Just 20 years ago, in the average UK household, broadband internet speeds were simply unheard of. With the scratchy, high-pitched soundtrack of dial up connections still ringing in the ears of most households, speeds over and above 56k were beyond reach and even beyond the imagination for most internet users. For instance, unless you had a high-speed ISDN connection, a good quality homepage, simple by today’s standards, took an average of 90 seconds to download.
To put today’s speeds into perspective, the 56k modems of the late 90s were capable of data transfer of up 56 kilobits per second (Kbps); there are 1000 kilobits in a megabit, and the speed of today’s broadband is measured in megabits per second (Mbps). So 50Mbps is 50,000 kilobits per second, nearly a thousand times faster than the fastest pre-broadband land-line dial-up connections. With speeds of 100Mbps becoming more common, we are set to enjoy speeds 2000 times faster than the fastest home dial-up connection was at the turn of the century.
However, the blanket roll out of these speeds hasn’t been quite the revolution the government and experts were proposing seven years ago. With broadband connections being viewed more and more as a necessary utility as opposed to a luxury technology, governments across the world are aiming for broadband speeds of over 100Mbps for the majority of their citizens before 2025.
So, why are so many of us still struggling with speeds below that of our neighbours, both in the UK and internationally? Much of the reason is down to infrastructure. It was through luck more than anything else that when broadband was first mooted and the telephone line infrastructure that BT had laid throughout the 70s and 80s was considered for its potential to carry the extra data of broadband, it was actually found to have more than enough capacity. When the lines were laid, somebody at the design stage decided that it would be a good idea to have a double layered cable for the job. The central core was the copper line that would carry all our phone calls, but surrounding that was a thick vine of multiple copper wires that would not only provide greater protection for the central line, but would also be there in case the lines were needed for anything else in the future. Indeed, they were.
However, these lines do not cover the length and breadth of the UK and more remote areas still have telephone connections from the World War eras of the 20th century. Until this infrastructure is upgraded, or replaced, there are areas that still rely on slower speeds and even, unfathomably in 2017, 56k dial-up or 128k ISDN. It may sound incredible but there are still a small number of households that don’t have any internet access at all, although this is becoming decreasingly to do with infrastructure and more to do with social and human factors.
The relatively slow uptake of higher speed broadband isn’t just a problem in rural and outlying areas, though. To a lesser extent, big cities are also in the sights of Ofcom and the Government’s speed radar. Even some of the UK’s most major cities are suffering from a slow adoption of fast broadband. Vast swathes of greater London still can’t enjoy speeds of over 20mbps; this is well under the projected average speeds vaunted by the Government and outlined by Ofcom in 2010. In fact, Greater London’s speeds, on average, trail behind some surprisingly less famous cities and towns, including the likes of Harlow in Essex and Scunthorpe in Humberside.
There is now a concerted effort to shake up the state of the UK’s broadband, but the changes won’t be overnight. The Government and Ofcom are working towards the provision of at least 10Mbps download speeds for every single household in the UK by 2020 and for everybody to ultimately be able to enjoy speeds of over 100Mbps; although a concrete timeframe for that is conspicuous in its absence from the official government line. We’ll of course keep you updated on the progress of the UK’s broadband developments.