Finish the job - and make it fast
IT WAS ALL GOING to be so wonderful by now. In the late 90s we were told that broadband would arrive soon and we would be able to put an end to the ‘world wide wait’. We would be able to log on to exclusive streamed TV events, conduct videoconferences and download massive movie files.
Well, here we are in 2004 and BT has announced what it claims to be a breakthrough. By the middle of 2005 it promises close to 97.8 per cent of the UK population will have access to low-cost broadband services. BT is scrapping the ‘trigger scheme’ which required 500 people to sign up before an exchange is converted to ADSL and will just convert most of them anyway.
It’s not quite so great here in Scotland, where around 20 per cent of the population will still not be able to get access to broad band. Either they will be in one of the few smaller exchanges, like Leitholm or Westruther, which are still to be excluded, or they will be one of the considerably larger group of people — like myself — who are more than six kilometres from their local exchange. And I’m not exactly remote — I’m located on an 'A' road, only one kilometre from the Edinburgh by-pass.
However, the penetration figure that BT is really concerned about is the take-up of broadband by its customers. Only 8 per cent of Scots, on average, have signed up — in Glasgow the figure is under 5 per cent. We languish at the bottom of the broadband penetration table among OECD countries.
Up at the top of the league are Hong Kong and South Korea. In South Korea over 70 per cent of the population is connected to a broadband service. So why the difference?
The short answer is that in the Far East broadband actually means genuine broadband. Unlike in the UK where some suppliers try to label 256kbit/sec as broadband, in South Korea and Japan 10Mbit/sec is seen as minimum level of service and 45Mbit/sec is quite normal.
The difference is highly significant. With access at 512kbit/sec — the standard broadband ADSL service in the UK — the benefits are pretty limited. Downloading large files takes less time — and that’s about it! For most adults, that is the folk who actually pay the bills, saving little Johnny some time in down loading his music files is not seen to be worth the extra cost.
With services at 10 Mbit/sec or more, the broadband experience is transformed. High-quality streaming video becomes easy to access; major sporting events can be watched; exclusive concerts can be accessed and even videoconferencing becomes a doddle. It opens up the provision of truly revolutionary services, such as online medical consultations, or access at any time to high-quality education services.
So, although BT claims it is achieving provision and cost levels comparable to other leading economies, in practice we continue to fall behind in the supply of 'proper' broadband’ — meaning 10 Mbit/sec and higher. Economies such as South Korea and Japan are powering ahead in the development of new products and services.
Now that we seem to have the roll-out of ADSL services sorted, we need to concentrate on the next goal — to convert our ‘broadband’ users into ‘real’ broadband users running at decent speeds. Then we might be able to compete properly in the 21st century.