How Thatcher killed the UK's superfast broadband before it even existed

How old decisions crippled modern UK connections

Japanese city
Japanese cities are well connected. Photo by iancowe

Immediately after that decision by Thatcher's government, the UK fell far behind in broadband speeds and, to this day, has never properly recovered. When the current government came to power it pledged that the UK would have the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015 and 90% of homes will be connected to superfast broadband by 2017.

But, as Dr Cochrane explains, there are two things wrong with this. Firstly, the government's definition of superfast broadband is 24Mbps. Secondly, comparing against Europe is pointless. "Western nations blindly compare with each other. There's no point in saying 'we're better than the French, we're better than the Germans' - that's not the point. Are we better than the Japanese, the Koreans and other competing nations?"

"[In Southeast Asia] they roared ahead. The Japanese in particular formulated a plan. While we were faffing about with half an Mbps 'being sufficient' the Japanese were rolling out 10Mbps. When we got to 2Mbps they were rolling out 100Mbps. Hong Kong in 2012 already had a gigabit both ways. In 1999 Japan already had 50Mbps universally and South Korea was comfortably using 4G by 2006. In the UK there's no vision, mission or plan, we're engaged in a random walk into the future".

It all comes down to bandwidth

The UK's fibre rollout is mostly Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC), rather than Fibre To The Home (FTTH). What's the difference? Well, FTTH is fibre optic cable directly to the home, whereas FTTC is fibre optic cable to your nearest cabinet, with copper wire taking the signal the last leg of the journey. The copper limits speeds to 80Mbps, compared with 1,000Mbps or more available in all-fibre networks.

Dr Cochrane explained: "Fibre To The Home gives you an infinity of bandwidth, both ways, that you can upgrade forever, and it's symmetric. If you go for Fibre To The Cabinet, you finish up with an asymmetric service. Now, this is really important. Why? How about the cloud, the cloud is not an asymmetric service, video conferencing is not an asymmetric service, so the whole ethos of the telecoms industry has been skewed by decision makers who think that the future of the internet is watching TV or movies, which it isn't".

"Businesses rely on symmetric bandwidth for cloud computing and video conferencing and this lack of bandwidth will put us slowly into a second world status.

"For example, I am sitting here, I work all over the world and say I want to upload a 350MB file. 350MB is not huge. With my old broadband, when I had less than 0.5Mbps upload you'd start in the morning and finish sometime in the middle of the night. Now I've got 32Mbps upload, I can actually watch it going. If I was in Hong Kong it would be instantaneous. Imagine having a discussion and putting a 10 second delay between each word, it wouldn't work."

New technologies, too, are hampered by low bandwidth, which has a direct effect on our ability to embrace revolutionary concepts. IBM's Watson, the learning super-computer that functions through the cloud and is able to give evidence-based medical diagnoses, will fail in the UK because a lack of bandwidth, according to Dr Cochrane.

IBM Watson
That's the same Watson that once appeared on Jeopardy

"If you look at the story of IBM Watson, it's moving into the medical industry in the United States and you will be able soon to have an app with which you can configure Watson for your industry. It's going to change everything, from investment banking to the legal industry. That sort of service, being able to get remote diagnostics, can only occur if you've got bandwidth".

The future isn't so bright for the UK when it comes to broadband, and that's largely owing to an administration taking the wrong path 24 years ago. Unless there's massive investment in broadband infrastructure and a complete rethink at the highest levels of government, the UK will only fall further behind.

"The UK will be frozen out of cloud computing because we don't have bandwidth, worst of all we don't have symmetric bandwidth. And the UK network cannot support the population in the cloud. It will be OK if you're in a hotspot for bandwidth, and there are some hotspots of bandwidth in the UK, but for the most part the population will be frozen out.

"Ergo, this will hit the bottom line - it all comes down to GDP. If businesses can't operate, the UK won't generate money".