A new research report, from the web content and apps delivery software company Akamai, shows that the government and industry hype about Broadband Britain is just so much bugle oil. Far from being up there in the vanguard of high-speed Internet access for all, the UK actually languishes way down the list at Number 27 - well behind the likes of erstwhile Soviet satellite Latvia and the formerly Communist Romania. Martyn Warwick reports.
Back in the 1960's, the Labour Government of the time promised us that Britain's future would be "forged in the White Heat of the technological revolution". Close to 50 years on, the reality, as far all the promises about broadband comms access for all is concerned, is that the much-vaunted "white heat" is more akin to a candle stump guttering under a slow-cooker.
We live in a society where it is deemed acceptable business practice for ISPs to misrepresent in their advertising the broadband access rates that 99.9 per cent of subscribers can achieve by cynically disguising the reality of feebly slow interconnect by weasel words and sneaky claims of "up to" whatever speeds the marketing department can think up and can get away with.
The truth is that we are being sold a pup - and the ISPs know it. The UK is at 27 in a list of 201 countries ranked by the average speed of their Internet connections.
Given the greed and opportunism that characterises the provision of broadband in the UK and the short-termism and lack of coherent planning that blights the industy and government it is hardly surprising that we languish well behind the likes of South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, where broadband access is not only regarded as vital to economic performance and success but is also actually made available to the population at large.
But it's worse than that. Hard though it may be to believe, Britain has actually slipped down the web-access speed rankings! Last year we were at 23, this year at 27. And next year? who knows? But it won't be good and we won't be any higher up the list.
For in slow-lane Britain Internet users can expect to get an average broadband speed of 3.8 mbps - and remember, that's an average. In practice this means some (relatively few) people get truly fast access (like me. I get an excellent, robust and very fast fibre-optic link of more than 20 mbps because I live in an area of London that is heavily cabled) whilst others - and not just in poorly-served rural areas either - get shamefully slow connections.
For example, an acquaintance of mine who lives barely 30 miles from central London says that when he calls up a website on his faltering and spasmodic DSL link, he usually has enough time to make a three course meal - and eat it - before the page loads.
So, we Brits get an average "speed" of 3.8 mbps while South Koreans, who live in the country with the fastest broadband provision in the world get an average speed of 12 mbps. Hong Kong users get 9 mbps and the Japanese get 7.8 mbps. Even Latvian and Romanians get 6.3 mbps, and good for them. Nonetheless it is galling and shaming that the UK struggles along as a feeble also-ran behind these two developing economies.
The Akamai report also lists the world's 100 fastest cities in terms of internet access provision. Masan in South Korea is at Number 1. In Europe it is the Swedish city of Umea. Britain is nowhere. No UK city is on the list and it seems entirely likely that none will ever be.
Why? Because of a paucity of ambition, imagination and the will to do something to remedy a failing situation. The UK government trumpets its plans to roll out "broadband" services to all but has recently put back by three years the date by which we can expect to enter broadband nirvana (at an antedeluvian 2 mbps for all. Wow!). Instead of 2012 this great dream will now be realised by 2015 - unless the government changes its mind and the target date yet again. In the meantime, the South Koreans, the Japanese, the Chinese, India, the US, Canada, Latvia, Lithuania and even far distant Ruritania will continue to pull away from us and we will never catch up.
And where is Ofcom, the UK's uber-regulator of telecoms and the media, in all this?The answer is "nowhere". This toothless, dozing, drooling bulldog does next to nothing except to tell us (yet again) that the digital divide is widening and that the discrepancy between broadband access speeds in rural and metropolitan areas is increasing. No shit, Sherlock. Thanks for that.
The question is, why don't you do something about it instead of sitting on your fat hands all the time? You have the powers, use them! Sometimes despair wins out over irrational exuberance, false promises and ersatz optimism. And we Brits should be despairing. It might make us feel better because the broadband industry as a whole and Ofcom as an agency aren't going to - they've got their existences to justify and themselves to serve.
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