Britain is ranked number 33 in the world in broadband speed tests, with an average that is nearly five times slower than in South Korea. The United States, France, Germany and Australia have all announced comprehensive national broadband initiatives. In Britain, broadband is now on the political agenda, with the new coalition government aiming to have the best network in Europe within five years.
There are now over 480 million broadband subscribers worldwide, led by China and the United States, followed by Japan, Germany, France and the United Kingdom, as reported by research company Point Topic. The United Kingdom leads South Korea in the number of broadband subscribers, but lags far behind in terms of average speed of connection according to a global survey by Ookla Speedtest.
Jeremy Hunt, the new Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, has described the previous plans for Digital Britain and its commitment to a “paltry” 2Mbps universal coverage as “pitifully unambitious compared to a Korean goal 500 times faster”.
“It is a scandal that nearly 3 million households in this country still cannot access 2 Mbps broadband speeds, and less than 1% of the country is able to access the internet using modern fibre optic technology,” he said in his first public media policy speech.
The Federation of Small Businesses has estimated that a superfast network could add £18 billion to the Gross Domestic Product of the country and create 60,000 jobs. NESTA, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, funded by the National Lottery, believes it could create 600,000 new jobs.
The Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government has committed to ensure that a universal service of 2Mbps should be “the very minimum that should be available”. It plans to use some of the underspend on the digital television switchover programme to fund this.
That amounts to £250 million, which is some way short of the billions of pounds in investment that is required. The areas that are currently most poorly served include rural regions that are predominantly Conservative or Liberal Democrat, rather than the urban areas represented by Labour where the commercial case for investment is easier to justify.
Three market-testing projects will be announced to bring superfast broadband to rural and hard-to-reach areas, providing information on how to best target government intervention and make next-generation broadband viable in even the most challenging areas. They will be promoted through under by Broadband Delivery UK, the body set up under the last government within the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.
The government has committed to requiring infrastructure providers to open up their ducts, poles and pipes to allow the use of their assets to deliver superfast broadband. It has welcomed the positive approach that the regulator Ofcom and the incumbent telecommunications company BT have adopted, but will table legislation if necessary to require other infrastructure providers to open up their assets.
The latest government thinking will be published at an industry event in July. Within the next five years the government wants Britain to have “the best superfast broadband network in Europe”.
That laudable goal may be more rhetoric than reality. According to the FTTH Council Europe, which lobbies for fibre to the home, the country that currently leads Europe, with one in six premises connected to a fibre-optic network, is Lithuania.
The European Commission has set a target for speeds of 30Mbps for all European households and speeds of 100Mbps for at least half of them by 2020.
William Cooper of informitv will be chairing the 4th Annual Broadband Connect Summit in London on 24 June. The theme of the Technosummits event is the need for universality versus speed.