Rory Cellan-Jones

Broadband Britain - Journey's End

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 6 Jun 08, 16:30 GMT

We've travelled a thousand miles by air, road, and rail - and by Billy Mackenzie's boat across the loch from Arnisdale. We have been entertained in homes, student rooms and offices, and hooked ourselves up to broadband everywhere from a Scottish hillside, to a speeding train, to a shopping precinct in Milton Keynes.

Billy Mackenzie's and his boat So what have we learned from our broadband journey this week? First, that there really is a digital divide between town and country, with rural broadband users typically getting a slower connection. And don't expect country dwellers to be any more phlegmatic about an inferior broadband service than they are about the closure of the local post office. After 36 hours without broadband or a mobile phone connection in Arnisdale, I was tearing my hair out (not a very time-consuming activity) so I can sympathise with anyone who is trying to work from home in those circumstances.

We've learned that mobile broadband is really taking off enabling you to get online just about anywhere - but its providers risk falling into the same bad habits as the fixed line companies who tantalise us with promises of speeds that can never be achieved.

It's become clear that the broadband industry needs to find a better way of measuring and explaining line speeds to its customers. We ran a crude but simple test on the site, downloading a 10mb video file wherever we went. For the record, the fastest time achieved was about 2 seconds on Dundee University's fibre network, though the Virgin Media 50Mbps home we visited was a more typical environment and there it took just over five seconds. The slowest was at our hotel in Glenelg, with a time of 4 minutes and 10 seconds...though one of the mobile dongles gave up without ever completing the download.

Some firms seem to think that broadband speed is only an issue for a minority of geeks. Well guess which subject has attracted more comment on the BBC's website than any other in its history? Over 60,000 people came and shared their experiences this week, more than twice as many as on the previous hottest topic.

Jonathan Sumberg and Neil DrakeAnd I've learned more about what can be achieved by a small well-focused team prepared to try the latest technology to get on air. Usually when I go live on television, a large satellite truck rolls up, a dish is pointed at the sky - and we're on air very quickly, at some considerable expense. But this week we have gone live from every location simply by plugging into a broadband connection. It has been very hairy at times, we've fallen off air when a computer crashed, but it has usually worked - and the BBC has saved a sizeable four figure sum as a result.

And all that has been thanks to Neil Drake, the cameraman, editor and engineering wizard who has got us on air, and to Jonathan Sumberg, the immensely creative producer who has held everything together, surviving on about three hours sleep a night, and only occasionally favouring me with a frank assessment of my performance and dress sense.


  • Comment number 1.

    Broadband in the UK
    There is a major opportunity for UK plc to try to catch up with the rest of the world as far as supplying broadband to the citizens of the UK is concerned.
    The BBC (Licence Fee Payers) own the rights to the 700MHz spectrum and this is due to be released after the digital switch over in 2012
    This frequency is absolutely ideal for WiMAX due to its broadcast-attractive physics (like its ability to penetrate walls), this spectrum is desirable for both broadband communications in general and public-safety uses in particular.and if someone could overcome the "Vested Interests" and get this technology to the general public as well as the Licence Fee Payers, the UK would be leading in innovation.
    Intel Corp or Google I am sure would be absolutely delighted to roll-out across the UK their WiMAX systems and I for one would sign up immediately.
    The benefit to the UK would be enormous, not least in enabling those people who do not have acces to computers to get connected and join in the fun.

  • Comment number 2.

    Nice post.

    Perhaps a more appropriate Journey's end would have been Lands End. That place where all that UK's trans-Atlantic internet traffic goes to-and-fro. Oh yes living along the good old A30, so close and yet so far from all that internet bandwidth.

    Oh and why we're at WiMax and the BBC's 700MHz slice of the radio spectrum, my family who live down there are all fed up of paying a TV license when they live in a transmission dead-spot. Pretty stone age living down there - you should give it a go.

  • Comment number 3.

    There is a problem with the understanding of how connection speed affects your surfing habits.

    If you connect to BBC iPlayer (the main reason for the BBC's interest in this matter) then to a certain extent your connection speed could make a difference.

    However, what many people do not realise is that if you connect to a slow site your connection speed will make almost no difference at all.

    Most sites are on Virtual servers - that is they share a computer with several other sites. Could be a hundred or more other sites. That is a big overhead on the server and the cable that connects it to the router to the outside world - chances are it is running slower than your connection.

    You will also have problems when connecting to servers in other countries - distance and the amount of data going down the international cables make a difference here.

    And back to the BBC iPlayer - that server too has a limit to how much it can pump out.

    Recently, I have upped my connection speed from 6mbps to 20. I have noticed NO change in speed for most sites at all. Including iPlayer.

    So, what was the problem again?

  • Comment number 4.

    Until basics are achieved on delivering all sorts of media in the largest town in the middle of England what hope is there for the rest of the UK?

    I live in a town due to grow from about 190,000 to 300,000 in the next decade, my local exchange is next to the major housing development area, yet the best BT can offer is 2.5Mbs and even virgin, who send "the occupier" post every other week because there is cable in the street are only offering 2Mbs.

    I get no freeview where I live now, and only BBC on DAB - no commercial transmissions- but who wants anything other than radio 4 anyway?

    I grew up in rural scotland and know that there can be difficulties in infrastructure.... but really? A Digital UK?


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