Second best

Virtual Consumer column from Ethical Consumer magazine Jul-Aug 2013

The Internet has been around for a long time - Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn defined the ‘TCP/IP’ standard in 1975 and Tim Berners-Lee devised the world wide web in 1990. But the big disruptive inventions like Wikipedia, Youtube, file sharing and the explosion of social media didn’t take off until this century. That’s because broadband, and more recently 3G smartphones, have made using the Internet straightforward. You could say that the Internet is the driver of change, but broadband has been the catalyst. It’s a bit like the industrial revolution, already well under way by the 1780s, but requiring developments in steam power to take off.

For some years now, people in the Internet industry have been aware that another step change is coming: the replacement of copper with fibre optic networks. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this is already well underway in the UK: BT and Virgin Media both promote ‘fibre optic’ services. But neither company is doing much to bring about the really big change, when fibre optic cables are brought all the way into homes and businesses. In fact, compared with countries like Sweden and Japan, the UK is lagging badly, not even in the top 30. One reason for this is that governments and local authorities in places like Australia, Sweden, France and even the USA, have been investing in fibre.

In 2010 the new government apparently decided to play catch up by announcing funding to give the UK the “best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015”. Cynics pointed out that this all depends on what you mean by ‘best’, or ‘superfast’, or indeed ‘Europe’ (and for that matter ‘2015’). The cynics were proved right. EU ‘state aid’ rules require governments to ensure there is a fair competition to build new infrastructure which should then be open for different companies to use. But the UK government decided to fund improved infrastructure in rural areas by asking operators to bid for a subsidy to develop their existing services. No one was very surprised when in the end, only one operator - BT - was left in the running to get this subsidy, using its existing copper network with just a dash of added fibre. The EU agreed but was not impressed. When the government said it wanted to use the same procedure to promote ‘ultrafast’ broadband in cities, the EU wanted evidence that this time there would be real competition. So now the UK government is claiming that it can’t proceed because of EU obstruction. Meanwhile, in the rest of the EU, governments and local authorities are getting on with the job of building new fibre infrastructure that is open for any operator to use.