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Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future – pure fantasy?

image of fibre optic cableIn December 2010, 7 months after it assumed power, the UK’s coalition government issued a document (PDF) entitled Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future.

In that document’s introduction, the then Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt and Minister for Culture Communications & the Creative Industries Ed Vaizey stated:

Broadband is one of our top priorities. We took office earlier this year with a clear vision of what we want for Britain – we should have the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015.

With a general election due in May this year and it also being the start of 2015, the target year in Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future, it is perhaps an appropriate time to see how well the government has done in meeting its target of having the best superfast broadband network in Europe.

Firstly we need to discover some facts about broadband generally in Europe.

According to Eurostat, broadband penetration in European countries varies from a high of 95% in the Netherlands to a low of 56% in Bulgaria. The percentage of broadband penetration in UK – at 88% – ranks the country amongst the leaders in the EU.

Broadband penetration in Europe according to Eurostat
Broadband penetration in Europe. Source: Eurostat

So far, so good.

Let’s have a look at broadband speeds.

In 2014 Ofcom released a report entitled European Broadband Scorecard (PDF), according to which UK is well on its way to achieving the government’s target of having “the best broadband network in Europe by 2015“, although only if you compare the UK with four major countries, i.e. France, Italy, Germany and Spain.

Commenting on Ofcom’s report, PCPro UK states:

That is, perhaps, a little convenient, as others report that the UK is well down the league tables. Akamai has long been producing international broadband speed comparisons. Its latest report from Q3 2013 put the UK in 14th place globally and 9th in Europe, with an average download speed of 9.1 Mbits/sec.

The Netherlands once again leads the way with an average speed of 12.5 Mbits/sec, according to Akamai – although to be fair to Ofcom, the UK is ahead of the other four major European economies it’s comparing us against.

14th worldwide and 9th in Europe would seem to be a long way from having “the best broadband network in Europe by 2015“, adding yet another to the long list of coalition government failures to meet its targets.

Developments on the ground also seem to confirm that the government will not be anywhere near its aspiration by the time of the general election in May.

Writing in The Guardian, Loz Kaye of the Pirate Party UK draws attention to the abysmal “broadband” speeds on his home patch of Manchester.

Newly built flats right next to fibre cable suffer internet download speeds between the averages for Burkina Faso and Benin.

Loz assures your correspondent that he can provide sources to back up that statement.

Furthermore, the local media abound with stories of problems with the deployment of so-called “superfast” broadband in rural areas under the BDUK banner, some of which from the Shropshire Star and the Western Daily Press. Indeed, in the latter instance the roll-out of rural broadband was denounced as a “scam“. In addition to allegations of being a scam, the BDUK scheme was rebranded in the second half of 2014, a fact which did not escape the ISP Review:

A small but interesting change has recently happened to some of the Government’s official Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) documentation, which until recently was frequently and perhaps somewhat misleadingly still being described as the “Rural Broadband Programme”. The same piece of text has since been amended to read “Superfast Broadband Programme”.

Coupled with the woes of BDUK, there’s also trouble with the broadband connection voucher scheme for businesses. Poor take-up of the scheme prompted its revamping in the autumn, whilst there had been an earlier extension of the scheme to beyond the boundaries of its original 22 local authorities.

At this point it must be admitted that there have been some success stories, but these have occurred mainly beneath the official radar. For instance, there’s B4RN in rural Lancashire, a DIY broadband project providing fibre to the premises at 1,000 Mbits/sec. symmetric for £30 per month.

This brings us nicely to the difference between symmetric and asymmetric connections. The former, offered by B4RN and Bristol Wireless, provides the same speeds for both upload and download. The latter, provided by BT and the majority of ISPs (mostly BT resellers) offer different download and upload speeds.

Both BDUK and the Connection Vouchers scheme refer to “superfast” broadband, a term that needs definition.

One definition the author has seen is up to 300 Mbits/sec.; this compares with a current (2014) average UK speed of 12 Mbits/sec.

In comparison, the definition of “superfast” broadband under the BDUK scheme was originally 24 Mbits/sec., which is merely double the current average speed. It has since been increased to the European definition of 30 Mbits/sec.

However, neither of these 2 speeds looks particularly fast when placed alongside Asian countries like South Korea and Japan, where speeds of 100 Mbits/sec. are not uncommon.

Was the government’s 2010 aspiration for the best broadband network in Europe by 2015 pure fantasy? It does look that way, doesn’t it?