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Broadband Policy Makers Need To Balance Quality And Reach

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

While Broadband Britain is concentrating on penetration, a study shows that quality may be just as important

Pity those in charge of the UK’s Digital Britain initiative. They are working away, trying to get basic broadband services to every home in the country – when along comes a study which shows they may be concentrating on the wrong thing.

Worse than that, the study has lent itself to early reports that simply beat the government initiative with a stick. Stories on sites such as the BBC and elsewhere have claimed the report proves that Britain’s broadband is “not fit” for the future,

In fact the study, carried out jointly by the Universities of Oxford and Oviedo, Spain, may have more serious implications. It suggests that initiatives such as Digital Britain may shape the future of the nation by simple choices such as whether to aim for coverage… or quality.

While governments tend to focus on the availability of broadband, quality is overlooked – and broadband quality may have a greater impact on a country’s competitive edge than simple penetration, according to the study.

“Penetration and quality have a different impact on socio-economic factors,” said Fernando Gil de Bernabé, a strategy director for Internet business solutions at Cisco, which sponsored the study. “Policy-makers need to make a decision based on that – and may have to choose between penetration or quality. ”

On the face of it, the UK didn’t do very well for an advanced economy. Britain’s “broadband quality score” (BQS) fell smack in the middle of the “good enough” sector, well behind countries like Latvia Lithuania and Romania, as well as well-known stars of broadband provision such as Sweden and Korea.

However, the study has an innate bias which de Bernabé acknowledges:it draws on broadband quality data gathered from the widely-used site speedtest.net. It is not a statistically-chosen sample, just a study of users who choose to check their speed at that site: “One of the limitations of this study is auto-selection,” he said to eWEEK Europe.

In some countries, an elite has leapfrogged

The high scores for Eastern European countries may simply reflect the fact that they are later arrivals to broadband, and are “leapfrogging” with newer technologies, he said. These countries may have a smaller penetration of broadband, with large parts of the country having little or no provision – but with some parts of the country having fast fibre-based broadband.

And the fact that countries with low broadband penetration scored so highly for quality is interesting in itself: “Broadband quality is not linked to penetration as you might you expect. That was an ‘Aha!’ moment for us,” he said.

The study is large enough to remove some fear of bias, he said: “The researchers said it is better not to touch the sample,” he explained. “It is mainly tech-aware people that take the test – but the moment you have 100,000 tests, all these things correct each other.”

The study includes 24 million tests, from 66 countries, and was analysed by researchers in Oviedo and at Oxford’s Said Business School. Speedtest measures upload speed, download speed, and latency (ping time), which de Bernabé argues make a good-enough measure of quality.