Consumer complacency in the face of Britain's deteriorating competitive position in broadband networking may affect government and network operators' plans to roll out high-speed broadband networks in future.
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British consumers are happy to chug along in the broadband slow lane even though they receive less than half the speed they pay for, Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, said last week.
But politicians are getting their fingers out. Prime minister Gordon Brown wants to use "super-fast" broadband to support the creation of "digital jobs". The Conservative Party believes high-speed broadband networks will help the "creative industries" to replace financial services and property development as drivers of economic growth.
How much government should do to support the roll-out of high-speed broadband is moot. Virgin Media is already spending "a few hundred million" to upgrade its cable TV network to deliver a 50Mbps service BT has said it will consider spending £1.5bn to upgrade its core network to provide at least 2Mbps nationally. Their main competitors, the mobile network operators, are mostly upgrading their infrastructure to support speeds faster than 384kbps. Local development agencies and town councils are putting in optical fibre networks to give citizens local access to high-speed networks. And all this is happening without extraordinary support, financial or otherwise, from government.
Stephen Carter's interim report on Digital Britain, which is expected to outline the government's plans to gee-up the "digital economy", is expected before the end of the month.
Late last year the Caio report to government said the state needed do nothing in the short term. It spoke of consumers' present relative satisfaction with the service they receive, but noted that the UK would fall behind over time.
It is already lagging. Jeremy Hunt, the shadow minister for culture, media and sport, last week quoted a study by the US-based Information Technology & Innovation Foundation that found Britain already came 21st out of 30 developed countries for broadband speeds. An OECD survey in 2007 found the UK 12th, way behind Japan and France, but just ahead of Germany and the US for advertised "headline" speeds.
Ofcom said last week, "Consumers on the most popular broadband headline speed package ('up to' 8Mbps) received an average actual throughput speed of 3.6Mbps (45% of headline speed), and they had an average maximum line speed of 4.5Mbps (56% of headline speed)," it said.
The results were published in the first comprehensive survey of broadband speeds that Ofcom commissioned from SamKnows, a specialist network speed firm.
The researchers found that speeds varied considerably between consumers: one in five on an "up to" 8Mbps package received an average speed of less than 2Mbps.
Even though more than a quarter of consumers said they were not getting the speed they expected, 83% said that overall, they were satisfied with their broadband service.
During the study period of 30 days from 23 October 2008, the national average of the actual throughput download speed received by panel members was 3.6Mbps.
But happiness depends on what consumers do on the internet. Ofcom said 93% of users were happy with broadband web browsing but much less happy with other types of internet use. Only 23% of internet audio listeners and 40% of those who watch or download full-length feature films said they were satisfied with their service.
Ofcom detected a general lack of understanding of the technical issues that influenced broadband speeds. More than a quarter of consumers did not know what headline speed they were paying for. Many did not know that the distance from their computer to the local exchange makes a big difference in the speed they can get.
This may have been why rural users were more unhappy. Their service was 13% lower on average than their urban counterparts. Even so, Ofcom said overall dissatisfaction with broadband was only just higher among rural users (12%) than among urban users (7%).
The time of day also affected speed. Across the UK, usage peaked and speeds were slowest (up to 30% in some cases) between 5pm and 6pm on Sunday.
Many broadband suppliers "shape" their traffic flows, ie, they manage their available bandwidth to maximise the number of users who can send and receive files at any time. This results in lower speeds to any single user.
Some internet service providers apply "contention ratios", which set the number of simultaneous users per megabyte of capacity. Some use 12:1 but a 10:1 is more common.
"Degradation caused by contention is also a driver of this difference in performance," it said.
Even fewer consumers were aware of the difference between upload and download speeds. Headline figures quoted by broadband suppliers are usually for downloads, but uploads could be less than one-tenth of the headline speed. For instance, Virgin Media's nominal upload speeds are 256, 512 and 786kbps for its 2, 10 and 20Mbps services respectively. Ofcom found that average upload speeds were close to advertised upload speeds, but these were way slower than advertised download speeds.
This is clearly a bottleneck for "creatives" who want to upload their videos or songs to websites, or those who want to use data archiving facilities now being offered "in the cloud".
As one industry expert told Hunt, his plan to replace national income from financial services with advertising, music and film making would not get off the ground unless super-fast broadband was "uncontended", in other words, until the advertised speed was the speed up and down the network.