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UK At ‘Back Of Pack’ For Broadband

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

BT’s ex CTO says the UK is being left behind in the next global industrial revolution

A stark warning by a former BT executive has been issued about the lack of government investment into UK broadband.

Former BT chief technology officer Peter Cochrane told a House of Lords inquiry into the national broadband strategy that the government’s broadband plans are not sufficiently funded or ambitious enough.

Poor aspirations

Cochrane told the inquiry the UK must be prepared to invest £15bn more in broadband to avoid being “frozen out of the next industrial revolution”, according to the Guardian newspaper.

Cochrane’s credentials make his input into the national broadband debate noteworthy. He was CTO at BT until 2000 and pioneered the arrival of broadband in this country.

He remains deeply unimpressed with the government’s vow to create the “best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015”. In May 2011, the government revealed it was seeking to achieve download speeds of 24Mbps for 90 percent of the UK’s 25 million households, but the remaining homes will be left to languish in the broadband slow lane, receiving a minimum of 2Mbps.

“20Mbps is not superfast – it’s super slow. It’s a candle, while the rest of the world is using the light bulb,” Cochrane said.

Many experts at the House Of Lords inquiry expressed their concern at the state of the UK’s broadband network, worrying it will be left behind global competitors. The cities of Paris and Moscow are planning to install fibre cables directly into millions of homes (FTTP) to deliver speeds of 100-1,000Mbps, said the Guardian. The UK in comparison has a paltry amount of FTTP connections, with just 250,000 homes and blocks of flats in the UK wired up to FTTP, out of a population of 62 million, according to data from the FTTH Council Europe.

By contrast France has fibre to 6.3m homes, out of a population of 66 million. Russia’s fibre network has reached nearly 16m homes out of a population of 143 million. Out of 39 European countries, only Estonia has fibre to fewer homes, with 210,000 having access, but this is out of a population of 1.3 million.

More investment

BT  has pledged to invest £2.5 billion in fibre-based broadband to cover two-thirds of UK premises by the end of 2015.

The government, meanwhile, is hoping its £530 million Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) pot will help bring fibre to the remaining third of the UK. The first BDUK deals are expected to be announced in the coming weeks.

This BDUK pot will see a further £300m invested after 2015, and an extra £100m will be added for high-speed fixed and mobile internet in 10 cities, including London, Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

BT has apparently committed to match the £830m total government funding, and councils will be asked to do the same, which could bring the total UK investment in rural broadband to £2.5bn.

Back of the pack

Cochrane said this £2.5bn allocated to rural services is not simply enough, as industry estimates put the cost of bringing fibre to every household in the UK at up to £15bn.

“True high-speed, unlimited access to the social, economic and democratic benefits the internet brings is a fundamental human right,” he told the Lords communication committee. “In terms of broadband, the UK is at the back of the pack. We’re beat by almost every other European country and Asia leaves us for dust,” he said.

“The great decline in our relative global position has saddened me over the years and we need to invest at least £15bn to redress this now,” he said.

The UK ranks 15th in the global league of countries with the fastest advertised speeds, published by the OECD in September 2011.

BT statement

But BT has hit back at this, calling Cochrane’s comment overly negative.

“Peter Cochrane has taken an unnecessarily negative view of the UK broadband market and where it is heading,” BT told TWE. “The fact is that the UK is doing well with very high availability of broadband, intense competition, low prices, high take up and ever increasing speeds. In fact, just yesterday the Boston Consulting Group praised the UK as being the ‘most internet-based major economy‘.

“Cochrane criticises the government’s ‘aspirations’ but fails to note that BT is set to smash these and deliver much faster speeds,” said BT. “The guidelines might be 24Mbps to 90 percent of the UK but BT will soon be offering FTTC speeds of up to 80Mbps and next year FTTP – offering speeds of up to 300Mbps – will be available on demand in the whole of our fibre footprint.

“This footprint will increase to cover around two-thirds of UK premises by the end of 2014 and we believe that if government funds are spent wisely, that footprint could cover more than 90 percent of premises in a few years,” said BT. “The UK will not be ‘frozen out’ of the next industrial revolution. It will be at the forefront thanks to BT’s multi-billion pound investment.”

Yet large numbers of households in rural and semi-rural areas look set to be left in the broadband slow lane for the time being. In December, the Countryside Alliance warned of the growing digital divide when it said there had been a “underwhelming” amount of progress in rolling out superfast broadband in rural areas.

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