What has 24 mbps to do with the fastest broadband in Europe by 2015?

The press reports of the speech delivered yesterday by the Jeremy Hunt at Google’s new complex are intriguing. So too is the script released by DCMS. I remain puzzled as to why DCMS defines Superfast Boardband as 24 and not 30 mbps (as across the rest of the EU). I am told that this was to do with technical constraints on BTs networks in some of the target rural areas. If that is correct, then it is little wonder the Commission sees the BDUK framework as state aid for an incumbent supplier to install dead-end solutions.

However, the post-Olympic situation, as predicted when I blogged on the “real” BDUK strategy, is very much more positive. The UK may yet have the fastest broadband in Europe by 2015, overtaking those currently well ahead of us. If so, it will be based on almost ubiquitous 50 – 100 mbps and rather more public money will have flowed through the PSN frameworks than those of BDUK.

It is worth taking a look at UK progress against targets in the context of the Commission working papers as well as reports of delivery where the OECD figures (based on advertised speeds) show the UK to be 16th in Europe while the Akamai figures, (based on measurements of actuals) show us 15th. However Akamai indicates that average delivered speeds have grown by a global average of 25% over the past year with the fastest incrases being in Scandinavia at 38 – 39%. about the same time Ofcom reported that UK speeds had risen 20% over the past 6 months. I anticipate a further sharp jolt as BT Inifinity is actively promoted to all whose whose exchanges were upgraded during the run-up to the Olympics.

This will, however, also show that the nominal speed of the last mile is only one factor in the user experience. For example, I have noticed a deterioration in website availability and response over recent months even as the nominal line speeds on my two main broadband connections have increased. I suspect it is largely the effect of the various levels of “security bloatware” installed by my ISPs and/or operating systems and browser providers. But it may also be because many ISPs have failed to upgrade their capacity to handle increasing volumes of traffic. Meanwhile, like my son, I am increasingly accessing the Internet over a variety of  mobiles.

So who will actually bring the fastest broadband in Europe to the UK, for business as well as for consumers. And what is the role, if any, of DCMS and Ofcom?            

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At this point it is as well to remind ourselves who actually owns, maintains and operates the converging UK telecommunications infrastructures, fixed and mobile, terestrial and satellite, wayleaves, ducts, cables, masts, transmitters, switches. It is not just BT and Virgin. Vodafone recently took over Cable & Wireless and has agreed an infrastructure sharing deal with O2. Everything Everywhere has just been given permission to roll out 4G without waiting for the auction of new spectrum. Meanwhile Arqiva dominates the broadcast and mobile radio transmission infrastructure even more than BT Openreach dominates the local loop.

We should, howvrer, add in the many networks serving the gas, electricity and water utilities, National Rail, the Department of Transport (NIRTS), Local Government (including traffic control, surveillance, police and emergency as well as mainstream service delivery) and the Health Service and education system, from research centres and Universities to Schools.  It gets even more interesting when we look at who actually builds and maintains the infrastructures and installed cables and equipment (even when these are part of BT “run” networks): from players like Alcatel Lucent, Babcock, CISCO and Fujitsu through Juniper, Magdalene and May Gurney to Thales et al.    

Now let us take a look at those wishing to investing in UK infrastructures, such as Citigroup and Macquarrie (via organisations such as Airwave and Arqiva or City Fibre) or the various players (including Canadian Pension Funds and Middle Eastern investors) whose eventually walked away from the Cornish tender and the subsequent BDUK framework negotations as they realised that they and their partners would not be allowed a level playing field.

Here Jeremy Hunt’s script was more encouraging because he acknowledged that Fibre to the Cabinet was only a “temporary stepping stone”.        

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