HURRY UP AND WAIT …

According to the latest international index published by Ookla, the company that measures all things broadband around the world, the UK (at just over 10Mbps) ranks 34th for average broadband download speeds.

Lithuania comes top, with an average of 33Mbps.  Romania, Latvia, Andorra and Iceland might all have rubbish football teams but in the Broadband World Cup, all finish above Britain’s home nations.   Even Luxemburg and Malta fare better.  I mentioned this to a mate over refreshments in the local pub.  “It’s embarrassing, Britain’s a world superpower. It’s not that long since Romania’s main export was orphans” he says.

Achieving ever-broader broadband is the space race of the 21st Century. National governments see it as a key defence against economic Armageddon. Policy makers view it as a leg up to both national and regional competitiveness, helping to attract and retain inward investment, to reverse the rise in the unemployment stats and to reduce carbon emissions.

Punters, meanwhile, who understand little about the technical or economic foundations of delivering superfast broadband, and care even less, demand unbridled, unmetered and unfettered access at a lowest possible price. The UK, incidentally, fares better in the Ookla ‘value for money’ stakes with only Luxemburg, Iceland and Denmark cheaper.

The good news for speed is that BT’s engineers are busying themselves rolling out fibre-based broadband to two thirds of homes and businesses in the UK.  This superfast service, BT claims, will soon deliver speeds of up to 300Mbps.  Where customers can access the Virgin Media network, they can enjoy high-speed access too.  Given time and continued investment, the current shortfall in fixed line speeds should get sorted for the metro-dwelling majority.  But the internet isn’t simply the preserve of townsfolk.

Operators can make fixed line broadband investments in densely populated cities and large towns with a reasonable expectation of getting their money back eventually.  But if you look out the window of your home, and the only living things you can see are cows enjoying the good life, the economics are less appealing.  That’s where wireless broadband has a critical part to play.  The lower cost of rolling out mobile internet access infrastructure across the rolling hills means the economics work better than for fixed line services.

3G mobile coverage is not bad today, but the download speeds it offers wouldn’t pass everyone’s dictionary definition of broadband.  But the boffins never rest and fourth generation mobile broadband, sometimes referred to as LTE or Long Term Evolution, could be the saviour of rural life.

Those in Finland getting Teliasonera’s LTE services today enjoy downloads at an average of 36.1Mbps, while in the US, Verizon’s 4G customers get around 6.5Mbps.  Of course, these are early days and as the number of end users on these new networks grows, that average speed could change.

But what about LTE services in the UK?  Well, here, the news is not so good.  The only trial underway involving real people is small scale and is being managed by BT and Everything Everywhere – they’ve set out to prove LTE’s application in remote areas of Cornwall and are using test spectrum, effectively that part of the airwaves that is being vacated by broadcasters as they say goodbye to analogue transmission for all things digital.

And spectrum, the airwaves necessary to carry higher speed mobile data signals, is the problem. A spectrum auction was scheduled for 2009, but squabbling among the existing operators caused delay.  The debate was really ignited by the current mobile network operators who are protecting their existing market positions, looking to build barriers to entry for others. Given how badly their balance sheets were burned in the 3G auctions, this is partly understandable, but no one forced them to play.

In July 2010, the UK Government said it would auction off the spectrum during 2011, with Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, Communications the Creative Industries, telling Ofcom, the regulator, to get on with it and co-ordinate the auction ‘as quickly as possible’. Given his position, you’d have though him a pretty influential stakeholder.

Disappointingly, Ofcom, whose main remit is to protect and enhance customer choice, said this week that the warring factions had come up with ‘strongly argued responses’ to its consultation. So it’s ordered another round of debate. As a result, it has delayed the auction plans again, saying it will now be the end of 2012 before any spectrum is sold.  I‘m not holding my breath.

This delay will no doubt please the lawyers and the lobbyists, but does little for those that live in rural Britain.  For many of them, it must feel like being shown the first motorcar, seeing how much faster and more useful it is than the traditional pony and trap, and then refusing to open the roads to a better life.

Whoever branded this new technology as Long Term Evolution must have had great insight into the machinations of how the mobile industry works in the UK.  While those in rural areas wait like children waiting for Santa Claus, it’s clear it’s going to be a long time before the 4G evolution arrives on these shores.  Maybe the right next step for them is to speak to an estate agent?

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