Without broadband internet access the world would be a very different place. For instance, the team at UK2.NET wouldn’t be able to provide powerful website hosting and site building tools, and you wouldn’t be reading this blog. It’s easy to take the internet for granted. However, it’s also easy to assume everyone else is enjoying faster broadband speeds than you.
But is that actually true? Many developing nations bypassed the landline phase of internet connectivity altogether, moving from an offline culture to one dominated by mobile networks. And while any connectivity is preferable to being permanently offline, 4G infrastructure is less rapid or reliable than a hardwired connection. The UK Government has invested heavily in wireless infrastructure, and so have private companies like Virgin Media, whose fibre broadband achieves some of the country’s fastest download speeds.
Life in the slow lane
Even so, compared with our Continental neighbours and other first-world nations, UK broadband speeds are nothing to be proud of. M-Lab, a partnership between Google and Princeton University, recently released a report into average speeds in over 200 countries. Based on 163 million speed tests, it ranked the UK 35th on average and placing it behind 25 other European nations.
Clearly, there will be differences between speeds in certain nations. Singapore (which topped M-Lab’s list) is half the size of London, making high-speed broadband rollout easier to accomplish than across a sparsely-populated area like Scotland. Norway’s punitive tax system has freed up investment in what’s currently the world’s fourth-fastest broadband system.
It’s harder to explain why the former Communist country of Hungary is able to achieve average broadband speeds almost twice as fast as the UK’s, especially when we consider ourselves technological pioneers. The World Wide Web was invented by a Brit, and many of the most popular computers and software programs have emanated from these isles. Being outperformed by Madagascar and New Zealand is rather embarrassing, though we do enjoy superior line speeds to Ireland, Italy and Australia.
M-Lab’s survey also revealed a worrying lack of progression. While speeds in the UK have increased compared to 2017’s figures, countries like France have leapfrogged us in the last year. Some observers attribute this to Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) broadband, which effectively throttles bandwidth at pavement broadband cabinets. Slow copper connections complete data’s journey into private dwellings, causing a dramatic drop-off in achievable line speeds.
The enduring inefficiency of FTTC connections has been justified by Openreach on the basis it would be too expensive to adopt Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) connections nationally. Yet given the importance of the internet in every aspect of our lives, this argument doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. Openreach recently admitted there’s “more to do”, while rivals like Cityfibre and Hyperoptic are developing dedicated FTTP networks in urban areas across Britain.
Seeing the bigger picture
Of course, speed alone isn’t the only factor determining an effective broadband service. Availability is also vital, and the UK performs well in this regard. The picture is also rosier in terms of affordability; there’s no state-owned monopoly on broadband infrastructure, while the healthy rivalry between broadband providers ensures constant price undercutting. The proliferation of quad-play packages further improves affordability. This is achieved by bundling landline and mobile with broadband and TV services into a single bill. Even so, it’ll take more than the UK Government’s demands for 15 million homes to have FTTP broadband by 2033, for our position in next year’s M-Lab survey to improve.