The British government must urgently invest in broadband internet infrastructure

It is essential that the UK's internet infrastructure is improved and expanded, within and beyond urban areas, and a nation-wide project must commence without further delay.

This is now a race against time. With renewed urgency, serious action is again being called for. It will require significant investment by the government, but could be funded several times over simply by dropping just one of the most obvious unnecessary projects, e.g. the HS2 rail project, the Trident nuclear weapons programme, overseas aid to super-rich countries, etc.

Keeping-up in the tech economy is literally essential for Britain's future prosperity. [By the way, let's stop referring to it as the "new" tech economy now, because it's been well-established for several years, and calling it "new" sounds too much like a convenient excuse for inexcusable delays in properly embracing it.] Fast, reliable internet is a mandatory prerequisite for a prosperous economy, for industries and jobs that are sustainable, flexible and green, and for many other desirable outcomes and key local and national policies. (The UK is no longer a major manufacturing economy, and many of our formerly mighty industries have been driven to extinction by foreign competition, and the same thing could happen to our tech sector too if we continue falling behind.) We therefore need to focus on the future and what we can do to be competitive in the global economy.

Don't let the politicians tell you we can't afford it, when it could be achieved for a fraction of the cost of building the HS2 rail link or upgrading the Trident nuclear weapons system. The HS2 rail project will cost at least £33 BILLION just to build a single railway line. It's madness to waste so much public cash on 19th Century infrastructure when the world has changed -- technology negates the need to physically travel for work, and remote working will become the norm. The project is so luny, in fact, that it now looks likely to collapse due to bad management -- so let's take the available HS2 budget and re-allocate it to broadband to keep Britain afloat in the new economy. Similarly, we're paying millions of pounds in overseas aid at a time when Britain needs investment, for example in a three-year period the government is sending £825-million in "aid" to India, our hard-earned cash collected through taxation, while India is our commercial rival in the global marketplace, and people in India are taking thousands of jobs away from people in Britain! (Overseas aid is good, and it can yield advantages for the donor, but the aid will stop anyway when Britain is bankrupt!) For goodness sake, India is one of the world's largest and fastest-growing economies -- they can even afford their own space programme, while here in the UK we cannot, so they clearly do not require extra cash from British tax-payers. The national broadband upgrade could also be subsidised at least in part through the archaic "TV Licence" tax or by the BBC (who have been wasting huge sums of public money on failed and bloated projects, especially in web-related departments). We started asking for this to be addressed years ago, but the government of the day has consistently failed to take adequate action. I also want BT to start sharing their infrastructure with rivals, for instance allowing VM to use existing poles, and we need the government to act on this.The Conservative party now in government has promised to take action on broadband, though as usual we are still waiting.

The majority of areas in the UK still have no access to current-generation broadband internet! Half the population instead has to cope with either no internet access at all, or at best a poor service via old copper wire infrastructure designed for making telephone calls. This is unacceptable. The internet is now an essential service, like telephone, gas, electricity and water. Yet vast areas of the UK have been left far behind, and Britain is starting to look like a third-world nation.

Voters and tax-payers depend on the government to protect them against monopolies, through regulation, but the government is failing us. The two main companies involved with providing broadband infrastructure at present -- Virgin Media (formerly NTL) and BT -- have been allowed to make huge profits by serving only the most densely-populated areas while pleading poverty when it comes to the rest of the country. The problem is, it's a monopoly. People outside towns and cities are being told it's "too expensive". BT recently ran their "Race to Infinity" campaign, generating a great deal of positive publicity with impressive TV ads -- all for a token roll-out of fibre-optic cable services to a very small selection of consumers in areas where demand was found to be highest. Virgin don't even try to pretend they're serious about expanding cable services. Virgin haven't even bothered setting-up a website, but they did set-up a "Cable My Street" email address, which potential customers are trying to use, but sadly emails sent to Virgin's CableMyStreet address often just bounce back with an error, and if you are lucky enough do get a reply it's always the same: "too expensive". The "sorry, too expensive" excuse is a fallacy. In many cases it's an investment with returns that would would cover costs with a reasonable profit. What they really mean is "sorry, we want a quick easy profit".

Last week the government sent a letter to all MPs, dated 2 Feb, about the Government's National Broadband Strategy. "Britain's Superfast Broadband Future". This official document promises a high-speed broadband hub in every community by 2015. That sounds ambitious, and it absolutely needs to be, because it is so long overdue. And this time we need more than words, we need real action. We need to see a timeline for connecting each individual community, not just empty promises. And it's actually not faster broadband we need, but simply the geographic expansion of basic fibre-optic broadband services! In fact basic reliable 10 MB broadband will be enough for most people! But most people living or working a couple of miles outside the nearest major town or city in Britain can't even get a consistent 5 MB connection! Virgin Media is investing in providing 100 MB broadband to make even more money from a minute fraction of customers, while the majority of the population is still waiting to be connected. It's a national disgrace.

Politicians, scientists, environmental campaigners, and others, ask and fully expect us all to use our cars less. We are severely and ever increasingly penalised for using motor vehicles. Public transport is increasingly over-crowded and expensive and not without environmental impact (though like electric cars, electric trains can move the problems to centralised energy facilities). Working from home solves some of the key problems. And yet, it is obvious that people cannot work from home with slow and unreliable internet services. Huge numbers of people commute on a daily basis, driving cars, cramming onto trains and buses, etc -- with the transport infrastructure subsidised by public funds. We don't do it for fun. Meanwhile, the preferred alternatives (especially working from home) receive no such subsidees! It is ridiculous, and it is unsustainable. A cultural change is desperately needed, but to achieve it will require a new infrastructure, along with a new mindset for smart 21st-century living. We cannot expect British companies to lead the way in embracing the net and cable services, when half of their customers can't even get a good internet connection or receive other cable services like TV. The government supposedly believes in "localism" now, but it's impossible to achieve without widespread cable services to facilitate crucial aspects of it like local TV (in addition to local radio). These are only the most obvious issues -- there are many other compelling reasons why widespread access to cable services, particularly broadband, is essential and desirable. So why isn't it happening?

Permit me to speak for my own community, for a moment, as a useful example. We need fibre-optic broadband and cable TV services here in Braughing in Hertfordshire, right now, please! For goodness sake, this is an affluent area in the South East of England, within London's commuter-belt! We're a couple of miles from the nearest town where they have fibre-optic cable infrastructure -- monopolised by Virgin who refuse to service anything but the most profitable and densely populated areas. Imagine where we'd be if Britain had adopted this attitude toward electricity! That's where we'll be if we continue on our present course. Of course, it's wanted and needed equally in countless other areas throughout the UK.

The tech revolution is much bigger than the industrial revolution, and it's faster -- and it's happening right now even as you read these words. The world is changing forever, and we're all part of it. We'll all go down in history. This is the beginning. But by the end, there will be winners, and losers. Future generations will look back on this pivotal moment in history and know this was the juncture at which we either missed or seized the greatest opportunity for of the age. Britain probably won't have an opportunity like this for millennia, if another opportunity like it ever comes again.

A defining legacy of today's coalition government, and of the whole parliament and our elected representatives, will be the success or failure of Britain in the rising digital economy.

10 February 2011

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Tim Acheson (10 Feb 11, 17:34)

London's Tech City

The UK government is talking the talk... It's great to be hearing about visionary ambitions like the East London Tech City, our equivalent of Silicon Valley, and to receive big investments from tech companies like Cisco's $500 million for London, Microsoft's 1,000 apprenticeships for London, etc. But while most areas in the the UK have no fibre-optic broadband, the UK is inadequately equipped to achieve its full economic and social potential.

I live only 30 miles outside London and about 40 miles from the East London Tech City, and we have no modern broadband service here! We connect to the internet via copper wires designed for the old-fashioned phone system, and the quality of service varies wildly with factors like distance from the telephone exchange, time of day and number of other users on the line. It's ridiculous. My broadband speed last night clocked an average of about 0.5 MB down with a much lower up speed. I need a minimum of 10 MB to work from home, and I don't mind paying for 100 MB. Luckily, we have two cars!

Tim Acheson (24 Feb 11, 10:05)

Update:

BT's new fibre-optic broadband infrastructure roll-out is skipping 60% of cabinets in areas the company claims to be connected!

This new evidence yet again exposes the high-profile "Infinity" project, complete with glossy TV ads, as little more than a hollow PR stunt, big on promises but half-hearted on delivery of results. The companies responsible for Britain's broadband infrastructure only get away with failing to deliver because the government and the industry regulator allow them to. Urgent action is needed to safeguard Britain's future in the tech economy.

Tim Acheson (01 Mar 11, 17:17)

Related news: Microsoft strongly backs FCC’s effort exploring more intensive & efficient use of nation’s radio spectrum -- the UK needs to follow this example

As Professor Grunwald argues, “Revolutionizing the way that spectrum is managed is essential to meeting the future need for high-speed wireless broadband and enabling new wireless applications. This will entail adopting policies and technologies that allocate spectrum at different times, locations, and frequencies more efficiently.”
Tim Acheson (04 Mar 11, 08:59)

Related news: China’s Internet to be fully fiber-optic in 3 years (The Next Web). This is what the landscape looks like on which Britain needs to compete in the global economy.

Tim Acheson (04 Mar 11, 19:07)

Related news: Superfast broadband plans get £50m government boost (Telegraph)

George Osborne, the Chancellor, has announced that £50 million is now available to local authorities in an effort to kick-start the installation of superfast broadband across 800,000 homes and premises in the UK.
Communications regulator Ofcom has said that although Britain had good plans for new networks, it currently lagged badly behind the rest of the Europe and the world.

Related news: Rightmove to list broadband speed of all its homes

The village of Farningham in Kent has the slowest internet speeds in Britain, according to comparison website Top10.com. Britain's average broadband speed is 6.86Mbps (megabits per second), but Farningham's average was 1.30Mbps, meaning it would take 12 hours to download a film The Prince of Wales has complained that upland areas are being left in"broadband deserts".
Tim Acheson (14 Apr 11, 08:58)

Update: Superfast broadband scheme proposed for 5 million rural homes (Telegraph).

Britain’s sluggish rural broadband network could be revolutionised for 5 million people within five years, a consortium of companies led by Fujitsu has claimed.

The firm promised that it could eventually offer households a 10 gigabit connection, and said “from day one” ultrafast one gigabit connections would be available. Those speeds are more than 10 times faster than proposals from BT, and would be among the fastest in the world.

Working with networking firm Cisco and broadband companies TalkTalk and Virgin Media, Fujitsu said that if it rather than BT was allowed access to public money, 5 million rural homes could be given high-speed fibre broadband direct to their front door.

See also: Row over BT access prices threatens Vaizey's plan for superfast broadband (Guardian).

Tim Acheson (14 Apr 11, 12:14)

Keep an eye on FibreWiFi -- they already provide high-speed rural broadband covering most of Essex and it looks like they'll be covering me here in East Herts later this year too!


Related: Canada: Nova Scotia government project nears completion

"... The Globe and Mail is reporting that the Nova Scotia government is closing in on delivering the overdue promise it made to make broadband Internet available to every resident. ..."
Tim Acheson (20 May 11, 09:26)

Update: MPs push for better rural broadband (Telegraph)

My reaction: what's needed now is a timeline. What's needed now is action and tangible results in British homes and businesses, not prologued discussion.

Tim Acheson (25 May 11, 10:01)

Today I wrote a post on the BBC's iPlayer Message Board today, raising the issue of poor internet connections affecting BBC online services.

I included a screenshot showing a typical example of how iPlayer fails to work for millions of licence-feepaying users due to poor internet connections.

I also posted my concerns in a comment on a BBC Internet Blog post boasting about iPlayer traffic. The stats looked impressive, but didn't mention how many of those users experienced problems. Half of the country is being excluded from the digital revolution. They're all too easy to ignore, because not surprisingly they're not very vocal online!

While I was at it, I raised the issue (yet again) with BT in their community forums.

Tim Acheson (23 Jun 11, 10:26)

Related: Australia's $38 billion broadband plan clears last major hurdle (Reuters)

So, this week Australia begins their $40 BILLION national broadband upgrade project, to bring their infrastructure up to the standards required in the 21st century. This is what we're up against here in Britain. We're being left behind. Canada has almost finished a similar national project, and China has set themselves two years to upgrade their entire broadband infrastructure to 100% fibre-optic cable. Mark my words, Britain will be left behind forever in the global economy if the government does not act now by investing at least £3 billion and committing to a strict timeline for delivering upgrades nationally within 5 years. At present we have a puny investment being offered and no commitment to any timeline. If the private sector ran businesses the way the UK's broadband infrastructure is being run, they would be out of business.


Update: Rural broadband set for £362m boost (The Guardian)

Culture secretary says fund will ensure that 90% of hard-to-reach communities could have superfast broadband by 2015
Tim Acheson (11 Jan 12, 14:30)

Update:

Tim Acheson (07 Feb 12, 13:09)

Update: the problem is increasingly conspicuous

... At the end of last year, Geo Networks pulled out of the race for the government-funded superfast broadband contract in Wales, complaining that the way it was set up made it impossible to compete with BT.

... Cutting the price of the existing technology, he explained, would make the investment case for building new fibre networks even harder to sustain.

And it is increasingly clear that in much of the UK, companies hoping to compete with BT to roll out fast fibre are struggling to make headway. Fujitsu, for instance, announced last April that it was going to bring fast fibre broadband to 5 million homes in rural Britain. But since then we've heard very little about how that plan is going.

... So it looks likely that in the four pilot areas and then across the UK, the lion's share of that £530m will go to BT. That will further reinforce the company's position as the only show in town when it comes to rolling out Britain's next generation network - even Virgin Media has no plans to cover more than about half of UK households. [My emphasis.]

The government has promised to give Britain the best broadband in Europe [which sounds good but isn't really saying much] by 2015. With three years left to hit that target ... a fast fibre Britain still looks a long way off.

Tim Acheson (01 Aug 12, 08:42)

Related: House of Lords report says UK broadband not fit for purpose

Guardian telecommunications correspondent Juliette Garside on the House of Lords report into the UK's broadband infrastructure. Juliette discusses why the present network is creating a monopoly in the industry and potentially blocking private investment in broadband.
Tim Acheson (21 Aug 12, 16:30)

Latest: U.K. aims for the fastest broadband in Europe by 2015

This is a hollow boast for the Government to make, because improvements in average speed will be due to improvements in locations where service was already good, while rural areas which most needed the investment will be left behind.

Tim Acheson (08 Nov 12, 10:45)

Related: Brussels red tape holding up UK broadband

"Maria Miller is frustrated EU red tape is holding up the delivery of broadband in the UK – infrastructure that is essential to the country’s economic growth. She will be lobbying the Commission face-to-face, as well as urging our elected representatives in Brussels support what is best for UK businesses and the UK’s economy"
Tim Acheson (10 Jan 13, 16:33)

Update: Agreement paves way for superfast rural broadband -- wayleave agreement with farming sector

Tim Acheson (24 Jan 13, 13:54)

Related:

Global average peak internet connection speed: 15.9Mbps.

Hong Kong's average peak internet connection speed: 54Mpbs.

(Source: CNet - as tweeted)

See also: Akamai data

Tim Acheson (11 Feb 13, 14:44)

Bad news: No cash for broadband: Europe's super-fast future torpedoed by budget cuts

Government action is now required, e.g. in the UK to force BT to allow Virgin Media and others to use their poles and trenches for infrastructure expansion.

Related: Broadband campaigners criticise EU over billion-euro budget cuts

Tim Acheson (20 May 13, 14:10)

Related: Let's forget HS2 and invest in high-speed broadband instead

"The government should kill its absurd rail plan and lay an optical fibre network – it's cheaper and be the ultimate economic boost"

Tim Acheson (21 May 13, 15:09)

Related: Now you can tour the whole of Taiwan without losing your Internet connection, for free

"Taiwan’s government has just made it easier for tourists by extending free Wi-Fi services for travelers island-wide. This follows after the government in 2011 launched free public Wi-Fi in Taipei."
Tim Acheson (26 Jun 13, 11:37)

Related -- poorest African states could get better broadband than rural Britain: Internet satellites launched to help 'underconnected' countries connect log on

Tim Acheson (05 Jul 13, 09:50)

Related: Superfast broadband scheme concerns

"The Government programme to roll out superfast broadband to 90% of the population is running late and lacks strong competition to protect public value, the National Audit Office (NAO) has reported."

Tim Acheson (29 Jul 13, 11:25)

National Farmers Union: "report confirms worst fears"

There was an article, lamenting over the failures of the UK's broadband upgrade project, in the current edition of Farmer & Grower -- the official magazine for members of the National Farmers Union. Ironically the magazine is not available online, but the report to which the article was responding is mentioned on the NFU website. It was the lead article in the Digital Farming section, with the headline: "UK broadband report confirms worst fears".

The article highlighted the key importance of a fast and reliable internet connection to farms and the wider rural economy. The government is moving essential services online (inluding farming-specific services) before the proper infrastructure is in place for people to use them. And poor internet connections are impeding rural businesses -- not just farms.

Tim Acheson (04 Oct 13, 17:14)

I welcome.the UK Government's recently announced "Investing in Britain" paper. But talk is cheap. I'll believe it when I see it.

"investing up to £250 million, locally match-funded, to extend superfast broadband provision from current coverage plans so that 95 per cent of UK premises will have access to superfast broadband by 2017"

I am concerned about the lack of clarity -- e.g. can we be sure that this is not simply re-announcing or repackaging the existing funding of the old National Broadband Strategy?

Tim Acheson (25 Feb 14, 12:58)

Update:

£250m boost taking Superfast Broadband further and faster

As announced by Culture Secretary, Maria Miller.

Unfortunately, this is a pitiful addition to the puny existing funding for arguably the single most important investment to secure Britain's future prosperity. Historians of the future will look back on this epic failure as the turning point and the beginning of the end. The fund is minuscule compared to the sums being spent on other projects and by rival nations.

The running of this project has been a shambles, and e.g. here in Braughing village we still don't even know if we'll benefit from the existing funding that was announced years ago!

Tim Acheson (17 Mar 14, 09:28)

Related: What Washington can learn from Colombia’s genius plan to lift millions out of poverty

Colombia isn't rich. The South American nation tracks six socioeconomic brackets, and 88 percent of Colombians fall into the lowest three rungs. The bottom of the economic pyramid in Colombia lives on less than $2 a day. Yet the country is racing to build what, even by U.S. standards, would be considered bleeding-edge technology: Its leaders are extending fiber-optic Internet access to 96 percent of the country's cities and towns.

Tim Acheson (01 Apr 14, 14:32)

Latest: Slow broadband?

In spite of massive public investment, slow broadband connection speeds are still the scourge of the British countryside. Perhaps it's time to take matters into your own hands?

The government has been criticised once again for mishandling the rollout of broadband services to rural parts of the UK. In a report published by the Public Accounts Committee today, Margaret Hodge accused the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) of failing to deliver meaningful competition, leaving BT in a monopoly position.

Tim Acheson (24 Apr 14, 13:54)

I pointed out to the BBC long ago that as a licence fee payer I expect to get the same service as everybody else, and sent them a screenshot showing that the iPlayer does not work properly with my connection speed.

Tim Acheson (30 Apr 14, 11:37)

Related: UK giving £400m to Pakistan every year in overseas aid

So, the Government wants to spend as much on Pakistan every year as it has budgeted for our entire broadband infrastructure upgrade.

Similarly, HS2 budget £33bn (20th Century infrastructure). UK broadband budget 0.05bn (21st Century infrastructure).

Tim Acheson (24 Jun 14, 17:37)

Related: When the UK goes 'digital by default', who will be left behind?

Key government departments already are digital by default. Basic government services -- like those of Defra which are specifically for rural areas -- are going "digital by default" from next year. In many case you already get a second rate service if you try to do things offline. Meanwhile, my TV licence fee is being spent increasingly on services which require more internet speed and bandwidth than I have available. This infrastructure is not fit for purpose. Does the left hand know what the right one is doing? Let's do some joined up thinking. And demand on bandwidth goes up every year. But people who don't benefit from this current initiative will not have adequate broadband for the foreseeable future.

Tim Acheson (31 Jul 14, 13:00)

Tech City broadband is 'not fit for purpose', say startups

TOLD YOU SO.

And that's in London! In rural areas like Braughing the only option is to commute to London -- bonkers.

Meanwhile, our competitors are riding the global marketplace during the exponential growth phase of the tech revolution:

Remind me the budget for overseas aid? For HS2? How about broadband, our most economically important future infrastructure?

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