Being old and gnarly, I remember the way that I, as a Brit, could look down my nose at the Yanks during the late 1990s as our fully integrated mobile telephone system, stretching across the whole of the European continent was so modern. It made the US’ approach — having to tell a provider that you were going to San Francisco from New York for a few days, and would it be OK if you could possibly use your phone while you were down there? — look so ancient. OK, so the US has caught up now, but there do seem to be problems in both our cases of providing an internet that supports our commercial needs; problems that may slightly echo what went before.
The UK was pretty good when it came to putting in WiFi, but then went all expensive on it, and it has been eclipsed when it comes to how cheap it is to gain effective WiFi access in hotels or out on the streets. In the UK, expect to pay — in the US, expect it to be free (and complain like mad if a hotel tries to charge).
At the basic broadband level, the UK was an early adopter of fiber, rolling out mile upon mile down streets for future use. The future didn’t seem to come; much of the fiber remained unused, and for more than a while we struggled along with aging copper from the exchange to the cabinet and from there to the home. Speeds of above 2Mb/s were pretty much unheard of, but providers tried to call it “superfast” broadband. Meanwhile, the likes of the Netherlands were putting fiber in — and using it — and getting speeds of above 10Mb/s.
Now, as the UK finally figures out the value of fiber, if only fiber to the cabinet, we are getting speeds of “up to” 40Mb/s — and that “up to” is a bone of contention. More accurately, it is contention that is the problem. Providers are sharing data lines, and at peak periods, users are getting only a fraction of their “up to” speeds.
Where does this leave us? Well, those countries that had little infrastructure in the past and have recently joined the European Union have been using the inward investment to improve their speeds. According to Akamai, real-world figures show that the UK has managed to climb to the dizzy heights of 6.3Mb/s, while Romania was marginally ahead on 6.4Mb/s.
Other countries have chosen to carry out wholesale upgrades to their systems and are ahead — even if only slightly — of the UK. Ireland and Belgium are on 6.7Mb/s; Sweden on 6.8Mb/s and the Netherlands on 8.5Mb/s.
The US is on 7.2Mb/s, but it is the eastern countries that are truly leaving us behind. Japan is on 10.5Mb/s, South Korea on 14.7Mb/s and Hong Kong on 54Mb/s — or over 8 times as fast as the UK.
Can the UK play leapfrog and be a world leader? Current activity points to a “no” on this — 4G licences have only just been auctioned, leaving the UK in the slow lane for high-speed wireless adoption. The current roll-out of truly fast wired broadband looks like the UK will remain behind the pack and way off from the front runners for wired speeds.
In a global economy, internet access and the effectiveness of it is not a local thing — the UK has to be able to play with the big boys and show that it is a place to come and be at least as good as the rest of the world for connectivity and overall performance. Sure, business-to-business connectivity is relatively good, but it is the distributed workforce that provides the engine for the organizations, and the consumers that put the money into the businesses through their purchasing activities. Where the experience is poor, both will start to look elsewhere, to companies and retail outlets in other countries.
We need better connectivity. The worry is that on the connectivity superhighway, the UK could be the toad hopping across the road, getting squashed by those leapfrogging along it.