Coping with life in the broadband slow lane

Posted by Peter Cochrane on July 10, 2009

Coping with life in the broadband slow lane

By Peter Cochrane

Published: July 8 2009 16:34 | Last updated: July 8 2009 16:34

The Digital Britain report, recently launched by Lord Carter, into the UK’s broadband and broadcasting future should have left me feeling excited. I see many businesses struggling today and a significant number failing because they cannot access the global market with sufficient speed and effectiveness.

Many living in my vicinity have broadband connections of 1 megabit a second or even lower. You cannot make effective use of the internet at such speeds and you cannot innovate at the pace required by the global market.

This sad state of affairs means the UK is punching well under its weight today, and it will be doing even worse by 2012.

To understand how we got into this position, it is useful to chart technological development in the UK in comparison with the countries leading in this field.

In 1986, BT achieved a near miracle – optical fibre to the home delivered cheaper than copper, for new installations. By 1990, factories in Birmingham and Ipswich had been equipped to manufacture systems that could modernise the entire UK local network.

Further, studies had shown the cost to be about £15bn ($24bn), which could self-fund over 10 years by a combination of profits, the sale of buildings, staffing reductions from 110,000 to 35,000, and a vehicle fleet contraction from 10,000 vans and trucks to only 900.

However, the government of the day decided that this would be an anti-competitive move for BT as a monopoly power with a unique and exclusive technology. A halt was called and the focus moved on to copper, and the influx of the North American cable television industry as a further source of competition in the market.

Anyway, copper could do everything couldn’t it? And why would anyone ever want 2mbps, and what would they do with it?

Japan and South Korea did not make this mistake. Up to 1990, both trailed the UK in fibre optic developments, but by 1995 had overtaken it, as they moved into the local communications loop at speed. The rest, as they say, is history. Today Japan and Korea enjoy broadband at rates the UK can only dream of.

The day after UK prime minister Gordon Brown announced that everyone in the UK would have 2mbps to the home by 2012, a Korean minister announced his country would have 1,000mbps as standard by 2013.

Today, the UK is 25th in the global broadband league table. By 2012 it will most likely have slipped back to 30th because of stagnation and the progress of competitors.

But are these rankings an “apples and apples” comparison? I think not. The UK broadband suppliers share capacity between customers – connections are what is know as “contended”. Hence those magic words: “up to 8mbps”. In Korea this is not allowed by law. There, you actually get 100mbps today – all of it, all the time.

If only the authors of Digital Britain got out more. If only our politicians used the internet for business rather than window dressing. If only the managers of our network and related service industries could think longer term, we might see some positive change.

Unfortunately few – if any – seem to have travelled to Japan, Korea and Scandinavia to see what we are missing. A fairly standard Japanese home today has 100mbps for £15 a month with all line faults and repairs addressed the same working day.

Not having an effective broadband network lost the UK an electronic games industry worth more than £3bn a year, and it is about to cripple the country’s attempts to follow the leaders into Web 2.0 and 3.0 and cloud computing. This is important stuff.

At a fundamental level, if atoms and bits cannot move efficiently, GDP cannot be earned. The transformation of broadcasting, entertainment, the mobile industry, and just about every aspect of modern commerce, will be muted. The UK will be sidelined by its own inaction.

For those with fibre to the home and office at 100mbps, it is routine for several occupants simultaneously to watch TV, listen to the radio, play games, surf the net, handle e-mail and more. And working from home does not simply mean using e-mail and slowly trawling the web or downloading small files. It means fast and creative interaction in both directions. They also enjoy effective video conferencing, something denied to those with slow connections.

Worse, when it comes to digital subscriber lines, that magic letter “A” in ADSL stands for “Asymmetric”. So even if you can squeeze 8mbps download out of a connection from time to time, the upload will most likely sit around 0.5mbps. For any business application this is virtually useless. Business and creativity are not asymmetric.

For my business I need bandwidth, and I have spent a considerable amount of time and money getting the best I can. In order of importance I have:

1. Found the best suppliers in my area

2. Cleaned up my house wiring – internally and externally

3. Installed iPlates at the phone master socket to minimise interference

4. Experimented with a range of routers and selected the fastest

5. Installed a second broadband line

6. Paid a broadband aggregation service to bond my two ADSL lines

7. Confirmed that there are two 3G suppliers I can also add to my aggregation.

After a lot of hard work, my 3mbps broadband line is now returning slightly over 4mbps, while my second line, originally at 4mbps, is now just over 6mbps. With aggregation, I am now seeing about 10mbps.

Adding two 3G mobile broadband feeds could gather a further 10mbps which, with aggregation, would realise slightly more than 20mbps. On the upload side, I am currently seeing about 750kbps, and I expect to raise this to more than 2mbps with 3G additions.

Imagine the cost of all this. In Scandinavia my friends get 200mbps for €19 a month. And they had to engineer nothing.

So is this the end of the story?

No, there is another card. Given that each of my neighbours has broadband and none has enough, aggregation of ADSL lines across several premises offers another untapped multiplier.

With a little awareness, people could enjoy 100mbps by pooling all the bandwidth available across multiple lines in their immediate vicinity. It’s not fibre optics but it might just be a realistic answer to the UK’s real broadband question.

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. His career in telecoms and IT spans more than 40 years. www.cochrane.org.uk.