Britain on the slow road to broadband

The OECD yesterday released a tranche of statistics on broadband penetration in member countries as of the end of 2009

The OECD yesterday released a tranche of statistics on broadband penetration in member countries as of the end of 2009 with data collated including the number of broadband subscribers per country, broadband subscriptions by technology and the percentage of fibre connections in total broadband use.

While such data is a useful metric by which to judge British progress in this vital and internationally competitive area of infrastructure it also provides a useful context in which to situate the digital ambitions of the new coalition government and the pledge by the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt to ensure that by the end of the current parliament Britain has ‘the best superfast broadband on the continent.

The report finds that Britain, while not world leading, is certainly above average performance with regard to Broadband penetration, with it coming 12th overall out of the 31 OECD member countries, (average OECD broadband penetration is 23.3 compared to the UK’s 29.5).The UK does come behind both France and Germany on broadband penetration, although to its credit it has substantially more cable penetration and is less reliant on DSL than those other two European countries of approximate size, geographical diversity and wealth per head.

On a positive note British broadband penetration does outperform several other G7 economies such as the USA, Italy and Japan while also exceeding similarly wealthy but more demographically dense countries (who would find it inherently easier to deal with issues of digital exclusion) such as Ireland, New Zealand, Austria, Finland and Belgium.

Of the European nations Holland, Denmark and Norway have the best broadband penetration according to the report while South Korea is in a league of its own when it comes to ultra-high-speed  fibre connections (although it should be remarked that Sweden’s LAN network is by far and away the best in Europe).

While it can be contended that British broadband penetration will never be as good as that of the Nordic countries and the Netherlands due to issues of geographical distances between population centres and greater geographical diversity it should be noted that Canada, a country that faces these exact same problems on a far greater scale than the United Kingdom, achieves a higher rate of Broadband penetration with considerably less reliance on DSL and almost three times more digital users utilizing a quicker cable connection.

Jeremy Hunt recently pledged £300 million to ensure that Britain’s broadband would be ‘second to none’ in Europe. In light of the OECD’s data such a claim when compared to the infrastructural ecology of both France and Germany seems unlikely and when compared to Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands, simply absurd.

Not only do all of these countries have better rates of broadband penetration but perhaps of greater importance is that the Nordics, Switzerland and the Netherlands all have a qualitatively superior network with less reliance on comparatively slow DSL connections.  Adopting a witty footballing metaphor Rory Cellan-Jones at the BBC claimed that Mr Hunt’s hyperbolic claim was akin to the manager of West Ham, who only narrowly avoided relegation last season, promising to win the Premier League within five years without a big budget for new players.

Extending the sporting metaphor further still, given that South Korea hopes to offer a universal service of 1 Gbps by 2012 (currently Koreans enjoy speeds up to 100 Mbps) the current government’s ambitions of guaranteeing a British minimum of 2Mbps by 2012 is essentially an admission of not being capable to play in the same league as leading nations in this crucial area of infrastructure. South Korea’s lofty ambitions are founded upon a budgeted 34.1 trillion won (USD $24.6 billion) to be spent over the course of the next five years, some 56 times more than the £300,000,000 that the coalition government has made available to make Jeremy Hunt’s conjectural digital vision a substantive reality.

Given the context of the OECD report and the increasing scale of Britain’s ‘broadband deficit’ [especially when compared to the rest of Northern Europe], the opined and heady ambitions of the culture secretary seem not so much lacking in ambition but rather lacking in apprehension at the scale of the problem and the entirely inadequate resources this government is willing to provide as part of the solution.

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14 Responses to “Britain on the slow road to broadband”

  1. DrKMJ

    Britain on the slow road to broadband: via @leftfootfwd

  2. David Bell

    Britain on the slow road to broadband (Our village is pathetically slow)

  3. dizzy

    Why is there not a single reference to actual technology, and what is necessary in networking terms in this post?

  4. winston k moss


  5. SadButMadLad

    Before we spend millions of public money on broadband we need to decide if the internet is now a “human right” or just another nice to have. If all it means is that you can spend more time on blogs, facebook, twitter and watch more youtube then it a nice to have.

    The government has created hundreds of government websites at a huge cost, many of which are viewed by only hundreds of people. Just because the internet exists it doesn’t mean that everything MUST be done on the internet. It doesn’t suit every task. Nor is worthwhile for other tasks. Technology shouldn’t be used as a solution to non-existant problems.

    It does makes it easy to access government services for those with access, but it should be just as easy for others without.

  6. aaron peters Some partisan thougts on Jeremy /hunt and Broadband

  7. dizzy

    Or maybe we could just light the dark fibre network that is already laid, and then dig up all the roads and lay fibre to everyone’s door, shouldn’t take long, a week maximum.

  8. Chris Cox

    Partisan, but not interesting for all that unRT @aaronjohnpeters: Some partisan thougts on Jeremy /hunt and Broadband

  9. Phillip Clarke

    Yet again, more inaccurate talk about where the UK in terms of current broadband provision, and how to solve the problem. OECD stats in this area are notoriously flaky: numbers with no sourcing, often out of date, and don’t provide any 3D form of the situation.

    Understanding where the UK is in the world would be helped if ISPs were stopped from making fanciful speed claims. Virtually no one in the UK can get 20Mb/s from an ADSL provider, yet these ISPs are allowed to advertise that they can.

    You cite the Netherlands in your article. Interestingly, the Netherlands has such quick speeds due to the big presence of cable in the country. A fact which is conveniently ignored by full fibre activists.

    You make classic statist claims that Hunt is absurd to say £300m will make no impact. You’re right in that it wil primarily pump prime. The bigger changes wil actually be small, cost free, regulatory changes which were recommended to the last Government in the Caio Review, but were never implemented. Not sure why not, but perhaps the fact that the changes will enable providers to compete with BT might have something to do with it.

  10. aaron peters

    My understanding is that the £300 million is primarily for the rurally digitally excluded (i.e where there has been a clear market failure) – so I guess I must be a ‘statist’ if I believe in the possibly inefficient allocation of goods and services in a market – which is clearly what is happening re. the rural digital market and where £300 million is patently nowhere near enough. Re. cost-free regulatory changes and the Caio Review I agree in large part, but two questions;
    i) are regulatory changes alone going to be anywhere near sufficient to overcome the terrible speeds that rural users suffer?
    ii)if you can give me one historical example of cutting edge public infrastructure that was world class (British railroads in the 19th century, Japanese highspeed in the 20th century, nuclear, roads etc) that was not in large part paid for by public funds I would be grateful for such enlightenment.

  11. Ell Aitch

    RT @leftfootfwd: Britain on the slow road to broadband:

  12. Mr. Sensible

    I still can’t see how the government wants a more ambicious target than Labour’s, but at the same time is scrapping the so called Broadband tax.

    What’s more, as I understand it, the lisence Fee is being used for this (topslicing; something which the Tories opposed) but at the same time want the lisence fee frozen.

    This just doesn’t make sense.


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