Question: What does Seoul have that London doesn’t?
Okay, lots of things, admittedly – Gyeongbokgung Palace, some incredible street food, Psy… But where the Southeast Asian capital beats London – thrashes it into the ground, in fact – is in its broadband provision.
South Korea already has the fastest broadband in the world, and commercial 5G connections are predicted within the next four years. All of which makes its capital city something of a commercial powerhouse and a magnet for enterprise.
Here on the other side of the world, London, too, boasts a world-class reputation as a global business centre and as an attractive location for startups. But while some areas of the city enjoy superfast connectivity, many others continue to suffer from slow and unreliable broadband. Which prompts another question: why?
Why London is falling behind...
Frustratingly, the technology is already available, but several issues are responsible for London’s connectivity falling below the expected standard. Part of the blame can be laid at the feet of the telephony network that supplies most of the capital. Consisting mainly of copper wires, it’s not fit for purpose and is inefficiently laid in some areas.
Such varying levels of connectivity have resulted in a discrepancy between boroughs (see chart on page 60). While some areas in the City obtain fast connections, parts of east London suffer from poor speeds, or even “not spots” where no network is available at all.
Ken Eastwood, director of Digital Nomads, a consultancy advising companies and public bodies on flexible working and digital innovation, believes the problems stem from the fact that the UK is trying to build a 21st-century broadband network on top of 19th-century telephony technology. According to Eastwood, the nature of copper wires leaves them unable to comply with the standards needed for today’s broadband. “The ability of copper to transmit signal reduces with distance, so if you are long way from the exchange, you see a dip in performance,” he explains.
The UK is a laggard by international standards in providing fibre connectivity. This could result in a widening, not a narrowing, of the digital divide; especially as demand for faster services escalates after 2020.
Culture, Media and Sport Committee 2016
Another problem is posed by government targets, which label 24 Megabits per second (Mbps) as “superfast”, when this speed is actually quite slow by today’s standards (Ofcom’s definition of superfast is 30Mbps). This lowers the bar when it comes to many of the broadband packages offered to businesses.
Targets and take-up
The government, at least, recognises the pressing need for investment in the UK’s digital infrastructure. A report published on 13 July by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee admits that “a sizeable number” of UK businesses lack access to “good, reliable and affordable broadband communications”. The report says: “The UK is a laggard by international standards in providing fibre connectivity. This could result in a widening, not a narrowing, of the digital divide; especially as demand for faster services escalates after 2020.”
But according to the report, there are some positives: so far the UK has done well compared to other EU countries on the provision of superfast broadband services in terms of geographic coverage, take-up and lower prices.
In addition, over £1.7 billion of public money is expected to be invested in closing the digital divide, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee points out. The government is extending superfast broadband coverage further through its Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme and is on track to deliver superfast services to 95 per cent of premises by the end of 2017.
Experts agree that speeds will improve over time, and connectivity will be enabled by a mix of technologies.
In addition, last year the government confirmed a new Universal Service Obligation (USO) as part of its Digital Economy Bill. This gives consumers and businesses the legal right to request a broadband connection capable of delivering a minimum speed of 10Mbps by 2020. The government is also implementing a range of measures to facilitate private investment in digital infrastructure, by helping speed up broadband deployment and reduce the cost.
A brighter future
All of these initiatives should help. Experts agree that speeds will improve over time, and connectivity will be enabled by a mix of technologies. According to Melson, fibre is the future, while in central London the gaps will be covered using 4G mobile services.
Evans agrees the future will be a mix of technologies: “We have good 4G connectivity across London and we will take advantage of next-generation 5G when it comes along.”
Evans predicts a near-future mix of Wi-Fi, 4GLTE and 5G technology. However, he cautions: “We will need to integrate more fibre into the network – we will also need more infrastructure such as [access nodes called] small cells.”
Speed and ubiquity could be better, so poor broadband continues to affect London’s smaller firms. It is clear much of the problem is based on complexity – but the myriad projects from government and industry are at least partially relieving the pressure.
As a result, the future looks fairly positive: despite the issues, London will continue to be a hub for startups and growing businesses. However, those involved need to ensure projects are rolled out quickly to avoid the UK’s capital being left behind the rest of the world.
The glossary: key words
Fibre to the cabinet (FTTC): This refers to a superfast broadband connection that uses a fibre optic connection from the exchange to the street cabinet and a copper cable to connect the cabinet to the home or office.
Headline speeds: Theoretical maximum speeds that are often not achieved in practice.
Cable: This is a similar concept to FTTC, but the connection between the cabinet and the home or office is made of a particular type of copper cable that can offer very high speeds.
Fibre to the premises (FTTP): A service that uses fibre from the exchange directly to the consumer’s home or office. FTTP can deliver superfast or ultrafast speeds.
Wireless: This describes a service that uses a wireless connection between the consumer’s home or office and the provider’s network. This kind of service is often based on similar technologies to those used in mobile networks and can deliver superfast speeds.
LTE: Long Term Evolution, a 4G mobile data standard.
5G: The next generation of mobile technology. Although 5G is currently still in development, the plan is to build a network that can easily support the growing demands of the internet of things (IoT), with speeds of around 10Gbps. Rollout of a 5G network is unlikely to take place in the UK until the early 2020s.
Kate O’Flaherty is a journalist specialising in consumer and b2b technology. She has written for SC UK Magazine, CIO, The Times and The Guardian. Kate is one of a number of experienced journalist contributors to our second edition of HomeWork, with features and comment on the business landscape for New and Growing Companies in London.