Watchdog tackles great broadband swindle

Ofcom is to aim the speed camera at UK broadband - to ensure it's as fast as we're being promised.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The communications regulator is to investigate the speed of service being offered by British broadband providers, after concern that connections aren't as nippy as we're led to believe.

The supposed speed offered by broadband has been one of its main selling points for UK consumers, with many internet service providers claiming to offer connections of 8 megabits-per-second (mbps), and even up to 20 mbps, currently the top speed in the UK. But it’s been found the internet experience of the average British user doesn’t match up to these claims, with only half of those on 8mbps actually getting that speed of service.

The UK network is hardly steam-powered, but it would certainly struggle if hordes of British internet users wanted to stream high-definition television. Say, for example, the final of a major international football competition. Not that that’s going to happen for another couple of years.

The six-month investigation will examine the effect on connection speed of such factors as number of users and region. It seems incongruous that, in this electronic age, something like old-fashioned physical distance from the telephone exchange determines the speed of our connections. But it does: no matter what speeds a company promises, a someone half-way up a hill in Yorkshire probably won’t be able to download the latest James Bond film as quickly as someone in, say, Chelsea.

Our copper-wire based telephone network also plays a part in slowing things down, and the watchdog has repeatedly stated that the UK could be left standing in the electronic dust of the information superhighway if it does not substantially upgrade it. Fibre-optic cables would make it possible to increase broadband speed to a pedal-to-the-metal 100mbps. But upgrading all UK homes to fibre-optic would cost BT more than £15bn. Unsurprisingly, the company has been less than quick to commit.

Ofcom has now published a voluntary code of practice to ensure that ISPs advertise their speeds clearly. Thirty-two internet service providers, catering for 90% of the population, have agreed to it. Not that that will speed things up - Web 2.0 in the UK remains more Robin Reliant than Aston Martin.

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