In a recent article, the BBC commented on the developments of broadband connectivity in the UK. According to the government, more than 1 million properties are now connected to the so-called superfast broadband, with connection speeds of 24mb/s or more. The government even claims that the “current UK coverage of superfast broadband is the highest of the five biggest European economies” (BBC, 2014). This statement, however, is vague at best, if not misleading. First of all, what is meant here by “biggest European economies”? Does it refer to size, population, or GDP? Secondly, does it refer to absolute numbers or to percentages? Thirdly, is this statement referring to potential connections or actual subscriptions?
According to the latest OECD statistics (Dec 2013), the UK has 35.2% broadband subscriptions, which ranks it 8th within the OECD, behind 6 other European countries, including France (which would arguably be one of the biggest five European economies, regardless of the definition we choose to use). While these numbers reflect general broadband subscriptions (i.e. people subscribed to any type of broadband) rather than superfast broadband coverage (i.e. properties that have access to speeds of 24mb/s or more), a report from the European Union (May 2014) suggests that the UK currently ranks 11th in the EU (out of 28) in superfast broadband access with around 8% subscribers, ahead of e.g. Germany (17th) and France (24th). However, in terms of ultrafast broadband (100mb/s or more), which is becoming more and more essential to thrive in an evermore digital world, the UK is ranked in the bottom 6, with less than 1% of subscriptions; only Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Malta, and Poland have fewer subscriptions to ultrafast broadband. This is much in contrast to countries like Sweden (10% ultrafast broadband, 13% superfast broadband) or Latvia (9% ultrafast, 13% superfast). According to these data, the UK government seems to be overly optimistic in its evaluation of the current provision of superfast broadband across the country.
Another result the government should consider is the actual average connection speed in the UK rather than what may potentially be possible for 1 million households. Recent numbers from the Akami State of the Internet Report (April 2014) show that the UK ranks 15th globally and 10th within the EU with 9.9mb/s in the first quarter of 2014. While this puts the UK ahead of e.g. Germany (8.1mb/s) and France (6.6mb/s), other European countries are far ahead of the UK.
In addition, rural uptake is still an issue. While initiatives like the B4RN project (see our post from 12 July 2014) provide up to 1000mb/s (=1gb/s) directly to rural homes in Lancashire, the BT provision of broadband to rural homes is moving slowly. We are currently collecting data across four rural villages in England and Wales. Among other things, we ask our interviewees to perform Internet speed tests on their computers. In our first dozen interviews, we recorded speeds across an Oxfordshire village–the average speed is 0.39mb/s, none of the homes received more than 1.22mb/s, and some of them did not have any connection at all for several hours a day.
Both superfast–or even better ultrafast–broadband provision and general broadband provision to rural areas in the UK are important to the people and for the economy to remain globally competitive. The government’s work is far from done, and in comparison to other EU and global countries, the UK has its work cut out for it. It is certainly not (yet) time to sit back and pat each other’s backs for having the “highest coverage of superfast broadband of the five biggest European economies”, especially when this statement is questionable in the first place.