- 14 Dec 08, 08:30 GMT
Back in June, we toured "Broadband Britain" - and discovered that speed was an issue of real interest and concern to internet users around the country.
Since then, the debate about building a next generation broadband network has only got hotter, with reports from government and Ofcom stressing the need for speed.
Now we've repeated the study of speed test data we commissioned in June from thinkbroadband.com. Then, it showed that the average speed across the UK was 3.2Mbps, but that there was a big gap between rural and urban areas. What's surprising - in a year when it seemed that suppliers were competing to offer us faster broadband - is how little has changed. The average speed, calculated by analysing 188,000 speed tests conducted by users across Britain between June and November, is now 3.6 Mbps.
"We have plateaued" was the assessment of thinkbroadband's Sebastian Lahtinen. Sure, the gap between the cities and the rural areas has closed a little - but at a time when "up to 8Mbps" has become the norm in broadband packages, it is still pretty rare for that kind of speed to be achieved. Indeed, even in the fastest region in our survey, London, only around 15% were achieving speeds of 8Mbps and above, and the average connection speed had barely changed over the last six months.
If we are to build a network that can deliver much higher speeds, it's probably up to two companies to do it: BT and Virgin Media. Today, Virgin launches its 50Mbps service to cable customers, which will be the fastest residential broadband available to more than a handful of households. BT has started putting 100Mbps broadband into a huge new housing development at Ebbsfleet in Kent - but that accounts for just a couple of dozen homes. Next year, it's promising a pilot of fibre-to-the-cabinet, with 35,000 homes offered up to 40Mbps.
But there are questions - both technical and financial - about each company's approach. Virgin isn't laying miles of new fibre - it's relying on a software fix to its network to deliver higher speeds, and not everyone is convinced that's a future-proof strategy. BT is starting down the fibre route - but is still pretty anxious about the scale of its investment, and jousting with the regulators about the return it gets from offering rivals access to its network. As the recession bites, any large-scale investment in fibre is going to get ever harder to justify to shareholders.
In any case, most of us are probably reasonably happy with the kind of speeds that are on offer right now. Unless you are in a household which contains a hardcore gamer and a couple of heavy video downloaders, you will struggle to justify laying out the money for 40 or 50Mbps broadband. But that could change quickly. This has been the year in which internet video - the BBC iPlayer and other services - has exploded, with some grumbling from the ISPs about the strain on their infrastructure. Sooner or later, the iPlayer will go HD, and just imagine the pressure that will put on bandwidth. History has shown that when you build it, people come, and businesses will find ways of delivering them new web services. But right now, Britain seems in no hurry to build faster broadband.
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