The UK has one of the most digitally focused economies in the world, but by failing to invest in ubiquitous high speed broadband for everyone we risk falling behind.
The UK has the largest digital economy as a percentage of GDP in the G20, with the internet now the UK’s second-biggest economic contributor behind the property sector, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that the fragile copper-based infrastructure is no longer fit for purpose.
It is a triumph of ingenuity that has allowed us to squeeze a 20+Mbps connection down a copper phone line not that different from those designed by the Bell Telephone Company in 1878, but copper should now be a technology resigned to history.
The UK needs a digital strategy for the future, where everyone can stream video in 4K resolution and listen to uncompressed streaming music, and yet somehow Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) – part of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – thinks that broadband speeds over 24Mbps as are “superfast”. That speed would have been great ten years ago, before YouTube and Netflix were household names, but in 2016 – 24Mbps should be considered basic broadband.
Many people do not realise that the speed they were quoted when they signed up to their ISP of “Up to X Mbps” is nothing like the speed they actually get, and it is only once they start watching more streaming video or playing games online that the issues really become apparent.
A quick speed test will let you see how fast your connection really is, and many people will be surprised to find that their “Up to 38Mbps” connection is actually more like 8Mbps – and that is not good enough.
Despite being the driver of much of Britain’s economic growth in the last few years, the UK’s broadband infrastructure has lacked the investment it needs for the UK to keep competing at the highest level. For some reason, the government prefers to spend its money on projects that generate headlines than a technology that will provide the best return on investment in terms of GDP growth.
BT OpenReach’s monopoly over the last mile (where the lines are still copper) does not help matters either. And while their £2.5bn investment in fibre broadband may sound like a lot, when you consider that most of the UK’s 25 million households pay BT £15.99 for the upkeep of the copper wires, such a number is really a sign of continued underinvestment in the UK’s digital future.
The UK could do worse than look to the US for examples of what happens when ISPs have a monopoly – where high subscription costs and low speeds remain common thanks to geographical ISP monopolies gained and maintained through business acquisition and heavy governmental lobbying.
However, a little competition goes a long way – and thanks to Google launching a 1Gbps Fiber service in 2010 in a very limited number of areas, the company now just needs to threaten to launch in a new area and suddenly the legacy monopoly ISP starts investing in infrastructure, dropping prices, and improving speeds. We need a similar service in the UK to really drive competition and investment.