Balance, not headlines. Why reliable broadband for all should be the priority

BalanceThink tanks have always seemed a curious concept to me, throwing up images of deeply serious people sitting in dark moodily lit rooms, looking wise and meditative, stroking their beards, and smoking pipes. A disturbing image I’m sure you’ll agree, especially as some of them are no doubt women. (And is this thinking full-time, or just a part-time thing? Do they have other jobs? Who is paying them to be a full time think tanker?)

These bizarre ponderings aside, some good things clearly do come out of these collective mulling over of particular topics, and to get us back on track, one thinktank in the UK called the Policy Exchange, has done some thinking on the topic of UK broadband, which is where we come in.

The thrust of the report, rather racingly called, “The Superfast and the furious”, raises some interesting points.

  1. Despite being ranked 18th – mid-table in comparison with other countries (e.g. we have less fibre to the home than any other country in the EU), the UK still has a vibrant internet economy
  2. Businesses that make good use of the internet see real gains – e.g retailer John Lewis saw a 40% growth in sales
  3. 16 million Britons – over 25% of the population have trouble sending an email.
  4. Two thirds of people think coverage is more important than speed

The take out from the first three points for me are that it’s not just what you have but how you use it. The UK clearly has problems when it comes to broadband and digital enfranchisement but considering that, we’re not doing too badly. Though a lot of work had to be done.

The aim is to get 90% of homes and businesses in Britain hitting faster speeds in order to get the UK up the ‘best broadband’ charts, and the minimum speed for basic coverage is a mere 2Mbps, which is really not much at all by today’s standards.

Crucially the report suggest that it does not oppose the current £680m that the UK government has pledged to reach its 2015 targets, but recommends that it should not subsidise the broadband industry any further than that.

To focus on point four I will quote from the report, which says: “Our polling found that four in five people think the internet is something that everyone should be able to get access to. Two thirds of people think it is more important for everyone to have access to a basic broadband service than it is to boost top speeds in select parts of the country.”

The punters have spoken- they want everyone to have good access, rather than for tax payers money to go on offering even faster speeds, to areas already well covered. Is it more important for Mr Cappuccino in the city to have a 120Mbps connection at home just to browse the stocks and shares, when money could be spent on getting a village connected up, and at a reasonable speed? It’s like taxpayers paying for some people to drive Porsche’s while many still have to take the bus.

However, even in well served areas, there’s more to it than just offering these superfast services – you actually have to deliver them. In my own experience, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to receive a 50MBps connection at home for some time. When it was first installed it seemed blazingly fast but after some months the service began to deteriorate, with extreme slowdown, especially at peak times. A proported ‘speed-doubling’ to 100Mbps, offered nominally for free, offered nothing of the sort, and speeds were often less than the original 50Mbps.

This main issue here was contention ratio. The service had become oversubscribed in the area, resulting in over utilisation of the limited resources. So while the company and the government can claim to be offered 100Mbps, or even 120Mbps to a certain number of homes, it counts for little if you’re not getting it.

Companies need to put more effort into maintaining promised speeds for existing customers rather than just adding new customers on the basis of false promises.

It’s in the government interests to ensure this, otherwise the country will not rise up those average speed charts as fast as it would like.

Most importantly, what everyone deserves is a basic level of speed, both download and upload, to enable real access to cloud services and things like tele-medicine. And the connection needs to be reliable and consistently delivers promised speeds at all times.

We need balance, not headlines.

That’s what the broadband industry should be aiming for, and as we move through 2013 we hope to hear and see more on this commitment to service levels from the many speakers at the various Broadband World Series events happening through 2013.

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