What the U.K.'s Growing Rural-Urban Net Divide Can Teach the U.S.

ISP cableAs the U.S. broadband expansion plan stalls at the starting blocks, officials could learn a trick or two from the old country. The U.K.'s Net development plans demonstrate both shining examples and pitfalls to avoid.

City-Countryside Divide

The U.K.'s prosperity map has long been split across the "North-South divide" with South being richer, but according to a new study by telecoms regulator Ofcom, a strange new divide is emerging in the nation: Rural versus urban Net experiences.

When twisted wire-pair copper cables began to be repurposed from analog phone lines into ADSL digital Net connections, pretty much everyone in the U.K. got the same broadband speed. But now differences are developing as Net providers concentrate on loading the newer equipment into exchanges in urban areas, leaving rural subscribers lagging in Net speed. Ofcom's survey found that the average speed in urban areas is now 5.8 megabits per second, and that's a great success for a nation that sees itself as increasingly digitally connected

But this figure should be compared to the 2.7 mbps Ofcom found in rural areas. In 2009 rural zones actually had a 3.3 mbps average speed—the figure has declined. One reason is that more rural dwellers are signing up for the service, which is affecting how well providers can serve up the data. These stats prompted Ofcom's CE Ed Richards to worry about the "digital divide," which he now expects to "widen before it narrows," because city consumers often have a "wider choice" of providers and are more likely to have "a choice of higher speed services."

It all boils down to a mix of engineering and fiscal issues. Supplying a Net connection to an end-user isn't as simple as just throwing a switch in a phone exchange—a lot of infrastructure is required behind the scenes to shunt data through the cable network and onto and off huge server arrays. Investing in this infrastructure is costly, and the return on the investment is always going to be bigger in cities as there are more subscribers per exchange, and fewer long tracts of "empty" cable, as you find in the country. It's raw economies of scale, in a subscribers-per-square-kilometer sense. And as newer technologies like fiber are coming online, ISPs are obviously going to invest in urban areas first.

Ofcom's chief is wise to this, though, and is pushing for the government to incentivize ISPs to invest in rural broadband to close the digital divide. They've even forced the once-nationalized British Telecom (now BT) to share its telegraph poles and sub-road trunking so that other providers can spread their service area at a reduced cost.

Speed trickery

Ofcom's investigations also revealed that ISPs were guilty of a low-brow form of "bait and switch" practice across the U.K.: Consumers across the nation regularly don't receive the kind of speeds that they're paying for from their ISPs.

The national average speed has risen from 4.1 mbps in 2009 to 5.2 this year, which is a sign that the industry is pushing in the right direction, but Ofcom found that the gap between the promised speed and that which actually flashes through the cables has increased: From 3 mbps to 6.3 mbps. In other words, while Brits got, on average, 58% of the speed they thought they were paying for in 2009, this year they're just getting 46%. And in some cases, where customers were paying for fast rates of "up to 20 mbps" they generally received under 8 mbps, with only a minority of 2% receiving 14 mbps or higher.

Again, the reasons are technical and fiscal: Investing in more bandwidth requires the ISP to add in much more infrastructure, and as new consumers hook up to the grid, the existing systems become stretched. A typical business plan would be to have some leeway between what consumer demand is, and what capability you can supply... but the onus wouldn't be in investing too heavily in super-high-end equipment as you may not necessarily be able to recoup the money.

Ofcom's response is to introduce mandatory speed labeling that refers to a "Typical Speed Range," in the same way that cars have a miles per gallon rating, as while it may not force ISPs to deliver on their speed promises, at least the consumer won't be fed a line of bull.

Image via flickr.

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