Category Archives: Broadband speeds

Telecommunications Policy Research Conference 2016, USA.

On Saturday the 1st of October 2016 we will take part in the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference (TPRC) panel ‘Rural Broadband Policies in a Cross-National Comparison’ organized by Bibi Reisdorf. TPRC is an annual conference on information policy that convenes researchers and policymakers from academia, industry, government, and nonprofit organisations. As our Access Denied study has also shown a number of highly technologized countries, such as the US, the UK, Canada and Australia, witness ongoing, if not increasing, digital divides between citizens who live in urban areas and those who live in rural and remote areas.  This is not only true for the general availability of Internet access, but also and especially so for high-speed Internet access via broadband connections. Despite different historical developments across these countries and a number of different policies that were specifically designed to reduce these divides, persistent urban-rural broadband divides appear to be a universal phenomenon that has so far not been addressed successfully by any of the here examined countries.

Comparing and contrasting the history and the current state of urban-rural digital broadband divides as well as the according policies and the issues with these policies across a number of countries, this panel seeks to enable an informative discussion that provides a way forward and formulates policy recommendations that can help address urban-rural divides. Topics that will be covered include, but are not limited to, the developments observed in each respective country:

  • The history of broadband adoption in urban and rural areas as well as the current state of urban-rural digital divides with a specific focus on broadband access
  • The history of policies and programs specifically aimed at reducing urban-rural digital divides and broadband divides
  • Issues in the implementation of policies and programs aimed at reducing urban-rural digital divides
  • “Best practice” examples of policies, programs, and initiatives that made a positive impact in reducing urban-rural digital divides
  • Recommendations for future policies, programs, and initiatives

A critical comparison of initiatives across four highly connected countries can shed new light on an issue that has been debated for a number of years, but that has not been addressed successfully so far. Including “best practice” examples from all four countries will enable new and innovative perspectives and ideas.

The panel will be moderated by Sharon Strover (University of Texas at Austin) and is comprised of four experts who have conducted extensive research into rural digital divides and rural broadband policies in the US (Bibi Reisdorf, Michigan State University), the UK (Anne-Marie Oostveen, University of Oxford), Canada (Catherine Middleton, Ryerson University), and Australia (Sora Park, University of Canberra). These experts span a range of disciplines, including communication, management, social informatics, and sociology.

tprc

Current alternatives won’t light up Britain’s broadband blackspots

Despite the British government’s boasts of the steady roll-out of superfast broadband to more than four out of five homes and businesses, you needn’t be a statistician to realise that this means one out of five are still unconnected. In fact, the recent story about a farmer who was so incensed by his slow broadband that he built his own 4G mast in a field to replace it shows that for much of the country, little has improved.

The government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme claims that it will provide internet access of at least 24 Mbps (megabits per second) to 95% of the country by 2017 through fibre to the cabinet, where fast fibre optic networks connect BT’s exchanges to street cabinets dotted around towns and villages. The final connection to the home comes via traditional (slower) copper cables.

Those in rural communities are understandably sceptical of the government’s “huge achievement”, arguing that only a fraction of the properties included in the government’s running total can achieve reasonable broadband speeds, as signals drop off quickly with distance from BT’s street cabinets. Millions of people are still struggling to achieve even basic broadband, and not necessarily just in the remote countryside, but in urban areas such as Redditch, Lancaster and even Pimlico in central London.

Four problems to solve

This cabinet is a problem, not a solution. mikecattell, CC BY

Our research found four recurring problems: connection speeds, latency, contention ratios, and reliability.

Getting high-speed ADSL broadband delivered over existing copper cables is not possible in many areas, as the distance from the exchange or the street cabinet is so far that the broadband signal degrades and speeds drop. Minimum speed requirements are rising as the volume of data we use increases, so such slow connections will become more and more frustrating.

But speed is not the only limiting factor. Network delay, known as latency, can be as frustrating as it forces the user to wait for data to arrive or to be assembled into the right order to be processed. Most of our interviewees had high latency connections.

Many home users also suffer from high contention, where a connection slows as more users in the vicinity log on – for example, during evenings after work and at weekends. One respondent pointed out that the two or three large companies in the neighbouring village carried out their daily company backups between 6.30pm-8.30pm. This was obvious, he said, because during that time internet speeds “drop off the end of a cliff”.

Connection reliability is also a problem, with connections failing randomly for no clear reason, or due to weather such as heavy rain, snow or wind – not very helpful in Britain.

Three band-aid solutions

With delivery by copper cable proving inadequate for many, other alternatives have been suggested to fill the gaps.

Mobile phones are now ubiquitous devices, and mobile phone networks cover a huge proportion of the country. A 4G mobile network connection could potentially provide 100Mbps speeds. Unfortunately, the areas failed by poor fixed line broadband provision are often the same areas with poor mobile phone networks – particularly rural areas. While 2G/3G network coverage is better, it is far slower. Without unlimited data plans, users will also face monthly caps on use as part of their contract. Weather conditions can also adversely affect the service.

Satellite broadband could be the answer and can provide reasonably high speeds of up to around 20 Mbps. But despite the decent bandwidth available, satellite connections have high latency from the slow speed of transferring data to and from satellites, due to the far larger distances involved between satellites and the ground. High latency connections make it very difficult or impossible to use internet telephony such as Skype, to stream films, video or music, or play online games. It’s not really an option in mountainous regions, and is a more expensive option.

A third alternative is to use fixed wireless, relaying broadband signals over radio transmitters to cover the distance from where BT’s fixed-line fibre optic network ends. These services generally provide 20Mbps, low latency connections. However, radio towers require line-of-sight access which could be a problem given obstructions from hills or woods – factors that, again, limit use where it’s most needed.

The only one that fits

All these alternatives tend to be more expensive to set up and run, come with more strict data limits, and can be affected by atmospheric conditions such as rain, wind or fog. The only true superior alternative to fibre to the cabinet is to provide fibre to the home (FTTH), in which the last vestiges of the original copper telephone network are replaced with high-speed fibre optic right to the door of the home or business premises. Fibre optic is faster, can carry signals without loss over greater distances, and is more upgradable than copper. A true fibre optic solution would future-proof Britain’s internet access network for decades to come.

Despite its expense, it is the only solution for many rural communities, which is why some have organised to provide it for themselves, such as B4RN and B4YS in the north of England, and B4RDS in the southwest. But this requires a group of volunteers with knowledge, financial means, and the necessary dedication to lay the infrastructure that could offer a 1,000 Mbps service regardless of line distance and location – which won’t be an option for all.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Fieldwork in North-Wales

Last month we had a very productive week in North-Wales, talking to a variety of people who all struggled with slow and unreliable Internet access, both at home and at work. Of course the lack of fast Internet impacts differently on different people, but the main message is that it hinders people in achieving the things they need to accomplish on a daily basis. We found that a slow and unreliable connection can have serious implications not only financially, but also for health, social life, and family connections.

Twenty babies and toddlers are hiding under the parachute.

Twenty babies and toddlers are hiding under the parachute.

While we had a few interviewees lined up before we headed to Gwynedd, we still needed to find other people willing to talk to us. We used the snowball method, by which researchers find new participants through referrals from people they have already spoken to. But we also joined a baby and toddler singing group, where we met the parents and found some more willing respondents. We ended up humming along to Welsh children’s songs and waving a massive parachute. The things we do for our research!

During our fieldwork in N-Wales, the UK chancellor George Osborne came out with his Budget 2015 statement in which he pledged that Internet speeds of 100Mbps “should” be available to “nearly all homes” in the UK. In addition, the government’s digital communications infrastructure strategy has outlined an idea that will give customers the “right” to a broadband connection of at least 5Mbps in their homes at an affordable price. In reaction to this promise we wrote an article for The Conversation asking whether Osborne’s broadband promises will indeed bring about much needed change [spoiler:  5 Mbps is too little, too late].

This week the transcripts of our Welsh interviews have come back. This means that we can start analysing our data, compare it to our English data, and write up the results for academic publications. There are still some expert interviews to be conducted with FTTH advocates, representatives from local broadband providers, county councils, Ofcom, and other stakeholders to inform us on public policy and governmental interventions, but the bulk of the data has been collected. Newspaper and magazine articles, conference papers, and journal articles resulting from our research will always be uploaded to our project website, so do check regularly for the latest updates on our study!

North-Wales, here we come!

Only 2 more weeks until we will start our fieldwork in North-Wales. We are very excited about interviewing people in rural communities in Gwynedd. At the moment we are recruiting participants from Nant Peris and Mynydd Llandegai. We have been practicing our pronunciation and have our questions ready.

If you happen to live in the area around Llanberis, have very poor internet speeds (<2Mb/s), and are interested in taking part in our research do drop us a line. We will be residing in N-Wales from the 15th until the 21st of March. The interviews should not last longer than an hour and we are very flexible with our time (from early morning until late at night, at any location you prefer).

You can help us by mailing Anne-Marie at anne-marie.oostveen@oii.ox.ac.uk

Our Access Denied HQ

Our Welsh ‘Access Denied’ HQ

A visit to Korea: the country with the fastest internet in the world

As part of our study, we discuss our findings in academic forums and at international conferences, such as the Association of Internet Researchers‘ (AoIR) yearly conference, which happened to be located in Daegu, South Korea this year. I had the great pleasure of representing our team at this conference and to visit South Korea for the first time. According to the Akami Report on the State of the Internet, South Korea has, on average, the fastest internet in the world. Researching slow internet connections, this was an especially interesting point of my visit to Daegu, which is located about 240km south-eastern of Seoul.

Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea

Apart from indulging in the Korean culture, I was particularly interested in experiencing internet connectivity in this apparent connectivity-“promise-land.” Wi-Fi was available quite literally everywhere in the country, including trains, all cafés, restaurants, malls, train stations, airports, etc. In most of these places, Wi-Fi was free and unlimited, and almost everyone we met used smart phones, including taxi drivers. All hotels, of course, had free Wi-Fi, but some of the older hotels were struggling with thick walls and unfavourable layout so that we encountered slow and unreliable connections in some of these older buildings. However, “slow” needs to be put in context here. As I wrote parts of this post (in one of the newer hotels in Daegu), my download speeds varied between 6.76-40.06 megabits per second, while upload speeds varied between 5.28-11.74 megabits per second, and this was in the middle of the working day, i.e. when everyone else in Daegu (and in the hotel) was online as well–speeds that most households in rural Britain can only dream of. According to a CNN report from 2010, South Korea is far ahead of most other developed countries as it set a plan to commit to fast internet speed in the 1990s–many years ahead of the United Kingdom. However, population density is a lot higher in South Korea (more than 1,200 inhabitants per square mile) than in the United Kingdom (around 650 inhabitants per square miles), which makes it easier to connect many more homes with fibre (Population Density per Square Mile of Countries).

A very jet-lagged Bibi Reisdorf giving our talk on rural broadband in Britain

A jet-lagged Bibi Reisdorf presenting our preliminary results at AoIR

The conference itself was focussing on Boundaries and Intersections, so that our presentation on initial findings fit right in. When we presented some facts and quotations from our first round of interviews, the reactions from the (mainly academic) audience varied from surprise to disbelief at the problems that our interviewees are facing with their patchy and slow internet connections. The feedback was extremely positive and supportive for this project, and we gained some nice insights into similar projects from other countries, e.g. Australia.

We are now extra-excited to go into our next round of data collection in January and February, so watch this space for more results from our fieldwork and insights from both affected Britons and expert interviews.

News Digest Rural Broadband: October 2014

This month saw a lot of reporting on inadequate internet speeds in rural communities throughout Great Britain. But the news items also show that alternative solutions do exist and provide hope for those who currently cope with slow and unreliable internet speeds.

29 october 2014 – Gigaclear activates rural Oxfordshire pure fibre broadband network
A new pure fibre optic broadband network is bringing ultrafast internet speeds to hundreds of properties in rural Oxfordshire. Uptake of the service has been strong, with over 40 per cent of residents pre-signing – a record for Gigaclear. Read more… 


29 october 2014 – Villagers clubbing together to bring superfast broadband to their homes
Neighbours are clubbing together to get superfast broadband because BT would not connect up more than 300 homes in Chalford and Bussage. Read more…


 28 october 2014 – Ireland’s future rural broadband speeds may leave Europe in the dust
Top telcos’ technical response to the Irish Government’s National Broadband Plan reveals an ambition to surpass proposed EU speeds, and even reach up to 2.5Gbps in rural areas in the coming years. Read more…


28 october 2014 – Here’s A Map Of Where People Struggle To Watch YouTube Videos
Despite living in an age where you can pay for a baguette with your iPhone, some people in the UK remain in “broadband blackspots” where even watching a YouTube video might be a struggle. While the average Internet speed in the UK is 17.8 Mbsp, many parts of the country suffer from speeds as slow as 4 Mbps to nothing at all. Read more…


25 october 2014 – Church tower project provides rural broadband boost for villages around Framlingham
Although the service does not meet the Government’s 24Mbps download target – which it wants to extend to 95% of the population by 2017 – Mr Leigh argues that speed is not decisive, but that what matters is a stable network with low contention ratios – potential maximum demand measured against actual bandwidth. Read more…


24 october 2014 – Rural broadband: Small providers offer best ‘bang out of your public sector buck’
Independent broadband network providers may be competitors but they are united by an aim to enhance the UK’s infrastructure, the head of a cooperative association has said. Malcolm Corbett, chief executive of the Independent Networks Co-operative Association (INCA), said smaller providers are providing solutions to get fibre to difficult-to-reach areas, and so helping to provide the biggest “bang out of your public sector buck”. Read more…


20 october 2014 – Outside the cities and towns, rural Britain’s internet is firmly stuck in the 20th century
The quality of rural internet access in the UK, or lack of it, has long been a bone of contention. The government says “fast, reliable broadband” is essential, but the disparity between urban and rural areas is large and growing, with slow and patchy connections common outside towns and cities. Read more…


16 october 2014 – Internet should be ‘for everybody’ says rural broadband boss
The head of the only rural broadband altnet to secure both public funding and government grant support has discussed how the internet should be “for everybody” – not just those in high infrastructure urban areas. Read more…


14 october 2014 – Rural broadband: Microwave radio link brings fast connection to remote village
A village on the edge of Dartmoor will be one of the first places in the UK to benefit from a new way to get superfast broadband to challenging areas. Households and businesses in the historic village Northlew can now access broadband services at speeds of up to 80Mbps — thanks to a four kilometre microwave radio link, which has replaced the need for a fibre optic cable. According to BT, more than 120 customers — about half of the households and businesses in the village — are already using the technology. Read more…


11 october 2014 – Rural Scotland to lead with ‘white space’ internet
Research at a Scottish university could pave the way for a new “white space” communication network offering improved services to the remotest parts of the country. The University of Strathclyde is overseeing projects to run wireless internet technologies on ferry services and trials of “smart city” technology. It is expected rural communities may be able to use the “white space” to connect to faster broadband speeds. Currently, rural Scotland has far slower speeds than the rest of the UK. Read more…


8 october 2014 – Shropshire and Marches Campaign Gives up Hope of Better Broadband
The Shropshire and Marches Campaign for Better Rural Broadband has announced its withdrawal from the local county broadband partnership, with concerns over attendance, confidentiality clauses, pre-set agendas and politics allegedly hampering their ability to propose and devise new ways of match funding with the Government’s £11.38m Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) grant. Read more…


6 october 2014 – Urban/rural broadband speeds gap ‘narrowing in UK’
The gap between broadband speeds in urban and rural parts of the UK appears to be narrowing, based on the latest figures from Ofcom. According to the media regulator, broadband users in the countryside saw a bigger increase in average speeds in the six months to May 2014 than those living in towns and cities. The average rural connection was capable of delivering 13.6Mb – up by 20 per cent on last November. Read more…


3 october 2014 – UK cable broadband internet speeds ‘faster than fibre’
Internet connections in cable broadband homes are faster on average than those using fibre, Ofcom research suggests. Average cable speeds were measured at 43.3 megabits per second (Mbps), compared with 42 Mbps for fibre. The most common type of broadband ran at 7.4 Mbps, however, and Ofcom found a big difference remained in the average speeds in cities and rural areas. Note: FTTH connections did not feature in Ofcom figures. Read more…


2 october 2014 – Pupils in rural schools in Essex at a disadvantage due to poor internet connections
Pupils are missing out on education opportunities due to poor internet connections in school – and rural Essex has been identified as one of worst regions. Half of pupils in UK state schools have slow broadband or unreliable Wi-Fi, according to a British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) report. Read more…


 

UK coverage of superfast broadband highest of “five biggest European economies”?

In a recent article, the BBC commented on the developments of broadband connectivity in the UK. According to the government, more than 1 million properties are now connected to the so-called superfast broadband, with connection speeds of 24mb/s or more. The government even claims that the “current UK coverage of superfast broadband is the highest of the five biggest European economies” (BBC, 2014). This statement, however, is vague at best, if not misleading. First of all, what is meant here by “biggest European economies”? Does it refer to size, population, or GDP? Secondly, does it refer to absolute numbers or to percentages? Thirdly, is this statement referring to potential connections or actual subscriptions? 

According to the latest OECD statistics (Dec 2013), the UK has 35.2% broadband subscriptions, which ranks it 8th within the OECD, behind 6 other European countries, including France (which would arguably be one of the biggest five European economies, regardless of the definition we choose to use). While these numbers reflect general broadband subscriptions (i.e. people subscribed to any type of broadband) rather than superfast broadband coverage (i.e. properties that have access to speeds of 24mb/s or more), a report from the European Union (May 2014) suggests that the UK currently ranks 11th in the EU (out of 28) in superfast broadband access with around 8% subscribers, ahead of e.g. Germany (17th) and France (24th). However, in terms of ultrafast broadband (100mb/s or more), which is becoming more and more essential to thrive in an evermore digital world, the UK is ranked in the bottom 6, with less than 1% of subscriptions; only Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Malta, and Poland have fewer subscriptions to ultrafast broadband. This is much in contrast to countries like Sweden (10% ultrafast broadband, 13% superfast broadband) or Latvia (9% ultrafast, 13% superfast). According to these data, the UK government seems to be overly optimistic in its evaluation of the current provision of superfast broadband across the country.

Another result the government should consider is the actual average connection speed in the UK rather than what may potentially be possible for 1 million households. Recent numbers from the Akami State of the Internet Report (April 2014) show that the UK ranks 15th globally and 10th within the EU with 9.9mb/s in the first quarter of 2014. While this puts the UK ahead of e.g. Germany (8.1mb/s) and France (6.6mb/s), other European countries are far ahead of the UK.

In addition, rural uptake is still an issue. While initiatives like the B4RN project (see our post from 12 July 2014) provide up to 1000mb/s (=1gb/s) directly to rural homes in Lancashire, the BT provision of broadband to rural homes is moving slowly. We are currently collecting data across four rural villages in England and Wales. Among other things, we ask our interviewees to perform Internet speed tests on their computers. In our first dozen interviews, we recorded speeds across an Oxfordshire village–the average speed is 0.39mb/s, none of the homes received more than 1.22mb/s, and some of them did not have any connection at all for several hours a day.

Both superfast–or even better ultrafast–broadband provision and general broadband provision to rural areas in the UK are important to the people and for the economy to remain globally competitive. The government’s work is far from done, and in comparison to other EU and global countries, the UK has its work cut out for it. It is certainly not (yet) time to sit back and pat each other’s backs for having the “highest coverage of superfast broadband of the five biggest European economies”, especially when this statement is questionable in the first place.