Thursday, March 08, 2012

Fast global broadband still a long way off

In this ever more connected world, the creation of a presence on the Internet and the speed by which an individual, company or news organisation is becoming all the more important.

By not having an Internet site companies lose potential consumers. Even those with a website can fail in their marketing strategy by ignoring SEO [Search Engine Optimisation] and using tools to increase their turnover and profitability. But even when companies are aware of the importance of online marketing, many are losing out because of poor Internet speeds.

While many cities in the world offer consumers fast broadband, those who live in more remote regions are finding themselves unable to compete because of slow connections or are cut off from the information super highway altogether.

Cities ahead of rural areas

In cities like London broadband is readily available with companies such as Virgin Media offering speeds of up to 100 Mbps. While most opt for connections of around 10 Mbps, this is a distant dream for those living further away from the capital.

Virgin's fast network extends across many parts of the country but is mainly confined to large towns and cities. BT also competes with Virgin in these areas, providing speeds of up to 40 Mbps. But step into the countryside and the small towns and villages and consumers will be lucky to get speeds of 2 Mbps, though much of the country remains in the digital dark ages with speeds under 500 kbps.

Mobile Internet

One option is to access the Internet through 3G mobile connections, though with speeds of up to 200 kbps, it is still not entirely satisfactory especially given that many networks have a limit of the amount of data that can be used [compare3gmobilebroadband].

The speeds now on offer are much better than a few years ago. In the late 1990s most people in Britain were still on dial-up connections giving little more than 46 kbps. Mobile data conections too have improved. At the turn of the millennium that maximum speed available through a mobile phone connected to a laptop was around 9.6 kbps. In 2000 Nokia released the RPM-1Q data card which gave speeds of 28 kbps, but decent connectivity did not come until data cards and dongles surfaced a few years later offering 3G speeds.

But while the mobile networks have expanded and become faster, in rural Britain fixed Internet connections are not much improved from a decade ago. Many people are still using dial-up, and even where broadband is available it can be slow [Interactive map].

Government initiatives

The government and Internet service providers say they are committed to improving the situation, but it isn't fast enough for some.

Wales has some of the lowest saturation for broadband and business owners say they are suffering because of it.  Only 33% of businesses in Wales have access to sell goods and services online compared to the UK average of 39%. It is something that the government wants to redress. Speaking at a meeting in Cardiff, Business Minister Edwina Hart said the Welsh government was working with the Internet company Google to help small businesses "access new markets".

"By working with Google on this exciting initiative, we will be helping and educating many of these small businesses to access the type of support and advice they need to access new markets and opportunities to reach new Internet customers across the UK and beyond," she said.

Google's UK managing director Dan Cobley said, "We want Welsh businesses of all sizes to understand the importance of the Internet and how easy it is to get online and contribute to the economic growth of the Welsh economy."

But even those who recognise the importance of an online presence, say there are obstacles. Kevin Sweet who sells cider and preserves from his small Welsh village speaks of constant frustration with trying to use the Internet. Even accessing email is a challenge. "It's just waiting, waiting, waiting," he says, "And time is money when you run a small business."

Edwina Hart says she is looking to the business sector to help improve broadband in rural areas, but while the need exists for companies like BT and Virgin it is simply not cost effective to roll out the infrastructure [BBC].

Rural 'not spots'

But it's not just Wales. A recent survey carried out by uSwitch showed that many places in rural England also suffered from poor connectivity. On tests carried out over the last 6 months in Northumberland many people had connctions slower than 1.6 Mbps. However the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), say the slowest connections recorded in the survey are faster than many farms, rural businesses and homes can achieve in Northumberland.

Douglas Chalmers, from the CLA said, "The slowest connection speed recorded in this survey was 1.1 Mbps, but even this is faster than many of our members can achieve. Quoting these figures simply disguises the real digital deprivation in some of our communities."

"The government encourages us to fill in tax returns online because it's more cost effective for them and schools to do homework online. These are only possible if homes and businesses have a good broadband connection." [NewsGuardian]

4G offers hope

There may be some hope as 4G networks are rolled out. Ofcom has revised proposals for its fourth-generation mobile spectrum auction, adding measures that could bring coverage to 98% of the UK. The regulator says the winning bidder will have to provide the high-speed coverage to current "not-spot" areas.

"We are proposing a significant enhancement of mobile broadband, extending 4G coverage beyond levels of existing 2G coverage, helping to serve many areas of the UK that have traditionally been underserved by network coverage," says Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards [BBC].

There are more than 3 million homes and businesses with access to speeds less than 2 Mbps according to a survey carried out 3 years ago [BBC], and things have not much improved.

With 4G allocation and bidding set for later this year, it will be some time before the new technology, which offers very high speeds of up to 100 Mbps, will be offered to consumers. It also remains to be seen whether it will be cost prohibitive for both consumers and providers. Even 3G providers charge far more than fixed line connections, and so while 4G promises better access it may be too costly for those who need it most.

Global 'not spots'

The situation in Britain is a microcosm of a worldwide situation. Beyond the UK borders the challenge to reach rural areas also exists. Even in Japan where 4G is commonplace, rural areas still have much slower Internet connectivity than cities and large towns. Larger countries are more likely to see 'not spots'. Even developed countries have large areas where Internet access is patchy at best. Australia's broadband network is mainly confined to coastal areas [map] though there are plans to improve it [BBC]. The US also has large areas where broadband Internet is unavailable [map].

Japan is still the world leader when it comes to connecting homes to a fibre-optic network and speeds can be as much as 1 Gbps. More than 13.2 million homes in Japan are linked to fibre optic broadband, followed by the United States at around 6.05 million and the People's Republic of China where some 5.96 million have fibre optic broadband access [BBC].

It is clear that 4G, if rolled out everywhere, will offer true connectivity everywhere. But given there are still dead zones for normal mobile coverage, even in developed countries, it is likely that until satellite Internet access is freely and cheaply available there will still be many 'not spots' for a long time to come.
[Broadband World Map - BBC / CNN].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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