How Broad is Broadband?
Everyone thinks better broadband is a good thing. Every time you turn your tv on, or access online services, you are deluged with stuff telling you about getting more bandwidth for less money.
And yet in many parts of the UK “broadband” is still dependent on decades-old strands of copper wire dating from the days of Post Office Telephones. In much of the UK there is no effective market competition for broadband services. The broadband capacity you are led to expect may not be what you get. This situation is not likely to meet personal or business needs even in the immediate future. In this first of a series of pieces, John Barrett explores the reality of broadband in the UK.
It is pretty well established that investment in infrastructure can bring about major economic benefits to a locality. The example that many people still talk about is the role of the railway in transforming the prosperity of an area, even though much of that happened a century and a half ago. This has become topical again in recent weeks with announcements about high speed railway construction.
The Coalition Govt has followed Tony Blair and New Labour in putting major emphasis on investment in infrastructure. Infrastructure of course includes what we’ve come to call “superfast broadband” as well as all sorts of transport stuff. The Broadband UK (BDUK) initiative is a massive partnership between central government, local councils and major private sector communications providers, as well as, here and there, community broadband groups.
Many years ago, when I first visited the Scottish Islands, I heard a saying which went something like “The the sea and the sky belong to God, but David MacBrayne owns the ferry”.
And it’s a bit like that with broadband as well. One provider happens to own most of the existing infrastructure: which is of course BT. BT, which used to be called British Telecom, was created in the mid-1980s by the privatisation of Post Office Telephones. The legislation changed the mode of ownership – but what it did not do was create a competitive market in telecommunications. Even now, a quarter of a century on, few of BT’s competitors own much in the way of physical stuff in the ground or in the air. Although most people’s view of broadband is that it’s about clever technologies, a more realistic picture would be that 80% by value of a telecommunications infrastructure is civil engineering. It is physical stuff – but you don’t see it because it’s usually under the pavement.
BT certainly comes in for much criticism from many quarters, but my own feeling is that most of this misses the point. BT, although now a FTSE100 company, was originally a creation of government. Considering its difficult position as a monopoly owner of infrastructure required to make it available to its competitors, it is surprising there aren’t more problems.
There are, when you pause for thought, quite a few odd things about our UK broadband market that isn’t really a market. The most obvious is the breathtaking lack of regulation of the claims of the various suppliers: “up to 30 meg” kind of stuff. If you went into your local supermarket and bought a bag of sugar that said “up to 3lb of sugar”, took it home and weighed it and there’s only a few ounces, not only would you be pretty upset that you couldn’t bake your cake, but you would have legal redress. Your local council’s Trading Standards people would be on hand to assist. Yet we don’t seem to have the same culture about broadband bandwidth.
A notable omission from central government’s current BDUK initiative is a serious attempt at regulating how broadband is promoted and sold. We are not short of competent and authoritative organisations who could do this: Ofcom, the Advertising Standards Authority, the Trading Standards services of local councils.
A market to be effective not only needs more than one vendor – it also needs weights and measures that have more credibility than the present “up to 3lb of sugar” approach. We need a clear national strategy through which broadband is bought and sold with believable and understandable measures of what we are getting for our money.
John Barrett - Cheshire Broadband Vision Ltd
Technical note on measuring broadband
There are three key measures of a broadband service:
Capacity: frequently but erroneously referred to as “speed”. This is a statement of how much information can be transmitted in a specific period of time. It is usually measured in megabits per second (Mbps)
Latency: this is the measure of how long it takes the information to travel from sender to destination. Data travels at the speed of light and incurs delays when it is switched or routed. Latency is usually measured in thousands of a second, or milliseconds (ms). (We see latency every day on news broadcasts where satellite links are used. They have high latency – it is a long way for data to travel up into space and back to earth again)
Availability: measures how long the circuit is working and how long it’s broken. Usually measured as a percentage. (A figure like 98% availability looks high – until you realise that it means you can be disconnected for a week every year)
In his next article John will look at the BDUK initiative in more detail and considers what we might expect it to deliver, and what more ought to be done to help it make progress. This includes the role of local councils acting as facilitators of investment, especially in rural areas.
John heads Cheshire Broadband Vision Ltd, a company that provides ICT advice in Broadband enablement and ICT Strategy. John Barrett was until May 2011 head of ICT for Cheshire East Council and for a number of years before that he was responsible for ICT research and development for Cheshire County Council. This work included major regional broadband developments.