When will the UK's pitiful broadband improve? Don't hold your breath

22-02-2018 |   |  By Paul Whytock

The UK’s broadband service is pathetic and progress to improve it snail-like at best, despite years of government pledges and service provider promises.

Lets put it into perspective. I recently took statistics from three different reports and came up with some depressing findings. Here’s a summary. The UK is positioned at number 30 worldwide in terms of broadband service relative to download speed and comes in behind 20 European countries. Ahead of us are the likes of Latvia, Estonia and Thailand, not to mention most of the Scandinavian countries.

So why is this country lagging so far behind? There are numerous reasons but before getting into them lets just focus on one country that had the right attitude when it came to providing its inhabitants with world class broadband; Singapore.

It’s ranked seventh in the World and has over 11.5 million broadband subscribers enjoying high-speed services. How come? Well, it’s all down to the launch of a project called Singapore One over twenty years ago.

Back in 1996 I was a guest of the Singaporean government reporting on its progress in electronics technology and I heard about the country’s plan to provide all its inhabitants with high-speed broadband via an optical fibre network. That year it launched the Singapore One initiative and by 1998 it had completed the installation of an optical fibre network.

By 2011 Singaporean subscribers where enjoying broadband speeds of 1Gb/s and right now are availing themselves of 2Gb/sec.

OK, so Singapore is a smaller country than the UK and that is certainly true but the fact is it has 11.5 million very high-speed Internet subscribers and despite all the hyperbole pedaled by our government and communications providers, the UK, according to Ofcom, has around 10.5 million.

Clearly, Singapore had the right, get-it-done attitude when it came to implementing broadband services.

So what’s the UK problem? We certainly are aware how far below world standards broadband is in this country.

Then fact is that more than six million UK broadband connections fail to meet minimum government download speeds according to a report from the British Infrastructure Group of MPs.

However, by 2020 government has stipulated that private and commercial broadband users will have a legally binding right to high-speed broadband.

Unsurprisingly, this goes directly against calls by British Telecom that it should be a voluntary right rather than a legal requirement being placed on providers that pressurizes them into improving services.

Understandably, government did not agree with BT’s preference for a voluntary initiative on that and decided a regulatory approach was essential to ensure high-speed broadband for everyone in the UK.

This strategy would obviously be fully supported by Digital Minister Matt Hancock who knows the UK lags behind many parts of the world in terms of broadband speeds. He’s not wrong there. Japan for example has a broadband network that is 97% optical fibre based whereas the UK has a paltry 3%.

So broadband providers have a legal requirement to provide high-speed broadband to anyone who requests it, no matter where they are in the country.

But how does that strategy relate to the fact that a huge number of BT Networks still rely on copper cables to connect street cabinets to the subscriber that are incapable of offering very high speed broadband?

There has been criticisms from various industry sources that BT is being sluggish in its approach to replacing these runs of copper with optical fibre and that the government is failing to put any real pressure on them to do so.

So where and when are the desperately need improvements to the UK’s broadband network going to come from?

Well here’s a government initiative that would probably generate plenty of derisory smirks on the faces of Singaporeans.

The Church of England and the government are using churches in Internet weak spots and providing them with wireless transmitters in spires and towers, plus aerials, satellite dishes and fibre cables. This says government will help people in up to a million properties that cannot access fast broadband.

So in attempt to try and move the UK’s comical broadband structure forward we are using buildings built by the Normans in the 13th century. Is that it?

This almost comical strategy will not achieve what is really required and that is the connection of optical fibre to every home. But this of course would require money, and lots of it. Around £24 billion and the discussions on who is going to stump up that sort of cash, the government or communications companies, could rumble on for decades.


By Paul Whytock

Paul Whytock is European Editor for Electropages. He has reported extensively on the electronics industry in Europe, the United States and the Far East for over twenty years. Prior to entering journalism he worked as a design engineer with Ford Motor Company at locations in England, Germany, Holland and Belgium.

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