Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Unconnected World

My better half works for Google, which has a very clear world view based around connectivity. Rather arrogantly, in my view, Google presumes that the whole world is wired at 20Mbps at the very least, otherwise none of the company's applications work. The company is oblivious to the real world for 95% of people, and actually often works against them (many ISPs may throttle users due to over use of Google services).

Now, I’m told of all the good Google does through charitable foundations and the like, but it’s done nothing to improve the provision of its services in, for example, rural Wales.

This hypocrisy, or maybe myopia, is not unique. I once sat in an OFCCOM consultative meeting with a bunch of Guardian reading vegetarians from South East London who swore that bandwidth was no longer an issue to anyone with a computer. Not to them perhaps in their urban communes, but perhaps the lentil eaters should get out more to the real world that a huge number of Brits live with...

The reality, as I’m seeing it, is that connectivity is rapidly degrading in rural Britain. The number of users actually consistently achieving the ‘Broadband Britain’ target of 2Mbps is probably minuscule. I've seen figure stating that the average broadband in the UK is now 4Mpbs, but I remain highly sceptical of this figure.

I personally saw BT Wholesale throttle my local exchange from a 4Mbps line to a 2 Mbps line over Christmas, with Tiscali further throttling a line I hardly ever use from a theoretic 4Mbps to 300Kbps. It rendered everything useless apart from basic web browsing and downloading emails.

Now, we all have to recognise that dedicated bandwidth is more expensive than contended bandwidth, but we also need to be able to purchase this. The only current option offered by non-LLU exchanges is to treat all customers the same. Having fallen victim to all the Xbox360 kids I’d love to be able to outbid them for bandwidth even on a non-LLU exchange. Surely this makes economic sense all around?

But this is not unique to rural UK. Finally Africa has some decent costal connectivity, but at a cost. How will this be metered ?

When I set up a development base in Chennai in India a decade or so ago, I was informed that we could buy bandwidth of 32Mbps. As it happened, this was the total bandwidth serving the whole city and the region beyond (some 45m people). In the end we did manage to buy 2Mbps dedicated for a huge monthly fee. India a decade ago and Wales today are not that different. It's a dreadful indictment of how legislators have failed their constituents with even basic service provisioning yet again.

It seems that fifteen years into the internet era provision is now worse than it was five years ago. To see the Tory party leaving this to the open market is terrifying. At least Labour’s proposed phone levy gives some hope that the rural parts of Britain might be able to achieve basic parity. Personally, I will be voting around bandwidth provisioning lines when this election comes along, and would encourage you to do likewise.