Why broadband in Britain is what it is

A main distribution frame at a BT telephone exchange in Birmingham

Johnny from America has emailed about an article I wrote in 2007 on broadband in Britain, including why it takes so long to install. “This article came up during my recent quest to find out why everything seems so backward and archaic as it pertains to obtaining broadband internet access in the England,” he writes, adding that in the US, you can often buy a cable modem, call a provider, plug the modem in and be online in half an hour. “This is quite the contrast to here, would you not agree?” he asks.

Getting broadband through your phone line isn’t quite as fast, even in America, but you can buy a broadband-only service without paying to rent a line, unlike here. “What AT&T did in my case was assign me a phone number for accounting purposes and ship me a DSL modem. In a couple of days when the modem arrived, I plugged it in and I had broadband. Though not as instantaneous getting connected with cable, the comparison between hooking up DSL in the US and England is still night and day,” he writes.

Johnny wonders why “a country which is, in most regards, considered more sophisticated than whence I came” can’t link him to broadband faster. Good question. My answers: Rupert Murdoch; policy decisions with unintended consequences; and Britain’s tendency to sweat assets for longer than is decent.

Firstly, cable broadband is available to 93% of US households, according to its trade association. In America, cable was established before most people wanted internet connections, as the main method to receive more television channels. So in the 1980s the UK government decided to grant exclusive cable franchises to individual areas, assuming cable would become similarly important in Britain.

But the franchisees found themselves in competition with Rupert Murdoch – never a comfortable position – and specifically his satellite TV operation Sky. As detailed in Live TV!: Telly Brats and Topless Darts (which covers the hilariously disastrous development of a channel that was meant to act as a cable-exclusive flagship, and has to be one of the best books ever written about media management) – Murdoch won.

This means that, while lots of homes have a satellite dish – which is, of course, not much use for broadband – not many have a cable connection, even a dormant one. The dominant cable network only passes about half of British homes*, and a new connection requires someone to visit and drill a hole in your wall.

So the main route to broadband in Britain is ADSL. The article mentioned at the start details, and the photo above shows, a main distribution frame – the mid-20th century wire linguini at the heart of British telephone exchanges (larger version here). If you use ADSL broadband, that is what your connection goes through, and fiddling about with little wires is what causes much of the wait.

But why do you have to rent a phone line, even to get broadband? Again, blame unintended consequences of well-intentioned policies. BT used to be the public monopoly, and to stop it becoming the private one it was forced to separate its infrastructure into a separate division, Openreach, that charges everyone standard rates for use of the exchanges. BT, along with every other provider, is obliged to pay its own division the going rate for use of its own phone lines.

Part of the pain of trying to get phone line broadband sorted is down to the fact that internet service providers are relying on Openreach to connect you, rather than their own staff. But it is also caused by trying to use a decades-old copper-wire phone system as a high-speed broadband network, with all the quirks that have built up over that time.

Johnny adds that he noticed someone reading a relevant book on the tube, downloaded it himself and found a possible answer: perhaps BT has no incentive to change technology older than him (he’s 28 – I’m afraid some of it is twice his age and more). I don’t think it’s BT sweating its assets, given the way it is constrained by the Openreach arrangement. The problem is that cable doesn’t have the reach, and in the name of fair access, all ADSL providers are offering basically the same thing – and they don’t even run much of it. 3G mobile dongles can be a decent alternative, but can be expensive if used for any volume of data.

For a broader insight, my suggestion to Johnny is that he has a closer look at the stations next time he’s on the tube: the earliest date from 1863. Then there’s most of the rail system (19th century), Heathrow airport (first opened 1930), roads designed by cutting-edge Italian planning techniques… two millennia ago and many of our hospitals (early 20th century in many cases, although some are being replaced).

Basically, Johnny, using infrastructure (both physical and electronic) until it belongs in a museum, and then often quite a bit longer, is one of our charming/maddening national quirks.

* Virgin Mobile (the near-monopoly cable provider) serves 13.1% of households according to Ofcom and passes about 13m households, according to a recent company presentation, about 50%. Satellite TV serves 9.3m paying customers and 2m non-subscribers, on Ofcom’s data.