Labour & Coalition MPs clash over flagging UK internet
17th May 2012 | 10:15
ANALYSIS: T3 grills Government MPs about the state of the UK internet, and our lack of 4G
The state of the internet in the UK is a source of much frustration to many Britons, many of whom feel they are not getting the speeds they are paying for – particularly in rural or suburban areas which tend to lag behind the speeds available to those in major cities.
While the Coalition and Labour seem to agree on the importance of a better internet in the UK, they disagree on how much progress is being made.
The Government’s Communications Minister Ed Vaizey told T3: “The Internet has revolutionised our lives by creating a vast new world of communication and entertainment. It is essential for the UK economy that businesses have proper Internet access.
He went on to say: “Private companies will take superfast broadband to around two thirds of the UK. But the Government will not allow a third of the country to be left behind struggling with dial-up speed Internet access.
"That is why we are investing £530 million to help take superfast broadband to the areas the market alone will not go to. We want 90 per cent of homes and businesses to have access to superfast broadband and everyone to have access to 2Mbps.”
Sounds positive enough. However Labour claims it had much more ambitious plans for getting the country up to speed before it was voted out of office.
Chi Onwurah, Shadow Minister for Science and the Digital Economy, told us: “Labour promised to deliver 2Mbits broadband to everyone by the end of this year, using the money left over from digital switchover.
"The Coalition Government preferred a vaguer and further off target – the best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015. It’s not clear what that means, but it certainly means disappointment for those struggling to get a decent connection.”
There has been a bit of movement recently in terms of what Internet Service Providers are allowed to advertise as ‘average speeds’. Firms can now only sell a service as having a certain speed of connection if a minimum of ten per cent of customers are actually capable of receiving that.
At the point this Ofcom ruling came into effect, it resulted in a significant drop-off of advertised speeds, presumably highlighting how few people were able to get many advertised speeds in the first place
This is certainly a step in the right direction, but the market still isn’t what you’d call crystal clear.
And Labour warns more regulation on the market could be required: “The public need to be better educated about what speeds are available, what the broadband firms’ claims actually mean, and what is actually being delivered,” added Onwurah.
“I’m glad to see the growth of speed test sites and broadband speed reporting. Broadband firms need to learn that it pays to be more open and transparent. Otherwise there may be a need for further regulatory action… We should be moving to more transparent and more accurate metering.”
But it’s not just the general population’s domestic connections that are the issue.
On top of consumer frustration, a flagging internet infrastructure can also have detrimental effects to the economy, which hardly needs any more of a kick in the face right now.
At various points in recent history, politicians have often told us of their ambitions to boost the general state of the economy through digital means – the last administration’s Digital Britain initiative is a good example of this.
It’s not too obtuse to compare the benefits of better internet connectivity nationwide to the benefits of better transport networks. Though obviously very different in their specific upshots, general benefits to things such as commerce, communications, and attractiveness for businesses to set up shop is arguably comparable.
Politicians largely seem to be agreed on the importance of this – though they naturally differ on how much progress has been made.
Labour’s Onwurah argues the wider economy, which we’ve heard before could use the digital industries as a lifeline out of recession, is being hurt by the divides in connection quality: “It’s not good for our economy, it’s a barrier to both digital inclusion policy and economic growth.
"The rural economy is being held back by the absence of descent broadband. Digital infrastructure is part of our critical economic infrastructure. It is a necessary part of access to global markets, and growing emerging markets will be a primary driver of growth.
"So there are significant dangers [If the UK falls even further behind that of other countries]."
The Coalition’s Vaizey says it is investing and working with local Governments across the country: “Local authorities are currently developing plans to roll-out broadband in their area before they begin procurement.
"We have set a challenging timetable for local authorities and are working closely with them to ensure they make rapid progress. All local authorities bar two are on-track with the timetable we have set."
However Labour clearly isn’t convinced the current measures are sufficient: “There are two roles for Government here. Firstly to set out a vision for our digital infrastructure, where do we want to be as a country in ten, twenty years?
"That’s why the much promised and much delayed Communications Green paper is so important, it can give direction and reassure investors that the Government ‘gets it’ when it comes to the power of the internet.
"The second role of Government is to help deliver the necessary infrastructure in those areas where the market won’t deliver. Now the Government has given BDUK about £1billion to help build out superfast broadband but so far the procurement process is confused and under-resourced and it hasn’t made much progress.”
4G or not 4G
In terms of mobile internet, 4G networks, which have been around in places like the US for some time now, offer much faster connection rates than what we currently have in the UK.
Ofcom has provisionally given the go ahead for Orange and T-Mobile owner Everything Everywhere, which has a much larger network than its competitors, to recycle its 2G networks to make room for 4G networks ahead of its competitors.
There have been some complaints that this would lead to a monopolistic situation, and the deal hasn’t been given the final go ahead quite yet.
The Coalition declined to comment on this matter, however Labour’s Onwurah blames bickering between the mobile networks for our current lack of modern mobile internet connections:
“So far the mobile industry have spent at least five years arguing over what the conditions for spectrum release should be and this has put us in danger of being left behind it comes to 4G services, the fact that the latest iPad does not support European 4G is an example of that.
"So we do need to proceed quickly, making sure we have the benefits of competition as the market evolves.”
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