Consumers, companies, the media, and now even MPs are complaining about the standard of Britain’s broadband.
Former Cabinet Minister Grant Shapps, MP for Welwyn Hatfield, calls it a scam. He’s talking about broadband companies and how they sell, or as he puts it, mis-sell, their products to consumers.
Shapps complains about customers ending up with a broadband speed lower than the one advertised at point of sale. Yet there’s more to it than that. Look at any Internet forum, or the broadband providers’ Facebook pages or Twitter feeds.
Every one of them is full of complaints from angry customers. Not just one or two complaints, but pages and pages of criticisms such as services not working properly, engineer installation appointments missed, faults not dealt with, services not provided as sold, overcharging, appalling customer service, customers threatened with cancellation fees, debt recovery and credit defaults when people want to cancel services and change providers. This list merely scratches the surface.
What’s actually going on here? What has turned the UK’s broadband market into a Saturday afternoon backstreet market? Why do broadband companies seem to have taken on the sort of practices made famous by timeshare salesmen on the Costa del Sol? What exactly is behind what Shapps calls the Great British broadband rip-off?
The first ever permanent transatlantic telegraph cable was successfully completed on 27 July 1866, between Ireland and Newfoundland. It had been tried in 1858, but that line only worked for three weeks. The signal quality declined rapidly, slowing transmissions to an almost unusable speed. Engineers couldn’t fit repeaters to the cables to amplify the signal. Manufacturing, storage and handling were faulty. Staff from different companies, working separately in Ireland and the US, didn’t really speak to each other.
Now, 150 years later, we have super-speed broadband, Wi-Fi and 4G, but it seems that similar problems still exist.
Computer scientist and telecoms consultant Martin Geddes says that this is because broadband technology and science are not sorted out yet and performance engineering is immature. “As a result, broadband services are often too expensive with poor quality of experience,” he says. “You either get over-delivery and excessive costs or under-delivery and customer dissatisfaction.”
Andrew Ferguson, co-founder of broadband news site thinkbroadband.com, says the problem is that the UK’s broadband infrastructure is struggling to handle increased demand. “Broadband is such a central part of everyone’s life these days, so when it stops working, it’s a bigger crisis than if there’s a power cut,” he says.
There’s obviously the daily jam between 8pm and 10pm, when broadband slows down through sheer volume of users. Yet Ferguson explains that large numbers of people downloading games and streaming TV and music, also affects speeds. “Even if a broadband connection can handle a major event like this year’s European Football Championships where so many people were streaming live television at once, the broadband provider itself may not be able to keep up,” he says.
The 2016 Digital Economy Bill, announced in April, will introduce a ‘broadband universal service obligation’ in the UK. This, the government intends, will give all citizens and businesses the legal right to have a fast broadband connection installed.
The government has promised to deliver high-speed broadband coverage to 95 per cent of the country by 2020. Ministers expect the minimum speed to be at least 10Mbit/s initially and the bill would also direct Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, to review the speed over time to make sure it is still sufficient.
The bill will also give Ofcom new powers to make telecoms companies help customers switch to rivals. To order communication providers to release data – such as customer complaints and broadband speeds – it must be in the interests of the consumer and competition. Consumers will have a right to automatic compensation when things go wrong with their broadband service.
In its 10-yearly strategic review of digital communication last February, Ofcom said that it, too, wanted to see more ultra-fast broadband competition. Soon afterwards, consumer rights group Which? said that telecoms companies should compensate customers if their service is slow, or fails.
Fit for purpose?
This all sounds good, but according to Geddes, it might be difficult to achieve with the current system. He explains that if you build an aircraft or skyscraper for example, you understand the parameters of success or failure, you make a specification and build to that spec with some safety margins. Then you take responsibility for whether you deliver it or not. There’s a high degree of certainty about safety and cost. “Buildings very rarely fail unexpectedly, but with broadband you get this thing called ideal bandwidth,” he says. “So a user can get video one week, but not the next week. Then we don’t care whether it works or not. People are expected to adapt to its failings.”
Geddes adds that there are a set of emergent performance outcomes over which operators have no control and where they can’t properly engineer performance outcomes. “How can you know what the properties of the whole are when you can’t add the properties of the parts and compare them to the load and safety margin?” he says. “We haven’t even agreed on the most basic units of supply and demand. It’s like arguing over what weight means.
“Each Internet service provider and telco picks its own set of metrics. Business executives and teenagers get the same broadband service. That isn’t engineering, it’s medieval craft. We need different kinds of broadband for different users. Users don’t just want speed, they also want quality.”
Ferguson argues that the problem is more economic than technological. He says that the UK’s broadband landscape is based on commercially motivated roll-outs. “Companies that have the money have built what they want, where they want,” he says. “It’s not done on a town-by-town basis, so you have situations where someone in one street may have a faster speed than someone in the next street who is attached to a different exchange that hasn’t been updated.”
Politicians want action
Shapps believes nine in ten people should receive the advertised speeds and that customers should be allowed to leave their contract if the service falls below what has been advertised.
Shapps leads a cross-party group of 121 MPs called the British Infrastructure Group (BIG). The group claims that millions of people have been misled into making a decision to buy something that later did not live up to the original promises.
Earlier this year, the BIG MPs released their own study claiming that 5.7 million people in the UK do not have broadband at the minimum 10Mbit/s speed set by Ofcom. The report alleges that poor Internet connections are costing the UK economy up to £11bn per year and that 42 per cent of small and medium sized enterprises claim they have experienced problems with their Internet connectivity, while 29 per cent report poor service reliability.
The MPs declare that Britain should be leading the world in digital innovation, but is held back by “a monopoly company [BT Openreach] clinging to outdated copper technology with no proper long-term plan for the future.” They add that Britain should start converting to a fully fibre network, or risk falling behind other nations that are rushing to embrace new digital technologies.
“A decent broadband connection is viewed as the fourth utility by many British families. It’s a scandal that official watchdog rules allow Internet service providers to claim download speeds which only one in ten of their customers actually receive,” Shapps says. “Consumers expect refunds when their trains are late or a flight is delayed, yet there is no similar compensation for lousy Internet services that fail to deliver the speeds advertised.”
In Sweden, 61 per cent of homes have access to fast fibre-optic broadband. Denmark, Finland and Estonia also fared well in the European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index, published earlier this year. The UK came eighth out of the 28 EU states on broadband access.
The New Zealand government works with telecoms infrastructure provider Chorus and electricity companies to bring superfast broadband to cities, and with Vodafone and Chorus in rural areas. Lithuania has fibre connections reaching a third of its premises, most of it put in place by small providers after the regulator gave them cheap access to the poles and ducts that carry the cables.
In Hull, KCOM, a telecom provider with a local monopoly, is promising fibre for everyone’s homes. However, as it takes time to install, Hull has one of the slowest average speeds of all UK cities for now.
Ferguson explains that we can’t just expect Britain to suddenly become a world leader in broadband. “In many of the countries, we compare adversely to Britain – in places like South Korea and Japan – people live in apartments and tower blocks, which are easier to supply efficiently than the traditional British semi-detached house,” he says. “In other parts of the world, governments are willing to invest heavily in infrastructure.” He adds that in New Zealand, despite the PR, people are experiencing many of the same problems as in Britain. South Koreans might have superfast broadband, but what they’re allowed to look at is severely restricted by government censors.
Ferguson warns that if and when technology does catch up to fill the gap between demand and supply, technological advances in other areas are likely to further increase demand and recreate the gap. He wonders, for instance, how long it will be before software companies start making computer operating systems available for streaming and download.
It looks like the debate about the quality of Britain’s broadband, or lack of it, will rage on for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, broadband companies will carry on not speaking to other broadband companies, or sometimes even other departments within their own companies. Problems will still arise that no one will know how to fix within a reasonable timescale. Many consumers will continue not to understand what on earth is going on and sharp operators will no doubt keep trying everything they can to capitalise.
“What’s the advertising promise?” Geddes says. “If they’re telling you that it’s ‘up to 20Mbit/s’, then they’re telling you that you’ll never get better than that. They’ll definitely keep that promise.”