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‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ – high-speed broadband and coronavirus

If ever there was a time to appreciate the value of high-speed broadband, it’s surely now. Millions of workers are operating from home in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown. On top of that, school closures mean that newly-remote workers are now competing against family members for that never-more precious capacity. Broadband connectivity has rarely been so important.

Access to corporate apps and data, cloud-based services, connectivity to colleagues and customers, and video conference calls are competing against live chat with friends, online school work for children, video calls and streaming, gaming, online shopping and other services, as we all contemplate the possibility an extended period of self-isolation and social distancing. As well as supporting national infrastructure and keep vital services on the move, broadband connectivity is also helping to protect the nation’s mental health.

Gaming and high-speed, fibre broadband connectivity

But this sudden peak in demand for broadband capacity is bringing challenges – the availability of high speed, fibre broadband connectivity. Earlier this month, for example, Steam – the world’s largest PC gaming platform – reached a new high of 20 million players online simultaneously.

This coincided with the launch of the new Call of Duty game, while the CEO of Telecom Italia noted that the popular game Fortnite pushed internet traffic up by 70 per cent – that’s not to mention the use of popular video socialising platforms such as Zoom and Houseparty… and, of course, the requirements for home working.

As a result, the London Internet Exchange alone recorded a record-high for internet traffic last week with 4.73Tbps (Terabits per second) on their switches.

The need for fast broadband is clear. However, according to Ofcom, still only three million UK households (only 10% of homes) have access to fibre connectivity – a figure that lags far behind many other European countries. Conversely, the same number of UK households still rely on copper-based connections, such as ADSL, which is less robust and more prone to connectivity dropout.

UK digital connectivity lags the EU

According to the European Commission’s 2019 Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) – which used 2018 data to indicate how the UK’s fixed-line broadband and mobile networks compare with the rest of the EU – the UK ranks 5th in Europe. This is based on the 2010 Digital Agenda for Europe (DAE), which called for every home to have access to a 30Mbps+ capable Next Generation Access (NGA) broadband connection by the year 2020, and for 50 per cent of consumers to be “subscribed” to a 100Mbps+ service (take-up is not the same as coverage).

The same report, however, notes that, when it comes to ‘Digital Connectivity’ alone, the UK ranks 10th – because it performs poorly for “ultrafast broadband” (100Mbps+) and “full fibre” (FTTP / FTTH) networks, compared with most of the EU.

Of course, 4G coverage is able to take much of that strain (according to Ofcom, 84 per cent of the UK is now covered, including many rural areas), but with such high simultaneous demand, questions have been asked about network resilience and capacity. Demand at peak times in the evening can be up to 10 times higher than during the working day.

According to most operators – which have been active in the media regarding their networks’ ability to handle the crisis in recent weeks – the UK’s existing infrastructure is already built to handle peak demand and robust enough to cope with high volume usage peaks, preventing any internet slowdown in the UK. 

Removal of data caps

But, just in case, this week the main UK internet providers – including BT, Virgin Media, Sky, TalkTalk, O2, Vodafone and Three, among others – announced that they would be removing their data caps for fixed-line broadband during the coronavirus pandemic.

This is to be applauded. But is it a purely altruistic act?

The move it turns out is part of a range of new measures agreed between telecoms companies and the government, with other commitments including “fairly and appropriately” supporting customers who have trouble paying their bills, and offering “generous” new mobile and landline packages.

According to Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden it was “fantastic” to see the industry “pulling together to do their bit for the national effort”. However, much of the detail on these commitments remains sketchy. It is not yet clear what “fair treatment for those with difficulty paying bills” looks like. And the “generous” new packages offer “data boosts at low prices” and free calls, but without any information on how much they would cost.

Of course, this is a generous – and necessary – move. Clearly, there are significant benefits to having access to uncapped, high-speed broadband connectivity in times of crisis, but the current situation and the industry’s response to it surely begs the question: “Why has it taken a global pandemic for the UK to question its progress in offering next-generation, high-speed fibre broadband connectivity across the board, and the impact of data capping on digital transformation and business agility?”

In the UK’s quest to become a global leader in the digital era, surely providing high-speed, fibre connectivity and removing data capping is a basic requisite to enable remote, agile working and advanced public and private services anyway? The UK already lags most of Europe’s ‘big-hitters’, so why has it taken the coronavirus pandemic for the industry to reflect on how ‘advanced’ (or not) the UK’s digital connectivity really is?