news UK telco regulator Ofcom has released a report showing that the country’s average fixed-line broadband speed has dramatically improved by 11Mbps over the past five years, a period in which Australians have seen virtually no improvement due to a failure of the nation’s politicians and telcos to agree on a unified upgrade path.
The report, available online, examines fixed-line broadband performance in the UK. Fixed-line broadband connections include the copper class of broadband connections (such as ADSL, VDSL and so on), as well as HFC cable broadband. In November 2008, Ofcom noted in a statement publicising the report, the UK’s average fixed-line broadband speed was 3.6Mbps. However, by May 2013 it had risen to 14.7Mbps.
At the heart of the average speed upgrade is two key infrastructure factors which represent significant investment by the country’s telcos and the UK Government to upgrade the basic nature of the infrastructure available to consumers.
In 2009, British incumbent telco BT kicked off a major effort to upgrade its copper network with fibre to the node technology. The company recently announced that the network upgrade had passed more than 16 million premises, with more than 1.7 million customers having signed up for active connections to the infrastructure. BT is also working directly with the UK Government to extend the network to rural areas, and it is also working on live trials of the new vectoring standard, which will allow speeds of up to 100Mbps on its FTTN infrastructure.
The current BT FTTN rollout offers speeds of up to 76Mbps, and it is available to be sold by rival telcos on a wholesale basis. It is also offering fibre to the premises extensions, which, at a cost (modest for businesses, pricey for consumers), allow customers to have fibre laid all the way to their premise (FTTP), delivering even better speeds of up to 330Mbps.
Secondly, HFC cable operator Virgin Media has also doubled the speeds of most of its cable broadband customers in the UK, with the company now offering speeds of up to 120Mbps to customers.
“The proportion of broadband connections classed as superfast – that is, offering headline speeds of 30Mbps or more – is increasing,” Ofcom wrote. “By May 2013, 19 percent of residential broadband connections were superfast, up from 14 percent in November 2012 and more than doubling from 8 percent over the course of the last year.”
And the average broadband speeds in the UK are increasing very rapidly. “The average fixed-line broadband download speed provided by UK residential connections has continued to increase,” wrote Ofcom. “Compared to November 2012, our research shows that average actual download speeds increased by 2.7Mbps (22 percent), to 14.7Mbps. This represents a 64% increase compared to the May 2012 average of 9.0Mbps.
“A key driver of the increase in average actual fixed broadband download speeds over the past few years has been rising take-up of ‘up to’ 30Mbps and above services (also known as superfast services), a trend which continued in the six months to May 2013 … 19 percent of residential fixed broadband connections were classed as being superfast in May 2013, five percentage points higher than in November 2012 and 11 percentage points higher than in May 2012. Eighty-six percent of connections had an advertised speed above ‘up to’ 10MBps in May 2013, a rise of 18 percentage points since May 2012.”
“This shift to higher-speed services is partially as a result of Virgin Media’s ‘double speeds’ upgrade programme, which doubled the speeds provided by most of its cable broadband connections. In addition, customers are also choosing to migrate to fibre broadband services, and over the course of the 2012/13 financial year the number of BT retail fibre broadband connections increased from around 550,000 to over 1.3 million.”
The news comes as Australia’s own politicians and telcos have continually failed to reach consensus on how Australia’s own broadband infrastructure should be upgraded, in the past eight years.
In November 2005, then-Telstra chief executive Sol Trujillo first proposed that Telstra upgrade its copper network to the same FTTN technology being deployed by BT. However, Telstra and the then-Coalition Government, including then-Communications Minister Helen Coonan, were unable to come to agreement about the terms of the upgrade, and it never went ahead.
Led by Kevin Rudd, the Australian Labor Party took a FTTN-based upgrade policy to the 2007 Federal Election, but never enacted the policy, choosing instead from April 2009 to focus on a much more ambitious fibre to the premises-based policy. However, Rudd and then-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy chose an unproven model to deploy the infrastructure, with a new telco, NBN Co, to be set up from scratch to deploy the new FTTP network without the involvement of Telstra. This model has not been used in other countries globally, and resulted in significant delays, with only a very small proportion of NBN Co’s fibre network having been deployed since 2009. The company has revised its targets downwards several times this year alone.
The new Coalition Government elected last month is again proposing a FTTN network upgrade similar to that conducted by BT, but further delays are expected as NBN Co and the Government negotiate with Telstra over the terms of access to the telco’s network.
Similarly, although in the UK Virgin Media is automatically upgrading the broadband speeds of consumers on its HFC cable network, in Australia it is not clear that the two telcos operating HFC cable networks have automatically upgraded customers’ speeds on the infrastructure. Both theoretically offer 100Mbps speeds on their networks, but it is believed that neither Telstra nor Optus have automatically upgraded customers to the higher 100Mbps speeds, with customers needing to opt in to receive the speed boosts, and often needing to pay higher fees to do so.
As a consequence, in Australia, average broadband speeds have severely lagged behind the rest of the world. A report published by Akamai in January this year, for instance, found Australia placed 40th in the world on average connection speed for fixed-line broadband connections, at 4.3Mbps. Only 4.1 percent of Australian broadband connections offer speeds above 10Mbps.
As I wrote in September 2011, the one thing that Australia desperately needs is stable telecommunications policy:
“… in large part it is the ridiculously unstable telecommunications regulatory environment which Australia’s incessantly warring politicians have gifted the nation with which has held us back in so many different areas over the past decade, and will continue to hold us back over the next five years if the two pathetically similar sides of politics cannot come together on a joint proposal. One, perhaps, founded on bringing many of the aspects of Labor’s visionary NBN project and the Coalition’s more targeted policy (which, as we have already noted, has many positive aspects) together.”
“If Telstra had been separated five years ago, if the bush had received wireless broadband, if competitive rural backhaul links had been funded and if Labor and the Coalition could have agreed on a way in which to invest public money in broadband in a moderate fashion which would suit both sides of politics and stimulate competition in the sector, right now Australia’s broadband landscape would look very different than it does today.”
“The long-term nature of infrastructure investment and the squabbling of the past half-decade has made it increasingly clear that a bi-partisan approach to telecommunications policy is needed in Australia. The only difficulty may be convincing our arrogant, indecisive, stubborn and incredibly own-party blinkered political leaders that they should sit across the table from each other and discuss the issue like adults. At times they appear to forget that they are all employed by the same person — the Australian taxpayer.”
The UK situation displays a stark example of how Australia’s politicians and telcos have abjectly failed to upgrade the nation’s broadband infrastructure over the past eight years, despite countless opportunities to work together on the issue. At this point, it is impossible not to conclude that Australia’s politicians and telcos are more interested in fighting each other on this issue than they are in actually delivering better solutions to all Australians. This is gross incompetence on a national scale, and it’s time we started talking about it in these terms. Labor, Liberal, Telstra, Optus … these political parties and telcos have not been able to come to consensus on this issue, despite at least eight years of debate. They should be ashamed.