced was that, "it covered 18m homes passed, so we are not far off actually completing that", and this, Galvin thinks shows that the programme has been, "an outstandingly success". If you go abroad, he says, and talk to other people who are rolling out fibre broadband, "we are the people to beat".

Perhaps we are, but that is no help to people in rural areas, or even small corners of big cities who, for one reason or another, find that they have to put up with a poor, slow broadband network and cannot afford to throw money at it until it gets better.

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