Recently I have attended one conference or function after another where it has been stated that the UK is leading the world in the broadband revolution. Apparently we have the deepest penetration and more people online per capita than any other nation.
However, my travel experiences would say otherwise, and so I decided to investigate. First of all it seems that anything that is always-on and faster than 128Kbps qualifies as broadband in the UK. Second, asymmetric services also qualify. Third, government statistics seem to focus on service availability rather than actual physical connections. Aha - I think we have it!
Looking at all the information sources I can locate online, it seems the UK fits into the world scene as follows: by households online: around 15th; by population served: around 18th; by growth rate last year: 14th; by lines added in 2004/5: fourth; by total lines per capita: sixth. The only way I can get figures that get the UK in the top three is to look at the potential number of homes and offices that could be connected should they choose to be so - as opposed to those that are actually connected.
The clearest UK government definition I can find for broadband accounting is as follows:
The government's target is for the UK to have the most extensive and competitive broadband market in the G7 by 2005. The DTI measures the UK's progress every six months based on an index developed jointly by government and the Broadband Stakeholders Group (BSG). In 2003 the UK government reported on the UK's progress based on:
1) The extensiveness index, which combines coverage and the addressable market, the UK moved up to third equal with the US.
2) The competitiveness index, which measures choice, price and regulation, the UK was ranked third.
3) The take-up index, the UK was joint sixth in the G7 with Italy.
So still not number one in 2003 then but in 2005 lots of claims to be at the top of the G7 stack! Is this a travesty of political weasel words and fumbling, or a reasonable view of reality? Pre-1990 broadband was defined as 2Mbps and above in the UK. But post-1990 it had been watered down by a factor of 16 to 128Kbps.
At this point I am reminded of an old adage from my student days: 'Governments tend to use statistics much as a drunk might use a street lamp - more for support than illumination.'
But it gets much worse! Apart from the asymmetry that typically sees 512Kbps downstream (from ISP to the customer) and 128 to 256Kbps upstream (from customer to ISP), there is the small matter of sharing. It is not unusual for between five and 15 (or more) UK customers to share a single port. Ergo, the actual rates presented can be one-fifth to one-fifteenth of the 128 to 512Kbps speed - and therefore a fraction of a typical dial-up connection. Indeed, some customers have complained that so-called broadband services have been so slow they have reverted to dial-up as their primary service.
So what are the real leaders of the pack doing? Well, to find out you have to visit southeast Asia and look at Korea and Japan. They started at 10Mbps as standard, then quickly moved up to 50Mbps, and are currently rolling out 100Mbps. And what are they planning? How about a 1,000Mbps rollout by 2010? And best of all, by law, the advertised rate has to be supplied to every customer - there is no sharing so no dilution, just a 'fire hose' of bits. In fact they really do have a broadband service!
What, I hear the G7 telco executives asking themselves, would people do with 10, 50, 100 and 1,000Mbps? This, by the way, has been a question they have been asking continually since the first 9.6Kbps modem was rolled out some 25 or so years ago. The answer of course is that it's none of their business. In the same way the water, gas, oil and power companies supply their atoms for our use without question, so should the network companies supply bits! But the real answer is: everything - radio, TV, games, internet, email, video-on-demand... you name it.
Why don't we do more of this in the UK? Simple, we don't have any broadband to speak of - just a watered-down (or narrowband) trickle of bits that just about lets us stumble around the net and communicate by email. The real online revolution has yet to hit the UK and much of the G7. Until the politicians actually use the technology, their assessment of reality will remain cloudy and disconnected from the economic reality.
Saddest of all - what they really don't seem to understand - is that the future economy of the G7 as a whole is largely governed by the rate of true broadband rollout and the ensuing creation of new businesses around that base. The UK's lead in the computer games and animation market has already been lost to southeast Asia because of the lack of broadband connectivity. The next big losses may well turn out to be those dependent on distributed and/or grid computing. If so, this will impact some of our biggest earners in pharma, medical and aerospace. To say the least, we don't have much time, and we don't have broadband!
Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.