Understanding digital infrastructure in a digital age

Confused politician (George Bush)

If you ask the average business owner whether they have internet access, they are very likely to answer ‘yes’.  If you ask them if they have broadband, most, but not all will continue to answer confidentially in the affirmative.  If you ask them if they have ‘superfast broadband’ a look of confusion slowly spreads across their face.  This isn’t that surprising, as the term is little more than a marketing peg used to upsell consumers, but it is a term readily adopted by OfCom and Whitehall.

OfCom define ‘superfast’ as 25Mb/s or greater, which at first glance seems a helpful clarification.  This definition is based, in part, on the fact that the maximum speed of an ADSL2+ line is 24Mbit/s.  When OfCom talk of ‘superfast’ they really mean the signal is being carried by a fibre optical cable, at least until the cabinet, so the distance travelled over copper wires is minimised.

Unfortunately, megabits per second is not a great way to measure connection value.  It’s equivalent to measuring a car’s performance based on its top speed in feet per second.  Firstly the average consumer is already educated to think of bytes not bits when purchasing IT equipment such as RAM and hard drives, a bit is 1/8th of a byte, so 8Mb/s is actually only 1 MB/s (megabyte per second).  More importantly, a savvy car purchaser will look at acceleration, fuel economy, and a host of other features when purchasing a car, top speed is actually not that important (so long as it’s over 70mph), and every car buyer knows that it’s not just the make and model that matter, it’s the actual performance of the specific car you’re buying.  Just like cars, identical packages can have very different performance for the end user, based on a number of factors, especially distance to the cabinet, and contention.  Contention, or how many people are trying to use the same connection at the same time, is the least well understood, and yet clearly vital factor when assessing the true value of your internet connection.  In our car analogy contention is the difference between wide open roads and congested country lanes.

When connecting to the internet there are actually two ‘top speeds’, download and upload speed – and they are rarely the same.  When ISPs publish their ‘speeds’ they often refer to the maximum theoretical download speed, which isn’t surprising as these are frequently 10-20% higher than the actual average speed over 24hrs (and worse at peak contention times, around 8-10PM) and are normally at least four times faster than the average upload speed.  In August 2013 the average download speed for the UK was 14.7Mbit/s compared to 1.8Mbit/s upload (over 8 times slower uploads).

For consumers, the asymmetry between download and upload speeds isn’t actually that big a problem, in fact it’s a deliberate design decision.  Consumers largely download from the internet, they send very little back, in comparison.  The problem is that many businesses are ‘producers’ not consumers, for them the upload speed is absolutely critical, but our networks are not designed to meet this need, forcing many businesses to purchase extremely expensive leased lines to get the upload speeds necessary.  Our small businesses are very much second class citizens in the digital age.

A trawl through statements made by our policy makers demonstrates a complete lack of understanding about the subtleties around internet connectivity.  It seems impossible to have vital discussions about improving our digital infrastructure when few understand the difference between 2Mb and 200Mbit, never mind the importance of upload speeds to companies trading over the internet.  This leads to an overly cosy relationship between regulators and the ISP industry and needs to be addressed urgently.  There are huge factors affecting our future ability to compete in the digital age, from net neutrality, to the importance of fibre to the premise verses fibre to the cabinet.

Until our policy makers understand the details, it’s hard to see how they can influence the outcomes positively.

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