Friday, 28 September 2012

OT: the broadband problem

This is totally off topic – but my excuse is that it was prompted by a piece by Mike Johnson in the Online Photographer (scroll down to the heading marked @#$!). He commented that owing to lack of competition in his area of rural Wisconsin, he is unable to obtain broadband with a speed greater than 7 Mb per second. He attributed this entirely to lack of competition: apparently in his area a 20 Mb connection should be available, but his service provider chooses not to make it so because of lack of competition.

Rural Wisconsin and rural Kent clearly have similar problems – but I think Kent may even have it worse. I am in the fortunate position of living close enough to a major town which Virgin Media uses as a testing platform: this means I have access to a fast fibre-optic connection. I was working at home the other day and had occasion to download a large sequence database, and was slightly surprised how quickly it came down. Just out of interest, I ran a broadband speed test to see what our connection actually is. It came out at 64 Mb per second: 4 Mb per second faster than Virgin advertise. Major kudos to Virgin for this. (Having said that, my upload speed is still only about 2 Mb per second, which is a bit pathetic in the context).

The contrast with people who live only a few miles further out into the countryside is simply staggering. Phil, who lives pretty close to the beaten track, says that his broadband, which is delivered over copper wire, is so slow that he cannot watch YouTube videos. Graham (Flickr:NaCl1) says that in his village (again very close to the beaten track, and only just off the A20) he gets 3 Mb per second. He feels he's doing quite well: someone not far away who just happens to live a bit further from the local exchange can only manage 1 Mb per second.

This is bonkers. To have a difference of about 64x in broadband speeds within a few miles makes a mockery of the national policy to make Britain connected. It makes the difference between work being possible and frustratingly impossible. But since the national target is to have a minimum of 2 Mb/sec for the whole population in 2015 (see point 8 in the Excutive Summary in the Britain's Superfast Broadband BIS document), it is not clear that local villages around here will get much of an improvement anyhow. And we're only 60 miles from London - scarcely the trackless wilds.

In the US, apparently the speed differential between those with the best connections and everyone else arises because regulation has been captured by the service providers, who have arranged it so that their business model benefits from providing slow Internet at high prices. It has got so bad in the US that Woz has decided to take Australian citizenship, in part because he is so impressed with the program to improve connectivity within Australia.

I heard an interview with a government minister a few weeks ago talking about broadband and how they were so keen to get fast connections around the country. But there was an extraordinary air of complacency in the way he was discussing it. Most people, he opined, could get programs on the BBC iPlayer, and that was all that most people needed. The concept that this is all people need is dotty, and reveals extraordinarily low ambition: I know I am probably the exception in working with large molecular biology databases at home, and using remote servers quite intensively, but I'm sure I'm not unique in my need for fast connections. There must be many small businesses that simply cannot locate to or prosper in our villages because of the snail-like properties of their broadband. There is now a widely reported concern that taxpayers' subsidies to improve broadband connections in rural areas are being so hoovered up by one company that in effect another monopoly is being created - and monopolies are the enemy of getting good broadband speed.

For photographers, a slow broadband connection is just a pain. I use Proam Imaging for my photographic printing (highly recommended), and usually upload something like a 200 MB zip archive of images to be printed. My upload speed at 2 Mb per second is pretty slow, but even so it is practical to do this on a fairly regular basis. If your Internet connection is 64x slower, this would be a serious pain.

But if everyone in the UK is to prosper, we need a proper competitive broadband infrastructure, so that bizarre differences in access to internet services don't remain endemic, to everyone's detriment.

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