Britain’s patchwork – and, in many areas, creaking – telecoms and data network has been hurting our small businesses for decades and now has to be put right as a matter of urgency.
George Osborne’s Budget commitment to create the legal right for all to have fast broadband and his ambition for ultrafast internet speeds across the country are a positive step. This now needs to be implemented quickly and decisively for us to take our full and rightful part in the global digital economy.
Let’s start by getting one thing straight: many homes and businesses in this country simply don’t have ‘true’ broadband. That’s because plenty of us still have internet connections that are slower than 2 megabits, bi-directional, per second (Mbit/s), which is the original definition of true broadband. Ofcom estimates that around 3% don’t have internet connections which are that fast even one way, which it says “poses considerable problems for those affected”. (It also says that a further 15% don’t have broadband of 10Mbit/s, which it deems to be the “typical household” requirement.)
The actual speed received by many others is often far below the headline maximum in any event, and particularly so at peak hours, because of factors such as “contention” (the number of people using their ISP’s local network access point at the same time).
The problem is that we lack a National Grid for telecoms. What we have is a patchwork, where broadband coverage differs enormously according to where you are in the country. Two properties situated just a handful of miles from each other might have internet speeds that are light years apart.
In my opinion, this situation stems from when BT was privatised. It ushered in a new era of competition in our telecoms market, but the result was that the UK network infrastructure was starved of investment. BT was obliged to maintain the network for all, but the new market meant that BT had less money – and less natural incentive – to invest in renovating and building new technology into the ancient copper-wire infrastructure.
Fast forward to the mid-90s, and the new Blair government promised to modernise the telecoms network. Its plans were exciting, but then it became focused on the radical cause of regional devolution. The national budget to champion the use of digital technology, and thereby promote the rollout of high-speed telecoms across the country, was broken up and given to regional development agencies. With that, a joined-up broadband policy for the whole country went out of the window. Regions were making up their own minds on priorities.
I was heavily involved with two of the big market-making campaigns back then – Broadband Britain and UK Online for Business – and I still feel frustrated that we weren’t able to convince national and local government leaders of the over-arching imperative for a coherent, joined-up policy. Our digital economy has suffered badly as a result.
Since then, digital investment has been piecemeal and haphazard. Mobile broadband and new technology to supersede the ageing copper-wire networks have increased broadband speeds and extended coverage for sure, though the investment has been – and is still – very patchy. While there are now many hotspots – where superfast broadband is delivered through state-of-the-art fibre networks – there remain far too many ‘not-spots’ that lack even rudimentary broadband speeds.
Until a few years ago, I lived in rural Wales where we were over the moon if we had a broadband speed of 0.5 Mbit/s – enough really only for basic web browsing. Yet I was participating in a global digital business. Attempts to crank the speed up to 2 Mbit/s would result in it collapsing because the ancient copper wires simply couldn’t take it. I would say I spent at least 10% of my time dealing with the reality of no internet or slow internet connection. Even today, an operator in my global social media business who lives in the Welsh countryside has an internet connection that even on a good day is achingly slow, below 0.5 Mbit/s.
These broadband ‘not-spots’ don’t just exist in the middle of the countryside. Certain urban areas, including parts of central London and cities like Liverpool, still suffer from really poor broadband.
The lack of a comprehensive, reliable superfast broadband network across the UK is hurting small businesses. Despite their importance to the UK economy, and the need for them to have access to high-quality broadband, Ofcom research shows that a lower proportion of SMEs have access to superfast broadband compared to UK premises as a whole.
What it means is that for a small business to play a role in the global digital economy – including tapping into the Internet of Things – they need to be located in an area that enjoys high-quality broadband coverage.
So if you’re a freelance IT contractor wishing to work from home, then you may have to give up any dreams of living in the country. Unless perhaps you can find a home in one of those rural communities which have given up waiting for the government or companies to act, and have clubbed together funds for superfast local broadband to be installed.
There now seems to have been something of a breakthrough. Private firms are beginning to act. Now, in my home office, I have four machines and six screens with broadband speed of 35 Mbit/s, delivered by a fibre network installed by one of BT’s rivals (although the fibre connection only runs as far as the junction box on my street; it’s brought into my home by BT’s old copper wiring.)
In Greater Seattle, where my company has its U.S. base, 100 Mbit/s both ways is the norm. In Sweden, where we have a presence, 1 gigabyte/s both ways is now commonplace. I know of a village in Mali where fibre network connections run into each hut! By and large we in the UK are way too far behind.
This government now seems to understand the problem and, on the face of it, is trying to resolve it. Osborne’s Budget pledge that homes and businesses should be able to demand telecoms companies to install a broadband line no slower than 5 megabits per second (Mbit/s), and the ambition he set out for a national minimum broadband speed of 100 Mbit/s, are big steps in the right direction.
Let’s hope there are no more broken promises, fudged strategies or missed opportunities, because the lack of access to fast, reliable broadband in many areas has placed a real drag on this country’s small businesses’ ability to prosper.