Stuart Breckenridge

On the State of U.K. Broadband Infrastructure

As we wrap up this three month beta testing cycle for iOS 10, watchOS 3, and macOS Sierra, I estimate I’ve downloaded roughly 50GB across iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac devices. I would also estimate that it’s taken, collectively, around an hour to download all that data on my 100Mbps cable connection. These beta cycles constantly remind me of when I lived in the U.K. and had an 8Mbps (best case (i.e. never)) copper connection. An iOS beta would take up to four hours to download.

It turns out that the U.K. was very nearly going to go all in on fibre in the early 90s, until the Conservative government put an end to the process.

Jay McGregor, writing for TechRadar:

The story actually begins in the 70s when Dr Cochrane was working as BT’s Chief Technology Officer, a position he’d climbed up to from engineer some years earlier.

[…]

He was asked to do a report on the U.K.’s future of digital communication and what was needed to move forward.

“In 1979 I presented my results,” he tells us, “and the conclusion was to forget about copper and get into fibre. So BT started a massive effort - that spanned in six years - involving thousands of people to both digitise the network and to put fibre everywhere. The country had more fibre per capita than any other nation.

But, in 1990, then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, decided that BT’s rapid and extensive rollout of fibre optic broadband was anti-competitive and held a monopoly on a technology and service that no other telecom company could do.

“Unfortunately, the Thatcher government decided that it wanted the American cable companies providing the same service to increase competition. So the decision was made to close down the local loop roll out and in 1991 that roll out was stopped. The two factories that BT had built to build fibre related components were sold to Fujitsu and HP, the assets were stripped and the expertise was shipped out to South East Asia.

“Our colleagues in Korea and Japan, who were working with quite closely at the time, stood back and looked at what happened to us in amazement. What was pivotal was that they carried on with their respective fibre rollouts. And, well, the rest is history as they say.

In this particular instance, Thatcher et al. had the collective foresight of a gazelle. The TechRadar article goes on to cover the U.S., where a similar decision was made to split AT&T, which inevitably hindered the rollout of fibre.

Indeed, reviewing Akamai’s State of the Internet[PDF] report for Q4 2015, the U.K. and the U.S. don’t feature in the top 10 for Global Average Connection Speeds:

Country Q4 2015 Avg. Mbps
South Korea 26.7
Sweden 19.1
Norway 18.1
Japan 17.4
Netherlands 17.0
Hong Kong 16.8
Latvia 16.7
Switzerland 16.7
Finland 16.6
Denmark 16.1

Seriously short-sighted decision making.


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