Fibre optics

UK Broadband: Superfast or Superseded?

Fibre optics

The government is currently investing as much as 1.2 billion pounds of taxpayers’ money in ‘future proofing’ the UK by rolling out a nationwide superfast fibre optic network. But what actually is superfast broadband and how fast does an internet connection have to be to qualify as superfast? The technical definition is anything above 20Mbps but some providers offer up to 100Mbps. For the sake of their targets, the government are using an average figure of 35Mbps.

Superfast broadband refers to new, fibre optic cabling that is being laid over the copper telephone lines that currently transmit ADSL connections to most homes. Interestingly though, up to 24Mbps (technically superfast) can be obtained by customers very close to the traditional exchange (who don’t share their connection with many other properties) via a limited service known as ADSL2+. Commercial estimates suggest that two thirds of British homes will have access to fibre optics by spring next year whilst culture minister, Ed Vaizey has set a target of supplying 90% of the country by 2015. It’s worth noting, however, that the government are only guaranteeing access to the new cables, not that homes will necessarily be able to afford the service provided by them. As a largely unregulated industry, prices are subject to the whims of private companies and are only controlled by the operation of a competitive market. The Guardian recently reported Mr Vaizey as saying:

“I think the rest of Europe actually looks to us as leaders in this. That also includes price because there’s absolutely no point in having superfast broadband coming past your door if you can’t afford it. So we also want competition on price and we do have very low prices on broadband.”

Yet, the UK lags behind our European neighbours in affordability and speed. Further afield, Google offers up to 1Gbps (1 Gigabit per second or approximately 1000 Mbps) in America with its Google Fiber service and the Japanese were averaging out at 93Mbps all the way back in 2007. All of this paints a rather laughable picture of the UK’s definition of ‘superfast’. Last week a report announced that the average speed for UK broadband had finally hit double digits as a result of speeds tripling over the past 4 years. Roughly extrapolating this information out in a straight line (although it’s much more likely to increase exponentially over the next 10 years) the average speed will be 30Mbps by 2017 and it’s unlikely anybody will be attributing the word ‘super’ to the speed of their domestic connection. Essentially the government are investing huge sums of money in a service that will seem pedestrian by the time it arrives.

Britain isn’t even close to topping out on its online requirements yet either. A recent survey by TalkTalk determined that out of 500 small and medium businesses, a quarter valued communication services like high speed internet as more important than chasing new business when trying to catch up with their larger rivals. Conversely Go ON UK, the digital charity, discovered that less than one third of small businesses have a digital presence at all and only 14% of those are using the internet to sell products. As online presence and e-commerce becomes essential for all businesses the demand for higher connection speeds will increase. Add to that the burgeoning demands of current users and an increasingly aware older generation, some of which already use skype to talk to their grandchildren, and the prospective requirements for future broadband speed could be astronomical.

After a broad ranging, six month investigation the Lords communication committee concluded that broadband should be treated ‘as a vital national asset like roads, rail and energy’. It’s unlikely that they noticed the irony in associating the status of the country’s digital network with its under achieving rail counterpart but it may prove to be very apt.

[Image by Bill Burris]

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