Can British broadband really be as bad as new research suggests?
Relatively speaking, the last few years haven't been a great time to be British. Our economy has been battered harder than a bystander at a Dereck Chisora press conference, our one football team that made it to the 2010 World Cup lasted about as long as Adele's Brit Awards acceptance speech and, as if we needed a report to tell us, now we have the worst railways in Europe.
As if all that wasn't depressing enough, yesterday it was announced that broadband in Britain is, quite frankly, bobbins. According to research from price comparison website uSwitch.com, almost half of the UK's postcodes get broadband speeds slower than the national average - 6.7Mb by uSwitch's reckoning, compared to 7.6Mb by that of Ofcom, the communications regulator.
However, perhaps the most surprising statistic provided by the data is that a fair few of the UK's larger towns and cities are getting broadband speeds far slower than average, despite cash being poured into boosting the country's broadband by providers like BT (www.BT.com) and Virgin Media (www.Virginmedia.com).
It's surprising because broadband speed in Britain's larger towns and cities hasn't been a problem to the same extent as in rural areas - the high number of people living in a relatively small, built-up area makes it cost-effective for broadband providers to upgrade their infrastructure there, not to mention the majority of homes not being are not far from a telephone exchange.
Problems usually arise in the countryside and other places where far fewer people live - they are likely to be further from their local exchange, which slows down the speeds. Providers are reluctant to throw money into upgrading their infrastructure in areas where there won't be enough customers for them to make their money back. This leaves many living in less populated areas with broadband speeds that struggle to cope with the modern internet.
Over to Julia Stent, director of telecoms at uSwitch.com: "What's really surprising is the number of cities and towns such as Hereford and Carlisle that are suffering from slow broadband speeds, dispelling the view that it's just rural areas and small towns that have issues with their broadband."
So, is Britain really in the digital dark ages? Is it really possible that some of our larger towns and cities can't get the bandwidth needed to watch a movie the same night as it begins downloading?
A closer look at how the research was conducted can shed some light on whether broadband speeds in these towns and cities are as bad as they seem at first glance. uSwitch.com analysed speed tests in over 92% of the UK's 3,000-plus postcode districts, which are identified by a single or double letter followed by a number between 0 and 99, like NR1, for example.
Without delving too deeply into the mechanics of our postal service, postcode districts are grouped into post towns, usually based upon the location of the delivery offices. So, the postcode districts for Hereford as a post town are HR1, HR2, HR3 and HR4. It was speed tests from these postcode districts that were used to ascertain that Hereford is the city with the slowest average broadband speed in the UK.
However, the area Hereford covers as a post town is very different from the area it covers as a city. HR1-HR4 is a very large area in comparison to Hereford the city, and much of it covers the countryside - HR2 alone almost stretches to Brecon Beacons. The same applies to the postcode districts used to calculate the average broadband speed of the second and third slowest cities, Kilmarnock and Carlisle, with the latter's CA6 actually taking in a small part of Kielder Forest Park.
With a substantial proportion of the speed tests used to work out the average broadband speeds of these towns and cities likely to have been conducted by those living in rural areas, where speeds are usually much slower, it could be argued that the results paint a far bleaker picture of broadband speeds in our urban areas than is actually the case. If the results were based on postcode sector, like NR1 1 or even full postcodes, NR1 1JE, for example, it is possible that they would more accurately portray the average broadband speeds of our towns and cities as the influence of the often far slower broadband speeds experienced in rural areas would be removed.
Black and white
Broadbandchoices.co.uk welcomes anything that shines a light on the speed issues that many broadband users have to put up with - those living with speeds of less than 2Mb endure a miserable broadband experience whether they live in the middle of London or in the Outer Hebrides.
However, if the speed of British broadband is portrayed as being worse than it is, the danger is that the spotlight will be dragged away from the debate on how the government and broadband providers are going to supply decent broadband speeds to areas most lacking - namely those in the countryside.
Of course, this is not to say that the government and the providers couldn't and shouldn't be doing more. As the uSwitch.com research shows, the three worst broadband blackspots in Britain are small, isolated, sparsely populated areas - Winchelsea (nearest city Canterbury - 39 miles drive away), Menstrie (nearest major city Glasgow - 33 miles drive) and Askam in Furness, (nearest city Lancaster - 45 miles drive).
And, going by Broadbandchoices.co.ukbroadband postcode checker, it is the distance from a major urban area that matters most of the time when it comes to broadband speeds, especially the availability of superfast broadband.
For example, those living in Bath can get fibre optic broadband packages. However, those in Carlisle, which has a larger population but is much further away from other large towns and cities, have to make do with ADSL, or copper wire, broadband.
The same goes for Lichfield, where residents can get up to 100Mb broadband, while those in the comparatively isolated Hereford can only get a maximum of 20Mb, despite almost twice as many people living there.
So it could be said the likes of Carlisle and Hereford are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to broadband speeds in Britain's larger towns and cities. They have more in common broadband-wise with countryside communities due to being remote and sparsely-populated enough to be stuck with speeds so slow they can't even watch YouTube videos of cats DJ-ing.
Don't stop 'til you get enough
As Stent said: "Too many people do not appear to be enjoying superfast speeds because faster services are not available in their area yet. It's also likely that many aren't aware of what services and packages they can get or simply can't get have it because the prices are out of reach."
These are sentiments that Broadbandchoices.co.uk strongly agrees with, yet they can be approached from both a glass half-empty and a glass half-full point of view.
While many around the country are not yet able to access superfast broadband (defined by Ofcom as being over 24Mb broadband) and beyond, it is in the pipeline for many. BT announced in November last year that it was accelerating its fibre roll-out programme to cover two-thirds of the UK by 2014, one year earlier than planned, while Virgin Media plans to deliver its 100Mb service across its cable network, which covers around half of the UK, by the middle of this year. Sky (www.Sky.com) will begin to offer superfast broadband this year too.
Indeed, many broadband users are not aware of the options available to them, and some prices may be out of their reach, but it could be argued that giving them the impression that improving the service they get or paying less is beyond their influence will not encourage them to find out what those options are.
Instead of waiting for both the government and providers to get their act together and bring decent speeds to us, users can establish what speed they are actually getting by using a broadband speed checker. If it's too slow for their needs they can consider switching provider by comparing packages or look into ways they can boost their internet speed from their end. If that doesn't do the trick, then there are a number of other steps that can be taken to tackle slow broadband, including taking legal action against their provider.
Now who's bad?