Page last updated at 07:45 GMT, Thursday, 28 May 2009 08:45 UK

Fight is on for better broadband

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

House in Ewhurst
Would you live in a house without broadband?

While some have welcomed the government's pledge to provide a minimum broadband speed of 2Mbps to every home in the UK by 2012 others think it will be an extremely challenging task, and insufficient to meet future needs.

The government has defended itself saying that the 2Mbps speed is just a baseline and will form just one strand of its broadband strategy going forward.

It has its work cut out to get the UK up to speed. Ofcom estimates that some 15% of UK homes currently cannot get broadband speeds above 2Mbps while 1% are unable to get any form of broadband.

Broadband is currently defined by international bodies such as the OECD as anything above speeds of 512 kilobits (half a meg) but the UK government acknowledges believes that should now be 2Mbps.

Notspots are by no means confined to rural areas. Areas such as Leicester Forest East and Kirby Muxloe, suburbs of Leicester suffer slow speeds because their telephone lines have to go around the M1. The further away homes are from the telephone exchange the slower the speed will be.

There are properties near London City Airport known for slow broadband because of the distance the cable has to go around the Albert Dock.

Uploading art

Houses in Ewhurst
Ewhurst residents struggle to get a decent broadband connection

Ewhurst in Surrey is typical of many villages in the UK. Lying just a few miles outside of Guildford, it is prime commuter belt and not the type of area one would imagine to be struggling with broadband speeds.

But of the 1,000 properties in the village only a handful can get speeds above 2Mbps.

Outlying properties, including two private schools, cannot get any form of fixed line broadband. This is despite lying close to a 100Mb fibre pipe.

Watercolourist Alexander Creswell works from home and relies on a decent broadband connection.

"I'm a self employed artist and I upload and download a lot of art but I am at the very end of Ewhurst where the greatest problems lie and the service is just not reliable," he said.

"We are here in the Home Counties, just 26 miles from Hyde Park Corner as the crow flies, and yet people get better broadband in Scotland and Cornwall." he said.

His three children attend the Duke of Kent school down the road.

"That doesn't have any broadband at all. How on earth a school can offer 21st century education on dial-up I don't know," he said.

Neighbour Bill Bruford is better known for making a noise in the world of music. But the world-renowned drummer with bands such as Yes and King Crimson, is ready to start shouting about broadband.

As a self-employed musician, he is less than impressed with the speed of his service - about a third of a meg on a good day.

"It is terrible. Absolute torture. What can you do in life with a third of a meg?" he asked.

He is unimpressed with the current definition of broadband, believing that half a meg would offer little improvement to people like him who rely on web access for work.

"I could probably just about live with two megabits. I am trying to earn a living via the computer, in contact with customers, running a couple of bands, sending music around, and I'm competing with others with much faster services," he said.

Down the road neighbour Jean Crouch is still struggling on a dial-up connection.

"The main factor is that it is totally frustrating. You have to have an awful lot of patience and resign yourself to the fact that you may be sitting there for an hour just to find something out," she said.

"Ten years ago it didn't seem to matter but now I can't even send e-mail because I can't get the photos through. I might occasionally complete a transaction online but often I end up using the phone," she said.

Semi-retired communications engineer Walter Willcox has been lobbying on behalf of Ewhurst residents to improve coverage in the area. So far he has 122 people signed up to his campaign to find better broadband for the village.

Mr Willcox himself lives a few miles down the road and enjoys a 9Mbps connection, courtesy of Virgin Media.

As well as being just out of reach of Virgin Media's fat pipes, Ewhurst is also neighbours with the Mullard Space Laboratory, which is served by a high capacity fibre cable offering speeds of 100Mbp.

Dr Paul Lamb, head of the computing group at the lab has plenty of sympathy for the residents but can't offer a lot of practical help

"We do want to be good neighbours but we just don't have the resources to provide this to the public. We are also bound by the academic network JANET and offering it to third parties would break our licensing agreement," he said.

Next stage

Graphic of a house

The proximity of prime fibre is not just restricted to Ewhurst. Fibre is likely to be just around the corner from a lot of people who are struggling with their own broadband connections, said Andrew Ferguson, editor of ThinkBroadband.

"In reality most of us are just a mile or two from some fibre, the problem is who owns it and how much they will charge aside from the issues of tapping into it," he said.

It is unlikely that fibre will be the solution for the majority of villages and even towns due to the expense of laying it.

Virgin Media covers 50% of the UK and is being upgraded to support speeds of up to 50Mbps. The firm has also recently announced that it will be adding half a million homes to its existing network, with 50,000 coming online this year.

BT is moving ahead with its fibre plans, offering so-called fibre to the cabinet technology to around 40% of homes by 2012.

Economically viable

Mr Willcox has been waging his own battle with Openreach, the BT spinoff that will provide the fibre technology to street cabinets.

He first wrote to OpenReach in April 2007, asking for an upgrade to the telephone cables which serve Ewhurst villagers. Openreach told him that it could not do the work because it would cost "in excess of £85,000".

In January of this year, Mr Willcox offered that residents could contribute to the costs of upgrade but so far BT has not given him a quote for so-called fibre to the cabinet technology.

"Openreach will only talk to providers and not local communities," said Mr Willcox.

Openreach's managing director of policy Amy Chalfen told the BBC it was more than willing to talk to community groups.

"We regularly engage with local councils and parish groups. We recognise that we play a big part in people's communities," she said.

It has been estimated that if BT spent £5.5bn it could bring the whole UK up to at least 2Mb speed using its fibre to the cabinet technology.

Ms Chalfen said the solution for communities such as Ewhurst should not fall solely on BT's shoulders.

"We expect to play our part alongside everyone else to fulfill the 2Mb universal service obligation but we are not the only solution. There are mobile options and Virgin could extend its network," she said.

In the end whether villages such as Ewhurst will get faster speeds will be down to economics.

"Even with public funding there will be some places where it just isn't economically viable," said Ms Chalfen.

Sticking plaster

It is unclear whether Lord Carter will make any funding available for broadband upgrades but he is likely to suggest a combination of technologies, including mobile broadband and satellite to fill the gaps.

Not everyone is convinced they are the real solution.

"There is a real danger that the 2Mb Universal Service Obligation will simply act as a sticking plaster, and need replacing every few years," said Andrew Ferguson, editor of broadband website ThinkBroadband.

"Surely it would be much better to adopt a programme of work that had a clear path towards a true next generation solution which pretty much all accept will be fibre to the premises," he added.

Ian Fogg, an analyst with Forrester, agreed.

"I don't think that 2 megabits will be a long-lasting benchmark for broadband. It won't be future-proofed and we will need to change it again in five year's time," said Mr Fogg.

Whatever technology and speed is adopted in the UK there will be homes left behind and people will start voting with their feet he thinks.

"Living in the countryside has its upsides but it also has it downsides such as the nearest hospital or post office being a long way away. And homes there may have very poor broadband speed," said Mr Fogg.

"We will start taking this into account when we decide to move house," he said.

For those determined not to miss out on the next generation of broadband the only option will be to upgrade not their network but their house.

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