Will the UK always be the late comer to the broadband party?
BBC News Online has an item which suggests that the UK broadband market needs more speed, with experts warning we are falling behind other European countries. The UK is certainly following a different path down the broadband highway, we seem to be embracing the marketing dreams without necessarily having the technical improvements that will allow us to grow the market and embrace fully the emerging content services.
Comparisons with France are relatively easy to make, and very often the UK simply is 18 months behind the French market with technical developments. France saw unbundling in large numbers first, with ADSL2+ and now with Fibre to the Home available. The Broadband Wales Observatory took a look at the French market in 2005, which can be viewed here. France Telecom (Orange) who are the incumbent in France are promising 96% availability by the end of 2006, BT quote a figure of 99.6%, reality may be perhaps 0.3% lower. While it is easy to pick holes in the BT figures, it is very likely that similar holes can be found in other countries. Of course being able to get DSL means little if that is only referring to a 0.5Mbps download speed, with 0.25Mbps for uploads. France has ADSL2+ available to around 50% of households, but just like the UK ADSL2+ has limited range so while the BBC item makes a lot of the availability of ADSL2+ at 24Mbps, the reality is that the majority will not see the highest speeds from the technology. Other research suggests that only 20% of telephone lines across Europe are actually short enough to get the highest speeds from ADSL2+ if deployed at the telephone exchanges. The biggest advance has been the arrival of fibre to the home (FTTH) in France, which is currently confined to the largest cities, but offers speeds of 100Mbps in both the download and upload directions for around £50 per month.
So what is the story for the UK? Out of 5,500 telephone exchanges we have around 650 with an unbundled service available, and many of these are offering choices of multiple alternate providers to the incumbent BT Wholesale services. These 650 exchanges as they are located in the large cities and towns, which is where the most UK households are probably offers an unbundled option to about 50% of homes. The providers Be, Bulldog and UK Online do offer ADSL2+, with Be marketing it as an up to 24Mbps service, and Bulldog marketing on a slightly more realistic up to 16Mbps service. A research paper released by BT suggests that across the UK if using ADSL2+ that 50% of telephone lines will manage 8Mbps downstream, with a much smaller number hitting top speeds in the region of 18Mbps. Most providers though are still using the basic ADSL technology which offers a maximum line speed of 8Mbps (maximum of 7Mbps download speed) for those on a short enough line.
One growing issue is that while broadband is a massed market service, getting the best speeds from even the existing technology can require a fair bit of technical knowledge and many service providers are failing in this area. People visiting our forums complaining of low speeds on the faster services often find that after a bit of tidying up of extension wiring in the home that speeds can jump significantly. People are free to just read what others are doing on our forums, or ask any questions they have that relate to their broadband service, and how they may get the best speeds out of their service.
So while the UK is behind countries like France in deploying the sexy higher speed services, there is more we could do to improve the speeds we have now. The largest failing as we see it, is that service providers expend little effort in advising customers on how to improve the state of their telephone wiring to exploit the up to 8Mbps services, and additionally for those who don't want to touch their extension wiring, getting a suitably qualified person to do the work can be prove difficult to near impossible with some providers. Of course to some extent our desire for ever cheaper services puts pressure on providers to cutback on things like the level of support it offers, so the latest crop of free broadband is possibly the opposite of what the massed market needs.