The British government has promised to have “the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015”. Speaking at a conference in London, the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt said that all homes and businesses in the United Kingdom should have access to connections of at least 2Mbps by that date, with 25Mbps or more available to 90% of people in each local authority area. While access is one thing, and the headline figures may sound impressive, the country still has a long way to go in the availability and adoption of high-speed broadband.
“If we press ahead with expansion of superfast capabilities, then we can put UK in the global fast-lane,” he said. “If we fail to do so then we apply a handbrake to growth precisely when we need to power ahead.”
The government has promised £530 million, with a further £300 million from the television licence fee available after 2015. These figures fall well short of the billions of investment that is really required.
Fujitsu has said it is willing to invest up to £2 billion bringing broadband to 5 million homes in rural Britain, in conjunction with Virgin Media, TalkTalk and Cisco. This would deliver fibre to the premises, theoretically cable of rates of 1Gbps or more. In return it wants £500 million in government funding.
BT, which announced annual pre-tax profits of £1.7 billion on a turnover of £20 billion, is investing £2.5 billion in rolling out super-fast broadband, using fibre to the local street cabinet. This is theoretically capable of rates of up to 40Mbps downstream and 10Mbps upstream. BT says that those numbers could double, although in practice line lengths and conditions will limit the capacity.
While the heavily promoted BT Infinity service is available to an additional 80,000 premises each week, it is only adding around 5,000 customers a week, currently standing at 144,000 homes.
Virgin Media has over 4 million broadband customers on its cable television network. Of these, some 860,000 customers subscribe to tiers of 20Mpbs or above, with 150,000 on the top 50Mbps tier which costs £45 a month. It is in the process of rolling out a service offering 100Mbps downstream, currently available to 2 million homes and across the cable television network by the middle of 2012.
Virgin Media is even trialing a 1.5Gbps service with a number of business customers in London, the fastest in the world over conventional cable television infrastructure. If nothing else, this demonstrates that there is still capacity in the coaxial cable without requiring fibre to the premises.
The relatively low adoption of higher rates, where they are available, is taken by some to indicate a lack of demand for genuinely high-speed broadband. The reality is that 100Mbps should be regarded as standard and 1Gbps should be the goal for any government that has a genuine commitment to enabling a national information technology infrastructure.
The real problem is that some 9 million people in Britain have yet to use the internet. More than 7 million of them are aged over 55. Over 60% of those over that age in the North East of England have never been only, while the number if just under 40% in the South East.
The broadband-enabled television and video service, BT Vision, added another 30,000 homes in the last quarter, taking its customer base to 575,000. In the same period, Virgin Media added 46,000 subscribers and Sky added another 62,000.
BT is one of the partners in YouView, which has yet to launch. Its prospects were dented further this week by news that Technicolor, one of the founding innovation partners, is withdrawing as a supplier of set-top boxes. That leaves Cisco and Humax, together with other device partners Huawei, Pace, Manhattan and Vestel. Other major multinational consumer electronics companies are notably absent.