Slow Broadband

Déjà vu all over again – Broadband not up to scratch

It seems like only around this time last year we were talking about the UK’s Broadband not meeting requirements, and here we are after this story hit the news again. This time we’re not going to talk about the constant scrapping between broadband providers or attempt to penetrate the overwhelming amount of statistics that isn’t really indicative of the state of play of the internet connectivity in the UK. We’re going to take a look at just why we’re now lagging behind our European neighbours, the US and Japan.

Britain’s Broadband Breakthrough

Dr. Peter CochraneLet’s take a trip back to the 70s and meet a man called Dr. Peter Cochrane, BT’s Chief Technology Officer at the time. Dr. Cochrane was already very much aware that even in the years before the internet as we know it, that our copper network was wholly insufficient for the job of bringing us into the 21st Century and that it was “…unsuitable for digital communication in any form, and it could not afford the capacity we needed for the future.”

Dr. Cochrane was asked to produce a report on the future of digital communication in Britain, and in 1979 Dr. Cochrane came up with a definitive answer “…forget about copper and get into fibre.” BT then began a massive push, spanning 6 years, creating thousands of jobs and pushing Britain ahead of the fibre optic race.

In an interview Dr. Cochrane said: “In 1986, I managed to get fibre to the home cheaper than copper and we started a programme where we built factories for manufacturing the system. By 1990, we had two factories, one in Ipswich and one in Birmingham, where we’re manufacturing components for systems to roll out to the local loop”.

BT were steaming ahead with a fibre roll-out, creating the first wide area fibre optic network in Hastings. However, this early lead was to be short-lived as in 1990 the Thatcher government made a decision which was to leave Britain in the dust…

The Iron Lady’s Fibre Foul-Up

Margaret ThatcherMargaret Thatcher has had the finger pointed at her for many issues that have plagued our little island nation over the years, but I think we can safely say that there is a direct link between the decision that “BT’s rapid and extensive roll out of fibre optic broadband was anti-competitive…” and the issues we, as a technology provider, are now seeing.

Following the decision in 1991 the roll out was stopped. The two factories that BT had built to build fibre related components were sold to Fujitsu and HP and the assets were stripped. Then the stop-start roll out of fibre began in a “more competitive market” which as Dr. Cochrane said “…doesn’t work with fibre optic – it needs to be done en-masse. You needed economy of scale. You could not roll out fibre to the home for 1% of Europe and make it economic, you had to go whole hog.”

So the decline in the uptake of these technologies began and to this day we have never really recovered. The current view on the matter is that we will always be behind now unless there is a serious rethink, restructure and capital injection which our nationwide infrastructure so desperately needs. The current administration has a very short-sighted view on what it considers to be appropriate “superfast” broadband speeds. Whilst we’re still faffing about trying to get homes and businesses across the country up to 20Mbps, the Japanese had 50Mbps availability across the board by 1999, Hong Kong had Gigabit both ways back in 2012 and even other European countries are motoring on ahead of us.

It’s all about the bandwidth

The fibre roll out here is mostly Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC) rather than Fibre To The Premises (FTTP). What’s the difference? Well, FTTP is fibre optic cable directly to your home or place of business, whereas FTTC is fibre optic cable to your nearest cabinet, with copper wire taking the signal the last leg of the journey. This copper final leg drastically reduces the available bandwidth which gets worse the further away from the cabinet you are. This has caused many companies to take drastic measures such as leased line fibre or EFM (Ethernet First Mile) which can prove to be quite expensive because either the fibre isn’t available or their copper connections are simply diabolical.

With global business getting faster and faster, our infrastructure is letting us down meaning that if we’re not able to efficiently do business globally that could leave us behind financially as well. It all boils down to this: If we can’t participate in a global market at a comparable speed, we won’t be able to make money.

So there we have it, a whistle-stop trip through the history of UK Broadband and a great example of where capitalism proves to be anti-productive and definitely not cost-effective. The costings to correct this error by our former government is going to reach into the billions and we’ll forever be playing catch-up to the rest of the world…