An article in The Telegraph is running with the title "UK could suffer economically and socially with 'poor broadband'". Alas other than suggesting UK speeds are on a par with Spain and Italy it does not give any figures, making it hard to judge how far behind the UK. A bit more information and further quotes have emerged on the BBC.
A team at the University of Oxford has spent its time crunching through eight million broadband speed tests from an unnamed tester in May 2008 and has the following to say about the UK.
"Average download speeds are adequate for web browsing, email and basic video downloading and streaming, but we are seeing more interactive applications, more user-generated content being uploaded and shared, and an increasing amount of high-quality video services becoming available."Alastair Nicholson, from the University of Oxford’s Said Business School
It seems 42 countries were studied and just over half had what was considered adequate levels of broadband connectivity sufficient to provide a decent user experience. Raw speed alone is not enough to judge a country on, but the actual paper does not appear to be available so we cannot comment on whether availability of broadband was a factor. This is important because if a country has a couple of large urban centres with fibre connectivity average speeds may look more impressive, even though 30% of the country may still only have dial-up access.
The conclusions that the copper telephone network needs upgrading is something that many bodies have been saying, but generally it all falls apart when trying to find someone to pay the price which may be up to £28 billion to do the upgrade. Consumers in the UK have often chosen the cheapest priced broadband rather than the best performing, and convincing these people to shell out an extra £10 to £20 a month for something that may be 'free' now, as well as a set-up fee that could be £100 to £1000 will be difficult.
The UK has plenty of home workers and other early adopters who can see the advantages of a faster potentially more reliable network, but there are probably not enough to make the investment worthwhile and in a commercial world this could lead to firms collapsing and lots of dark fibre with no hardware on the end to connect anyone to the Internet. Prediction of the future in technology areas is fraught with difficulty, but projections of what is emerging in terms of interactive applications is important - a web where we just consume data is less reliant on consistent low latency connections, and the nature of interaction is that data is traveling in both directions at the same time.
The current government is happy to leave keeping up with the Jones in the broadband league tables to commerical pressures, but on the other hand wants to regulate these commercial companies to force opening of their networks. So the UK is blessed with a hands off approach to investment, but a slapped wrist unless you let others benefit from your own investment.