opinion


Ofcom’s broadband speed report: interesting, but what’s it for?

The FCC wants gigabit internet in every US state by 2015

I have just read the press release and the correpsonding BBC article on Ofcom’s broadband speed report, published today. The research itself is worthy and interesting, but:

1. Why the obsession with speed?
2. What does Ed Richards mean when he says “there is scope for a further step change in the quality of the UK communications infrastructure”?
3. Do the findings not clearly demonstrate that price, not speed, is still the determining factor in most peoples’ buying decisions?

1. I am not alone in thinking that “headline speed” the subject of the report, is an irrelevance in isolation. None other than Alex Salter, co-founder of the excellent SamKnows website, which compiled the underlying research for the report, says in the BBC article “”Ofcom is trying to move the market on from speed…While it is a handy statistic ISPs can use to communicate such a complex service to consumers, it has proven to be misleading.” Well done Alex for pointing out what Ofcom had failed to.

The Ed Richards quote published in the Ofcom press release says “Ofcom’s research shows that average speeds have increased which is good news”. Is it good news? Whilst it may be true. I’m not sure I understand why. Ofcom is conflating speed and quality and appears to be ticking off ISPs for misleading punters in their advertising. But that’s not Ofcom’s remit, it’s the ASA’s and I bet staff there are delighted to have been dragged into an unwinnable scrap.

2. What does Mr Richards mean when he says “there is scope for a further step change in the quality of the UK communications infrastructure”? It could be a general exhortation for ISPs to invest in fibre, but there is no further mention of it. We can’t even conclude despite the words of commentators like the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones, who we know went to Ofcom’s pre-launch briefing yesterday afternoon (because he tweeted it), that Richards is saying fibre is good, copper is bad, because nowhere is he actually quoted as having said this. Perhaps he winked knowingly at Rory in the briefing. We shall never know. Rory does go on to say “But the other message emanating from Ofcom was that while fibre is the future for broadband, that means the digital divide between town and country is bound to grow”. Again, nowhere does Ofcom explicitly or implicitly mention fibre, nor that copper is bad – the Ofcom press release says only that long and poor quality copper is responsible for the mismatch between headline and actual speeds. The solution is simple isn’t it? Make copper lines shorter and better quality, which is what BT is edging towards with nationwide VDSL roll-out.

And whilst we’re on the subject of Rory C-J, his blog is prefaced with the comment that the ‘advertising of broadband in Britain is scandalously misleading’ – what, like advertising that ciggies can’t kill or that DDT makes for a healthier atmosphere? Hardly Rory, hardly. He even says later in the blog “a spokesman [for the ASA] said they hadn’t been bombarded with complaints about broadband speeds”. I’d guess that’s because most people of ordinary intelligence understand what is meant by ‘up to’ whether or not they understand the technical subtleties of rate adaptive service or contention.

3. Cable is ace because it can do 50Mbps, right? Well, kind of, but to dispel the myth that residential broadband users demand high speed, Virgin Media’s 1Q results reveal that just 16% of its broadband user base of 3.91 million take a 20 or 50Mbps package. Those taking 50Mbps actually only represent 1.4%. Why? Because 50Mbps broadband is priced at £38 a month (without a Virgin phone contract, £28 with), as opposed to £20 a month (£12.50 with a Virgin phone contract) for “up to 10Mbps”.

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One comment

  1. Dale Shephard 29/07/2010 @ 10:11 am

    Noone seems to want to talk about reliability either…
    I have a 20Mb connection, get around 10-12Mb, but the drops are what im unhappy with. Not the speed.

    Do i need 50Mb to browse web pages? No.
    An increase in upload would be good

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