Page last updated at 01:08 GMT, Tuesday, 3 June 2008 02:08 UK

Towns triumph in broadband tests

By Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology Correspondent, BBC News


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Rory Cellan-Jones meets the man in north west Scotland who sails across a loch to go online wirelessly.

London's broadband users can go online at average speeds nearly twice those in Wales and Northern Ireland, a survey for BBC News suggests.

Thinkbroadband.com analysed speed tests from the last two months in 6,000 locations and found the average speed to be 3.2 megabits per second (Mbps).

London's average speed was 4.5 Mbps, but in Northern Ireland it was 2.3.

Rural areas generally fared worse than towns, with telephone line lengths and lack of access to cable being blamed.

In Wales the average figure was 2.6Mbps and in Scotland 2.9 Mbps.

In May telecoms watchdog Ofcom reported that the geographical digital divide had been closed after its research found that homes in rural areas were more likely to have broadband than those in towns.

But Andrew Ferguson, editor of thinkbroadband.com, said Ofcom's figures masked a continuing divide in speeds.

"This survey shows us rural Britain may have a higher proportion of broadband homes but those homes are getting a slower service," he said.

The reasons for this were various, he said. "It's a combination of telephone line length and the lack of access to cable and other options from BT's rivals."

BT claims more than 99% of the country can now get broadband, but rural customers may still find it a struggle to get the speed they need for services like streaming video.

Amazing journey

The residents of Arnisdale, a remote village on the west coast of Scotland, cannot get broadband at all by conventional means. The village is nine miles from the nearest BT exchange at Glenelg - too far for a broadband connection to work.

Why broadband fails to reach remote areas

But, in a project backed by the University of the Highlands and Islands and by the University of Edinburgh, Arnisdale is getting a wireless broadband connection from a series of masts which beam a signal from the Isle of Skye.

The project has been led by Professor Peter Buneman, an academic from Edinburgh University who lives in Arnisdale.

He campaigned without success to get BT to take broadband to the village, and then decided that the community would have to find its own solution.

"I'm now getting better than 10Mbps," he said, "faster than you would get in a city."

Fibre-optic cables, Eyewire
Fibre-optic cables may one day replace copper wires
But he said many places in Scotland, which relied on broadband coming down a copper wire from a BT exchange, would not be able to get fast broadband.

"To get 'city' speeds of 8Mbps you need to be less than two miles from an exchange," said Prof Buneman. "And remember that 8Mbps is pretty low by international standards."

BT's director for Scotland, Brendan Dick, said the residents of Arnisdale were to be applauded for their initiative.

He said that more homes in Britain now had access to broadband than to running water.

"The UK has been at the forefront of the broadband revolution," he said. "It's been an amazing journey from less than 150,000 broadband connections in 2002 to around 13 million now."

And he insisted that, while a few countries were ahead of the UK in terms of speed, "the vast majority of users are happy with the speeds they are paying for".

The government is currently undertaking a review into the prospects for next-generation broadband.

There is widespread agreement that the copper wire that connects most homes to a telephone exchange will eventually have to be replaced by fibre-optic cable, if the UK is to match its international rivals in building an ultra-fast network.

But that will be a very costly undertaking, and it is not yet clear who will pay for it.

Average broadband speeds

Area of UK Download (Kbps)
London 4460
North East 3594
North West 3393
East Midlands 3275
South East 3253
Yorkshire & Humberside 3204
West Midlands 3193
East 3090
Scotland 2876
South West 2869
Wales 2587
Northern Ireland 2258




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