Why Britain’s broadband is heading for the slow lane.
The internet is a bigger part of the British economy than education, healthcare or construction. Britons generate more money online than any other G20 nation. But when it comes to high-speed broadband, the country is falling behind.
“Britain is being frozen out of the next industrial revolution,” Peter Cochrane, a former BT chief technology officer, has warned. “In terms of broadband, the UK is at the back of the pack. We’re beaten by almost every other European country and Asia leaves us for dust.”
While other countries are racing to replace the old copper telephone networks with fibre optic cables running right to household doorsteps, and capable of almost unlimited speeds, the UK has settled for a compromise.
BT Group, with a network that reaches nearly every home in the country, is laying fibre to cabinets in the streets, and relying on copper to carry the broadband signal the last leg to the doorstep. Today, that means speeds limited to 80 megabits per second (Mbps), compared with 1,000Mbps or more available in all-fibre networks.
Russia already has 12m homes with fibre to the doorstep. France has 6m and says 70% of premises will be connected by 2020. The UK has just 400,000, and there are no targets to increase that number.
Ministers rank broadband as one of Britain’s top four infrastructure priorities, alongside roads, rail and energy, and George Osborne has committed £200bn to these sectors over the next five years. But a fraction of that will go to broadband – just £1.3bn from local and central government has been earmarked.
If the UK had committed as much as the Chinese per head of population, some £7bn of taxpayer funds would be invested. Australia is pushing fibre to 93% of homes by 2018. In the UK, this would cost up to £29bn.