Digital Britain explained

moneysupermarket.com site editor Clare Francis talks to Alex Salter, co-founder of SamKnows, about the Governments new scheme, Digital Britain, which aims to improve broadband in the home for the whole of the UK...  

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Clare Francis: It’s not really been around for that long, but already it’s hard to imagine life without the internet.

Access to the world wide web is something many of us now take for granted, and we are using the internet for more and more things which means faster download speeds are becoming increasingly important. However, millions of households still struggle to get a reliable internet connection.

The government has set a target that by 2012 every household in the UK will receive broadband speeds of at least 2 megabits per second. Its campaign is called Digital Britain and last week saw the publication of its latest report charting its progress and objectives.

Well Alex Salter, who is the co-founder of SamKnows, which is a broadband analysts, is with me to explain what it’s all about.

Q1: So Alex, for a lot of people like myself, I don’t really know much about Digital Britain, can you explain what it is all about?

Alex Salter: Sure. The Digital Britain report covers much more than broadband access, it touches on the future of television, media, intellectual property rights such as piracy, but a key part of it are two streams.

One is universal connectivity of 2 megabits per second as you’ve just said, and then also next generation access, which is giving people access to these much faster [optical] fibre networks that the Governments putting a lot of energy behind.

Q2: Because I know at SamKnows you have done a lot of research into what you have termed ‘Not-Spots’, and these are the areas of the country where households do struggle to get good broadband access. But a lot of peoples perception is that it’s often people who live in rural areas, who live miles away from their local exchange, but that’s not necessarily true is it?

AS: That’s right. I live in London, I’m very used to having fast and reliable broadband access, and my perception when I read the first Digital Britain report was that we were going to be talking about remote parts of the countryside. That’s why we started the initial study with the BBC, and with the Commission for Rural Communities.

What we found in that though is that they’re clusters all over the UK, so it could be the countryside – and there are a high proportion in the countryside – but it also could be in commuter belts or even in some urban areas, and that took us by surprise.

Q3: And 2 megabits is the target speed for us all to have by 2021, what is the average speed households are receiving at the moment?

AS: Well in our work that we’ve carried out for OFCOM, because SamKnows is OFCOMs technical partner for benchmarking ISPs, we’re looking at 3.2 megabits per second. Now, one point to note is that the 2 megabits per second universal connectivity is considered by Stephen Carter and his team to be the absolute floor.       

Q4: And Stephen Carter, he’s the person who is heading up this Digital Britain?

AS: That’s right, Lord Carter. He was put in charge of this by Gordon Brown to create a framework for the UK’s internet strategy going forward.

Q5: So if the average speed is already quicker than 2 megabits, is having 2 megabits as a target a bit [limited] – should we be aiming for more? I know in a lot of European countries they are already getting average speeds much quicker then that?

AS: That’s right, and that’s why the Digital Britain report has two streams in it. So, one is universal connectivity to make sure that no-ones left behind, everyone has a minimum level of connectivity. And 2 megabits per second is sufficient for most things that people do nowadays, whether that’s doing your online food shopping, maybe searching for cheaper utility bills on moneysupermarket.com or watching iPlayer on the BBC.

But the second stream is about next-generation access, and that’s about the superfast broadband. That’s about the kind of products that we’re seeing Virgin Media launch, where they’re talking about 50 megabits per second, and they’re just about to do a trial with 200Mb per second to see if their network can achieve that.

Q6: And who needs that? Because if you say for most households 2 megabits is fine, what are you doing on the internet to be needing superfast broadband?

AS: Well, at the moment most users would be okay with a lot less than 50Mb, but when you talk about households where there might be a number of people using the internet at the same time, and each of those people might be consuming more and more content on a monthly basis, and content providers start providing us with much richer content, that’s when you start to need faster and faster broadband.

But it’s not just about the speed, it’s about the reliability as well, because what you can get from your internet service provider differs according to the time of day, and that’s just because there’s more people online at home at night-time - or in the evening rather -instead of 4 o’clock in the morning or 11 o’clock in the morning for example.

Q7: And one of the reasons why there is this lack of consistency across the country and the speeds that people get is to do with the cabling isn’t it, and the network exchanges, so it is massive investment needed to bring the country all up, and one if the things that was announced in the report last week was a 50p a month tax on landlines. Why are we having to pay that and when does that take effect?

AS: This is a ‘seed fund’ that the Government is seeking to raise. So it’s a 50p per month levy on your BT or your copper phone line. And their logic is that that price that we pay for our phone lines hasn’t changed in a long time, so this is behind inflation and it’s a very efficient way of them raising money directly from those people who will then subsequently benefit from it.

Now, that will raise something in the region of a £130-150million a year. That isn’t going to be enough to pay for next generation access, but the purpose of that is to enable the Government to have a seed fund so they can then go back out to the market and make it more attractive to ISP’s to then go in and build these next-generation access networks.

Q8: And if for example you are signed up to a broadband tariff that offers you speeds of up to 8 megabits or whatever and you find that you are only getting 2, is there anything you can do to improve the speed that things are downloaded?

AS: Well going back to the Digital Britain report, they’re looking to make a number of recommendations about how people can optimise their connectivity in their home. One thing that they mentioned directly is a BT ‘i-plate’, and this is something that you just stick over your terminal in your home where your internet connection comes into your house and that acts as a filter and that can double your connectivity.

But the Government is looking to have that alongside a number of different measures that you can do to improve your connectivity at home and also a whole communication piece around helping people get online that’s going to be headed up by Martha Lane Fox

Q9: So there is a lot of investment going in behind the scenes from an industry level but then there are steps that people can take to improve their speed themselves?

AS: That’s correct, yes.

CF: Great, thanks very much for that Alex.

AS: Pleasure.

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