You may remember the riots in London last year following the police shooting of Mark Duggan (bringing to mind shades of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles nearly 20 years earlier). At the time, rioters were thought to be communicating and coordinating via wireless networks, namely BlackBerry Mobile and Twitter. At some point there was a major international hubbub surrounding the suggestion by the British government that social networks be shut down (a tactic that enraged world leaders and freedom-of-information activists earlier in the year when it was pulled in Egypt). Apparently they thought better of it, but the point is that we are living in an age of unparalleled opportunity for communication, and the bad comes with the good. In Britain in particular, the “good” is that the online arena generates a huge amount of capital. But if the country doesn’t find a better way to offer broadband service, they could soon find forward progress in this area halted.
Amongst European countries, Britain’s download speed, on average, has been ranked at sixteen (according to a list populated by tech company Akami). This could be due to their internet infrastructure, which still relies upon the outdated copper connections supplies by BT Group, one of the leading providers for telephone and internet services in the United Kingdom. These days, most countries have made the switch to fiber optic cables as a means of transmitting data. While BT is currently working to convert parts of their system to fiber optic cabling, taking it as far as street level, old copper telephone wires still amount for the portion of the connection that reaches consumer homes, meaning that no matter how fast the majority of the broadband is, it definitely gets slowed up as it reaches individual homes.
This is already a problem for the country and it only looks to get worse. According to BT’s former CTO, Peter Cochran, the situation is bleak, with countries in not only Europe, but also Asia beating out Britain in terms of broadband speed. He even went so far as to say that, “Britain is being frozen out of the next industrial revolution.” And he’s not kidding. Copper wiring can only transmit data at a speed of about 80 Mbps. Fiber optic cable, on the other hand, can offer speeds that start at 1,000 Mbps. So it’s no wonder that broadband consumers in the UK are at the back of the pack. They say a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and copper wiring is clearly that link when it comes to data transfer.
Part of the problem is that the government simply isn’t committing adequate funds to overhauling this system, despite the fact that it is listed amongst the top five infrastructure issues facing the country. Whereas China has devoted the equivalent of £7 billion to the same task, and Australia has vowed to bring fiber optic cable to 93% of homes by 2018 (a task that would cost approximately £29 billion in the UK), British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has only committed £1.3 billion to such upgrades (out of a possible £200 billion earmarked for use on infrastructure problems, including transportation, energy, and so on). They ought to just turn the task over to Virgin TV, Mobile, and Media mogul Richard Branson. Since BT seems incapable of getting the job done, perhaps Britain’s own media maverick could do a better job. At this point, anyone could do a better job.