Ask someone if they want broadband 35 times faster than the average and they will answer in the affirmative — probably with the addition of a few choice words regarding the service they receive at present. Like disgruntled football fans, British broadband users are not short of opinions about their internet speeds.
The industry has been embroiled in a very public fight about the state of broadband and what needs to be done. BT, and its engineering arm Openreach, say Britain has some of the best internet speeds in Europe. Its detractors, including Vodafone, TalkTalk and Sky, who compete with BT but rely on access to Openreach’s network, argue the country risks falling behind in the race to build networks that offer the speeds needed to support autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence.
With the EU looking to set the bar for minimum broadband speeds much higher than being contemplated in Britain, fears have started to build after the Brexit vote that Britain is trailing the pack and may never catch up. The argument about the state of the market has become concentrated on the length of copper wire that runs from the point that fibre optic cables stop to the customer’s door — roughly 7 per cent of the entire length of a broadband connection.
BT’s critics want old copper lines to be abandoned and fibre optic cables run straight to the home — something BT is unwilling to pay for.
Dieter Helm, an economist, says the government needs to force the issue. “Britain not only deserves better, but in the post-Brexit world it desperately needs a faster broadband capability for a digital future. A country that can contemplate spending more than £20bn on a twin nuclear power station at Hinkley and over £50bn on [the proposed high-speed rail link] HS2 can and should clearly give priority to spending on broadband and fibre,” he says.
Openreach believes that raising broadband speeds gradually is more important than shooting for a theoretical 1 gigabit per second speed that others have set as the target. Critics of this incremental approach say Openreach should be split off from BT because the latter is happy to spend freely on other items such as football broadcasting rights but not on fully fibre networks, claims BT disputes.
Clive Selley, chief executive of Openreach, has described 1Gbps as an “arbitrary” number and that its superfast broadband network — superfast defined by the EU as being 24Mbps — now reaches 26m out of Britain’s 29m premises.
He argues that the quality of internet speeds available is sometimes lost amid the vicious debate about fibre. “We have the highest speed of the big European countries, we have the highest adoption and the lowest retail prices. The idea that is a failure when you look at the big picture does not stand up to even a cursory analysis,” he says.
One BT spokesman put it differently when asked about demands for 1Gbps to every corner of the UK. “Why would you drive a Lamborghini to the corner shop?”
Matthew Braovac, head of regulatory affairs at Vodafone UK, counters by saying that broadband infrastructure should be treated like other great British projects of the past — the railways or the sewers of London — which were built to handle 10 times the population when they were constructed.
“It is the same notion for broadband. If you know where the final destination is then it is better to do it right the first time,” he says. He argues that Britain is not so much at risk of “failing to make the podium” in the sprint for international broadband supremacy but “not even being in the chasing pack”.
Mr Selley does not dispute that fibre is superior to copper, calling himself a “big fan”. However, he adds, it would cost “double-digit billions of pounds” to supply it to every home in Britain.
Openreach is in the process of connecting more business parks and high streets — neglected in previous network upgrades — directly to fibre, Mr Selley says, while the G.Fast technology it is planning to introduce, which speeds up copper connections, will deliver ultrafast speeds equivalent to fibre but much more cheaply.
Overall, Openreach has pledged to connect 12m homes to ultrafast speeds by 2020.
Tom Mockridge, chief executive of Virgin Media, which is investing £3bn to expand its cable and fibre network to reach 17m homes, has called on BT’s rivals to stop carping and to invest in fibre themselves. “Some have said we need to ‘fix’ Britain’s internet. I would urge them to pick up a spade,” says Mr Mockridge.
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